Cover-Up Exposed: The Death of the Maytag Repairman

Posted: November 12, 2008 in Branding, Misleadership
Tags: , , , , ,

Do you remember the movie “Dave?”  In the 1993 political comedy, the President suffers a stroke while having an affair, and rather than let the public know, his Chief of Staff and Communications Director convince a look-alike to impersonate him.

In a conspiracy reminiscent of the movie, a much loved popular icon died recently, and rather than let him go, his handlers have conspired to make us think he’s still alive.

I’m talking about the Maytag Repairman, that lonely symbol of stoic superfluity in the face of unwavering reliability, a commercial icon who has been with us since 1967.

I’m not complaining about the latest actor to play Ol’ Lonely, Clay Earl Jackson, who replaced Hardy Rawls, who replaced Gordon Jump, who replaced Jesse White, the original Maytag Repairman.

No, I’m complaining about something that actually matters: brand integrity.

You see, the point of the Maytag repairman was that he was lonely because Maytags were so reliable that there was nothing for Ol’ Lonely to do. It was the core of Maytag’s brand image, the way Volvos are safe, Coke is refreshing and Apple is cool. “Built Strong to Last Long” says the Maytag website.

I was having lunch with my friend Steve the other day, and he told me something shocking. His Maytag broke down, more than once, and in the ensuing nightmare Steve found out that Maytag doesn’t service their own products anymore. They subcontract to third party repairmen through a third party customer support line.

In other words, the Maytag Repairman does not actually work for Maytag anymore.

Not that you’d know it from the language on their website: “To help you depend on your Maytag appliance for years to come, we’ve handpicked the best maintenance and service technicians.” And if you do need help, they’ve made it easy for you to schedule an appointment: “Skip the phone call and schedule an appointment online right now.” After all, they wouldn’t want you to talk to a live customer support representative who might spill the beans about their domestic outsourcing.

Another thing you might not easily learn from their website is that Maytag was bought by Whirlpool on April Fools Day, 2006. (No joke:  Wikipedia says April 1, although the Whirlpool corporate site says March 31. What a difference a day makes.) According to the Maytag article on Wikipedia, the plants would be closed within a year, most employees terminated, and the Board of Directors and CEO given 5 years severance. The name, however, would continue to be used on re-branded Whirlpool appliances. And obviously, so too the Maytag Repairman.

The Maytag site won’t tell you any of this. The beautifully produced flash Maytag Timeline goes all the way to 2007 and neglects to mention the sale.

In “About Maytag”, under “Corporation” there is in fact a link to Whirlpool, “Our Parent Company” as well as mentions in the press releases. And even though the “Investors” link says “Read the latest news and press releases from Maytag and Whirlpool Corporation” it takes you straight to the Whirlpool site… and then promptly disses Maytag.  Right there, in the Corporate Profile, it says “Whirlpool’s primary brand names — KitchenAid, Roper, Bauknecht, Ignis, Brastemp, Consul and its global Whirlpool brand — are marketed in more than 170 countries worldwide. Whirlpool Corporation is a significant supplier to Sears Holdings Corporation, which owns and controls the Kenmore brand name.”

Did you see Maytag listed?  Me neither.

Even worse, Kenmore was listed. Now I’m really worried. I was raised trusting Kenmore, and if Whirlpool has brought the same care and consideration to Kenmore that it’s brought to Maytag, I may have to switch to LG.

While the death of the Maytag repairman may come as a shock to you and me, customer review sites like BizRate and RateItAll are filled with uniformly negative reviews by customers who discovered he was gone the hard way. From their high end machines to their low, washing machines to refrigerator/freezers, the majority of the reviews all basically say the same thing:  Don’t buy Maytag. “Broke twice in a year and a half.” “We were warned but didn’t listen.” “Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t compare.” “Buy at your own peril — Maytag’s folly.” “Extended service plan is awful.”

Interestingly, some of the customers say they bought their lemons because of positive online reviews. I did see professional reviews by a company named alaTest.co.Uk that were uniformly glowing and served to raise the overall ratings, at least on Biz Rate.

But when I went to Consumer Reports, I found that in the one category I checked, Washing Machines, Maytag was the most repair-prone among front loaders and second most among top loaders. (I wonder what Consumer Reports says about alaTest.co.uk?)

To sum up:  a company that built its brand reputation on quality and reliability, that took everything they stood for and created an iconic brand image symbolized by one of the most memorable advertising campaigns of all time, is not only not reliable, it isn’t even a real company anymore.

And yet, the Maytag Repairman is still starring in commercials, spewing an empty promise, like a long gone Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum or a ghastly computer generated Orville Redenbacher shilling popcorn. Dead men walking.

In this day and age, can a brand actually believe that it can get away with pretending to be something that it’s not?  Is a brand reliable just because it says it is?  Is misleadership a virtue now?

I subscribe to the belief that a brand is the conversation its stakeholders have about it, not the marketing propaganda it spews at consumers.

So can someone please explain to me how long we’re going to allow this unholy zombie of a Maytag Repairman to walk among us before we get our torches and send it flaming into the blackness where it belongs?


Comments
  1. Faithful ne says:

    Although I often read online reviews by users of products I’m considering, my final resource is always Consumer Reports. And I hate to say this to an adman, but while I might look into something advertised on tv, I would never take the commercial as gospel. Advancing age has made me cynical, I guess.

    Good rant, Jeff, and on the money.
    FN

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks, FN. Actually, for many consumers, online customer reviews are more valuable than “unimpeachable resources” like Consumer Reports. In fact, customer testimonials are more important than you might think. Last year Forrester reported that 71% of online consumers read reviews. I’ve seen studies that say 47% of consumers need to consult reviews before making an online purchase, and 63% are more likely to purchase from a site that has them. Besides, when it comes to online (or offline for that matter), a healthy dose of cynicism isn’t a bad idea.

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