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Popular vs. Polarizing: The Olympic Quest for the Perfect Spokesperson

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Right now America is a country divided in many respects -- politically, economically, culturally. There are few things that truly unite us as a nation. Thank God and glory every four years we have the Olympics. World-stage events give us reason to pause and step back to recognize our similarities and commonalities, not our differences.

There's a reason great brands like Wheaties, Gillette and Nike hire Olympic athletes as spokespeople. They unite our nation -- if only for two weeks -- around the notion that we can still be golden. That with patience, perseverance and practice we can still be, and are, the best in the world. And if we as marketers play our cards right, that golden glow can help sell a few more boxes of cereal, razor blades and running shoes.

There's also a reason politicians, with the exception of Bob Dole and Viagra, aren't hired by great brands as spokespeople. They are polarizing personalities that are just as likely to drive customers away as they are to a product or service.

And therein lays the problem for some companies. Unpaid and unintended brand ambassadors emerge and become the public face of the company. It has recently happened with Chick-fil-A as Mike Huckabee developed and championed "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." Although in his mind Huckabee had good intentions, Chick-fil-A must be careful not to have its brand hijacked. A brand is a powerful marketing tool that needs to be controlled, not left flapping in the wind by an unintended spokesperson. Huckabee has done little to help. He has only further polarized the company.

Having spent 20 years in marketing, I've learned a few things about celebrity spokespeople and polarizing personalities.

Long before "Keeping up with The Kardashians," I hired Bruce Jenner as a celebrity PR spokesperson for then telecom-giant MCI. At the time, Bruce was still known as the greatest Olympic athlete of all time having won the gold medal in the Decathlon in 1976. Bruce did everything we asked of him and ended up generating hundreds of millions of favorable media impressions for our company.

Today, however, getting Mr. Jenner hired as a spokesperson would take a small miracle. He's now more associated with a vapid sense of self-entitlement (thanks to his step-daughters Kim, Khloe and Kourtney) and a running joke on Saturday Night Live. It's unfortunate as Bruce is a wonderful person. He could not have been easier to work with.

Times have changed, as have brands and public perceptions. Bruce and his family have cashed in on the Kardashian craze, but in the process the golden sheen has worn off the medals won 36 years ago. Bruce does a great job commenting on the Olympics -- but I don't see him ever becoming the face or the voice of a major brand. Again, there's a big difference between popular and polarizing. The Kardashians (and Bruce by association) fall into the latter category just like politicians and unintended brand ambassadors.

America is united behind the U.S. Olympic team. It is a state that will not last, but for another week we can hold onto the fact that we are home to the world's greatest athletes. What better reason to celebrate ourselves and our similarities. For the country's top brands, it's a time to bring home the gold by focusing on the positive -- not the polarizing.

Mark Pettit is president & CEO of Creaxion, one of the nation's leading marketing firms. Mr. Pettit has more than 20 years of marketing experience and is an expert in crisis communications. A former TV newscaster and published author, he also serves on the board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Follow Mark on Twitter @PettitMark and online at www.Creaxion.com.