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Bonnie Brooks, the long-time voice behind Hudson's Bay Co. ads, has stepped back from her role as spokesperson since becoming vice-chair. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Bonnie Brooks, the long-time voice behind Hudson's Bay Co. ads, has stepped back from her role as spokesperson since becoming vice-chair. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

persuasion

Hudson's Bay takes a chance on a new voice to sell its brand Add to ...

For five years, Bonnie Brooks was the Voice.

During her time as chief executive officer of Hudson’s Bay Co., Ms. Brooks’ low, smoky voice became intimately associated with the Bay brand. In a series of radio ads, she intoned about fragrances, housewares and designer threads at The Room. Though she was unseen, she helped to build the Bay’s image as she oversaw major changes at the retailer.

But since moving into her new role as vice-chair in February, Ms. Brooks has also stepped back as spokesperson. Now, the Bay is hoping to replicate its success with a new voice.

President Liz Rodbell is making her debut this week in ads for the Bay’s seasonal “one-day sale” campaign. More than 16 million Canadians are expected to hear her American accent on 115 stations across the country. As Ms. Brooks did before her, Ms. Rodbell will tout a different promotion every day until Dec. 23, attempting to lure customers to the stores during the crucial holiday shopping season.

“This is one of our biggest and most important promotions of the year,” said Michael Crotty, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer for Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor. It’s a high-risk time to make a big change to a company’s advertising.

“Bonnie absolutely is well known through the radio, and helped bring a lot of awareness to the brand,” he said. “For Liz, we have a strategy in place over time for introducing her. This is the first big opportunity.”

Relatively few companies use their executives as advertisers. Those that do have to bet that their bigwigs are charming, relatable and poised enough to come across well to consumers.

By making them so visible, however, they also open themselves up to criticism. While some felt Ms. Brooks’ distinctive voice was sexy, occasionally it was the subject of mockery.

“The more you put yourself out in front of the public, the more you open yourself up to opinions,” Ms. Brooks told The Globe in a 2010 interview.

When done well, the strategy puts a human face on the company and can come across as more authentic than an actor who is hired to be a pitchman.

It’s a strategy that stretches back decades. In 1979, U.S. entrepreneur Victor Kiam became famous for Remington razor commercials in which he declared, “I liked it so much, I bought the company.”

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. president and executive chairman Galen G. Weston has managed to be a billionaire while somehow seeming folksy and approachable in the company’s ads. Before him, the store’s President’s Choice brand had its real-life president Dave Nichol – and his little dog, too – pitching the products.

“It’s kind of rare for it to really work, but when it does work it’s magic,” said Joseph Bonnici, partner and creative director at ad agency Bensimon Byrne. The agency worked with Loblaw for 12 years, and Mr. Bonnici shot ads with Mr. Weston, before the company switched agencies this year. “You can take a giant conglomerate and boil it down to one person in a face to face conversation with the consumer.”

Mr. Weston works as a pitchman because he has a genuine interest in his own products, Mr. Bonnici said. Many executives cannot pull it off, however.

“If people don’t like him or her, that becomes a huge liability for the company,” Mr. Bonnici said. “People think of it as a very conservative form of advertising, but it’s one of the riskiest things you can do.”

Other companies are best served by keeping the top brass out of the limelight. Lululemon Athletica Inc. founder Chip Wilson caused a public relations crisis for the company last year. He suggested that a problem with sheer yoga pants was actual a problem with “women’s bodies” being too big for the clothes. Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has come under fire in the past for saying he only wants “cool” or “good-looking” people to wear the brand.

Even in the absence of offensive remarks, executives may have a hard time winning people over. Canadians ranked the CEO second-last when asked which figures make credible spokespeople, according to the Trust Barometer, an annual report published by public relations firm Edelman.

One-third of those surveyed this year said the CEO would be credible. Top ranking figures included an academic or expert (73 per cent rated credible), a technical expert in the company (58 per cent), a financial or industry analyst (56 per cent) and “a person like yourself” (53 per cent).

Executing on promises is critical to being a successful spokesperson, said Christine Magee, president and co-founder of Sleep Country Canada. “I do think it’s very credible when someone from the company stands up and talks about the services … if it’s authentic, and the experience delivers on what is said.”

Sleep Country began producing radio and TV ads featuring Ms. Magee 20 years ago, shortly after the company was founded in Vancouver. It was a daunting role for a person who, despite regular appearances on television and in radio, describes herself as shy.

“There is a picture of me in the stores, which seems odd,” she said, laughing. However, the company’s research has shown that shoppers’ recall of its ads is high, and that it does draw traffic to the stores.

“It’s not just a faceless corporation, not just a jingle or a trademark,” she said. “We really thought there was a value in that.”

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