Monday, August 6, 2007

Q&A: Building a Brand Around a Personality

July 2, 2007

Uncle Wally's may not be as famous as Famous Amos, but the same person is behind both brands: Wally Amos.

Once a show-business promoter, Mr. Amos started selling chocolate-chip cookies in 1975 in his store in Hollywood, Calif. The business took off, as Mr. Amos rode a gourmet cookie craze and advocated for adult literacy. Mr. Amos eventually lost the business and became its paid spokesman. It changed hands several times, and now is owned by Kellogg Co.'s Keebler brand.

[Wally Amos]
Rosica Public Relations
Wally Amos with Uncle Wally's Muffins

After false starts with two new companies, in 1992 he co-founded Uncle Wally's Muffins Corp., a firm in Shirley, N.Y. He's chairman and spokesman for the firm, which has 140 employees. Mr. Amos, 71, also owns Chip and Cookie, a cookie store in Kailua, Hawaii, with his wife Christine, and is the founder of the Chip and Cookie Read Aloud Foundation. We spoke with Mr. Amos about building a product brand identity around a personality.

WSJ: What's key to branding a product around a person?

Wally Amos: Here's Wally Amos's philosophy: You're in business to make friends. For someone to buy your product, they really have to like you, which is key to personality branding.

If I'm your friend, you're going to do whatever you can to help me. As a business owner, I have a responsibility in that, though. I have to honor the friendship with my customer by producing a quality product, with integrity, by doing what I say I'm going to do, by being a company that gives back to the community, by being a civic-minded company.

Sure, you're in business to make money. And you have to make a profit, but what are you going to do for the customers? Why would the customer buy your product over another product? What if you have two muffins and both of them taste good? I would believe that if someone had their choice between two muffins or two cookies that both tasted great that they would choose the Wally Amos product.

That's what branding is -- the brand stands for something. The brand creates the income. People buy the product, because they know that the brand has integrity, has credibility, and the company stands behind it. If customers have a problem with the product, they can pick up the phone and get satisfaction. But all of those things create profits.

Why should someone buy your product? It satisfies a need that they have. There are so many choices today. What are you going to do to stand out?

WSJ: What's the hardest part of building a personality-based brand?

Mr. Amos: I've always operated on a very personal level. Because if I can meet you, one-on-one, I'm going to be your friend. I'm going to win you over. You're going to taste my product, and you're going to like my product, and you're going to like me, and that's genuine.

You've got to have a personality. You have to be somewhat of an extrovert, because you're before the public all the time. And you have to be passionate about your product. This doesn't work for everybody, everybody doesn't have the personality to be out front.

When you put your name and your picture on a product, it's a double-edged sword. If people don't like you, or you do something that discourages them or that is not ethical, you can go out of business. When you and the brand become one, whatever you do will ultimately affect the brand. If you're exposed to something other than credibility and integrity, then ultimately your brand is affected.

WSJ: How does Uncle Wally's build its brand?

Mr. Amos: Word of mouth is huge. Word of mouth is the best way to promote a product or to brand a product, which is what I did with Famous Amos. We had huge word of mouth. We had a lot of media attention, because I opened a store selling only chocolate-chip cookies, and we tied Famous Amos in with literacy. To use all of those avenues to bring attention to your product is important.

Public relations becomes a huge part of that. That's why we've always used cause marketing. When I had Famous Amos, I hooked up with Literacy Volunteers of America. I became as identified with adult literacy as I did with cookies, and that endeared me to people, because they knew that I meant it.

WSJ: What's different about how you promote Uncle Wally's, compared to how Famous Amos was promoted?

Mr. Amos: I don't know that there is anything different. With Uncle Wally's, we believe in giving muffins away and letting people taste muffins, because the best way to sell a food product is to let someone taste it. I always tell people: You can't fool your mouth. We align ourselves with nonprofit groups to help their causes, which helps our cause, and it helps their audience taste our product. We'll give away muffins in a heartbeat -- to charities, sometimes at events. It's all basic common sense stuff.

There are a lot of companies that sell muffins. There were no cookie stores. There are some limitations. I can carry cookies around very easily. I can't carry muffins. Muffins are more of a breakfast food, rather than a snack that you can eat all day. Ideas are not all transferable from one product to the next, just because you do it with one thing, doesn't mean that you do it with another.

Even with cookies, I thought starting Chip and Cookie would be a breeze. It's almost two years, and we haven't had a profit yet. We had a big opening party, and I said, 'OK, this is going to catapult me.' But it didn't. It did when I had Famous Amos, but these are different times. It's a different location. I'm in Hawaii. With Famous Amos, I was in Hollywood. Everything is different. It was 30 years later when I started Chip and Cookie. It's a whole different audience.

WSJ: What advice do you have for small-business owners looking to brand a product around their personality?

Mr. Amos: You can't compete with the big guys. So don't even attempt to do that. You don't have the money, you don't have the resources. But many small businesses today, because they don't have the budgets and they can't compete with all these big companies, are personalizing their business.

In this day and age when everything is so big, big is not better. Big is just bigger. People buy from other people. People do business with other people. If you have a product that lends itself to you being the spokesperson for it, you can be the person out front.

Be consistent in who you are. You have to use what you sell, and you're going to have to know everything there is to know about what you sell. You have to be passionate about what you're doing, because otherwise you're not going to be able to convince people to buy it.

You need to do what you like. Too many people get in business to make money. You have to make money. But if that's your single motivation, that's not enough. It's important to have fun. If you don't have fun, I don't give a damn what you're selling, you're not going to be successful with it. I know a lot of people who have a lot of money who are miserable. And I don't want to be one of them.

Write to Laura Lorber at

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