Karl Malden Was A Perfect Spokesperson

The death of actor Karl Malden at age 97 on July 1 brought back many memories for me.  As a movie buff, I cherish the great performances he gave in a host of motion pictures, ranging from the priest fighting against corruption on the docks of New Jersey in On The Waterfront;  playing the card dealer in Cincinnati Kid; to his role as a pioneer in How the West Was Run.  No matter what character Malden played, he was totally believable in the role.

That is what made him such a tremendous corporate spokesperson for American Express in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  He started in commercials for the American Express Card.  His opening line, “Do You Know Me?” acknowledged his familiarity with the viewing audience, which associated him with his numerous film roles and co-starring role in the television series Streets of San Francisco with Michael Douglas.

Malden’s role in promoting American Express than expanded to his appearing in a number of commercials for American Express Travelers Cheques.  In each spot, actors portayed familes or individuals that faced problems during their travels, whether through robbery, accident, etc. There at the close of the spot appeared Malden, wearing his fedora hat and uttering the well-remembered and well-branded slogan, “American Express Travelers Cheques, Don’t Leave Home Without Them.”

The selection of Malden to serve as a corporate spokesperson by American Express was a stroke of genius by its marketing department.

Companies that look to athletes and celebrities to serve in spokesperson roles have to be extremely cautious about such relationships.  Too often, spokespersons run into personal issues that reflect badly on their character and thus can taint the brand they are promoting.

Malden was an ideal choice because during his Hollywood career he was never touched by any scandal, was well-liked and had the personality of someone who could live next door to you.  He was real, welcoming and trustworthy, all of the traits needed to help promote a financial services product.

It can be argued that the commercials by Karl Malden for American Express truly put the company on the map.  For any family planning a vacation, a trip to the bank to purchase American Express Travelers Cheques became the norm.

So as we say goodbye to a great performer, let us keep his personality in mind when helping to select a corporate spokesperson for clients.  The individual selected should be credible, identify with the target audience, and be a brand ambassador you can be proud of.

Karl Malden certainly fit that role, one of hundreds that he made his own.

Tom Cosentino

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