Michael Lee: what makes the perfect brand pitchperson – is it Flo or Wendy?

The idea of a brand pitchperson has been around since the dawn of advertising. We’ve been pitched to by Betty Crocker, Fred the Baker who needed “Time to make the donuts,” more recently Mahem, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man, those two guys who live in the cranberry swamp for Ocean Spray, and Hotel.com’s military Junta man, to name a few.

Quite a variety of shapes, sizes and personalities. Obviously the idea of a pitchperson basically works, otherwise we wouldn’t have had so many.

So what does a pitchperson need to do? Firstly they become the face and embodiment of the brand, they uphold its culture and tone of voice, appeal to the audience the brand needs to engage and, most importantly, sell the products and services that the brand needs to sell now and in the near future.

But let’s focus on four pitchers who are currently on the US airwaves, representing the brand and selling products. A straight fight between Flo for Progressive Insurance, Wendy for Wendy’s, Jan for Toyota and Lily for AT&T.

Let’s start with Progressive Insurance and Flo. She first appeared in 2008 and so far has done over 100 spots, selling insurance savings, price comparisons, “name your price” tools, car, bike and boat insurance. Everything that Progressive have to offer.

Ad Age recently named her one of the top female ad icons of all time, on a list that includes Rosie the Riveter and Betty Crocker. @itsflo has 37.6k Twitter followers, her Facebook page has over 5 million friends and she has millions of views on YouTube. She was invited to give a commencement speech at Binghamton University and has as her own Wikipedia entry. She’s a very popular lass.

Flo’s a smart, witty, funny, self-deprecating, informative and, most importantly, interesting person that many many people want to see more of and hear more from. A great model for a brand pitch person. What she does most importantly for the creative people working on the brand is offer a character who can play a broad set of roles, allowing them to play with genre, location, styles. Flo is, primarily, a very good actress. This allows the work, while always selling a product, to be constantly fresh and engaging.

Alongside Flo we have the “peppy” Wendy for Wendy’s, (who officially is not even called Wendy but ‘Red’– I’m not quite sure why, as I see the freckled and red-haired little girl on the company’s logo all grown up and now in the commercials). According to a spokesman, “Red is a brand advocate with a quick wit and engaging personality that America has gravitated toward.”

I’m sorry, but to me, Red/Wendy is a rather plain character with little wit to call upon, and language that seems to falter beyond grilled chicken, manchego cheese and crispy artisinal bread. Yes, Red/Wendy is an attractive, young lady who I’m sure is very nice, and I’m equally sure would be a very nice person to bump into at the local Wendy’s, library or laundromat. But that’s about as far as I can go. She’s pleasant, she’s nice, but I don’t want to know too much more about her or hear more from her. I don’t really want to engage with her. I doubt we have much in common.

I couldn’t find her on a Facebook page or Twitter, but sadly the haters who hate are out there on the “I hate the Wendy’s girl” page with over 2,200 friends.

Moving on to Toyota Jan. Jan sits behind a dull mahogany desk more often than not, flogging dead horsepower trying desperately to make Toyotathon something more exciting than it actually is. Jan has 254 friends on Facebook who spend most of their time trying to get her on Dancing With The Stars. The work is all rather flat to me, however much energy Jan puts into her performances. Jan is doing her best with the material, but it feels like she’s trying to push water uphill all the time. It will be interesting to see how long she lasts.

Very quietly, Lily is doing a surprisingly good job at pitching for AT&T. Lily shows just how simple it can be. No great surprises here, all shot in the retail store, all the scripts directly about the product being offered. No irrelevant character development. But we have great casting and simple scriptwriting that brings to life a charming character who does a straight pitch every time superbly, warmly and engagingly. Lily is, very simply, someone we like and want to hear more from, using a little wit, a smile and basic likeablilty. Who doesn’t like Lily? Facebook does, where Lily has 1700 friends.

Great casting. Simple scripts. Well shot. BBDO and AT&T make it look effortless. Interestingly, I hear that there is a lot of improvisation on the shoot that makes its way into the final spot. Maybe that’s something Jan and Red/Wendy could learn from.

I think my overall point is, that when looking to create the perfect pitchperson, a brand needs to look for a simple idea, spend time casting and building a real character. One that people can enjoy and engage with. Yes, the character needs to sell, and often sell very directly. But in these days of YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Tumblr and Instagram (choose your weapon) there’s no excuse for not developing a character that the consumer likes, engages with, wants more of and wants to share, and it can be done with very little investment.

In the end the perfect pitchperson, is one who has simple believability and likability. Like any character on TV that people would like to be friends with, have a beer with, hang out with. Meet again.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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About Michael Lee

Michael Lee
Michael Lee is a former ECD of Euro RSCG New York handling Volvo Worldwide. Born in England, he spent 20 years working on integrated accounts including Intel, JP Morgan, ExxonMobil and Jaguar. In 2012 he set up agency search consultancy Madam.