The Men’s Wearhouse Brand: Heart vs. Head, and What’s Next

by Gregg on July 4, 2013

zimmerI’ve been thinking about George Zimmer for a couple of weeks now. More specifically, how he must feel.

Zimmer launched clothier Men’s Wearhouse in Houston in 1973, and today, it boasts 1,143 stores and revenue of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes. But perhaps most important to the Men’s Wearhouse brand was Zimmer himself, and his baritone voice that delivered with confidence his calling-card phrase, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”

It was an effective marketing tagline – I’ve rented a tuxedo exactly four times in my life, all four times from Men’s Wearhouse. The only other place I know that rents tuxedos is Sears. I’ve also bought sport coats and other items over the years from Men’s Wearhouse. For formal clothing, that’s where I went.

That’s why it was somewhat of a shock to me when Zimmer was dismissed as Executive Chairman recently, and he subsequently resigned from the board of directors of the public company.

On first blush, I took the sentimental point of view – what must it be like for Zimmer to have been ousted from the company he started with his college roommates and built into an empire. How could he resolve in his mind his sudden disassociation with his life’s work? Judging by Men’s Wearhouse’s website, it looks like it is already distancing itself from Zimmer – the only real references about him are on The MW Story and Men’s Wearhouse Timeline pages.

After reading more, it sounded like Zimmer was a disruptive force on the board. He wanted to take the company private, for starters, and according to the Forbes article at the link above, “A recent letter from the Board, dated June 25, 2013, stated that Mr. Zimmer does not support management, and that in their view, his goal is to be sole decision maker which the Board could not support.”

So like almost every bit of drama, this tale has two sides. You’re almost forced into choosing one or the other, and it’s really heart (Zimmer’s legacy) vs. head (the board, which has to answer to shareholders). I would say this: I worked for a spell at a publicly traded company, and from my perspective, virtually the only goal for such entities is meeting the demands of shareholders to turn a profit.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing publicly traded companies; that’s what they do. Put through that lens, then, it seems a little naïve for Zimmer to want to return the company to private status and have the buck stop with him, just like the old days. That’s like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.

That’s why the board acted, but now it might have a problem: Zimmer was the literal and figurative face of the brand. Suddenly, what made Men’s Wearhouse human, and made fashion-challenged guys like me feel good about their clothing choices is gone, likely for good. The brand will have no choice but to move in a new direction, and it’s going to be really risky. I’m curious to see what it will do, especially the ad creative for television.

To me, the key will be to engender that same confidence, but perhaps in a new way and obviously without Zimmer. What I hope it doesn’t do is hire someone that looks/sounds like Zimmer to deliver a similar (or yikes, the same) tagline. It’s not gonna work.

Image credit: www.milkeninstitute.org

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