Dropping Its Founder and Spokesman, Men’s Wearhouse Goes After Millennials

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Last week, Men’s Wearhouse fired George Zimmer, the company’s 64-year-old founder and spokesman. In many respects, the avuncular Zimmer looks the epitome of the American businessman: impeccably dressed in his suit and tie in the company’s well-known and oft-quoted ads. But while a number of the store’s shoppers expressed outrage at Zimmer’s ouster on social media sites, the move may turn out to be a smart one for a company trying to target a much different audience: millennials who are disinclined to don a suit each morning.

According to studies by brand expert (and former TIME contributor) Dan Schawbel, workers in their 20s and 30s are looking to ditch the suit altogether, not just on Fridays. Almost 80% of millennials say they believe they should be able to wear jeans to work, whereas only 60% of Baby Boomers – Zimmer’s age cohort – say the same thing. More than 90% of millennials say they want a job where they can be themselves, according to Schawbel’s surveys, and that includes what they’re allowed to wear.

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“All suit manufacturers have had the same issue. Casual Fridays and wearing anything you want to work really has harmed the suit industry,” Jan Slate, dean of College of Media at the University of Illinois and a former advertising agency owner, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Considering the shift away from buttoned-up dress codes at the workplace, Men’s Wearhouse has done surprisingly well in recent years. Revenue for Men’s Wearhouse Inc., which owns the namesake brand as well as Moore’s and K&G, rose 5.1% in the first quarter of 2013 compared with the year before, according to Dow Jones. Same-store sales were up 7.1%. And profits increased 23%.

Men’s Wearhouse hasn’t explained why it fired Zimmer. Several reports have suggested that the former CEO, who now controls only about 3.5% of the company’s stock, wasn’t keen on relinquishing executive power. But it also seems clear that the company is hoping to project a different image as it increasingly shifts its attention to the 20- to 30-year-old range. The last few commercials featuring Zimmer had him commenting on the way young guys dress today — as though he’d only recently discovered that they don’t exactly suit up the way he does.

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A number of the store’s shoppers lamented Zimmer’s ouster on Facebook, many using takes on Zimmer’s famous tagline, such as “You’re going to miss the way I shopped. I guarantee it.” Men’s Wearhouse may continue using Zimmer’s likeness in its ads. The company reportedly owns the rights to his image and footage of Zimmer that could be used in future advertisements. But it doesn’t seem likely.

“The use of Zimmer as spokesperson has, coincidently, been under review as management has been evaluating his effectiveness, particularly with the millennial generation,” Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel Financial Corp., advised his clients last week. Tapping into a millennial generation that may be just as likely to wear sneakers to the office as wingtips would’ve been difficult with Zimmer as the public face of the company, no matter how many commercials they show of him trying to appeal to a landscape of younger workforce wearing Chuck Taylor’s and loosened ties.

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