“Celebrity endorsements can be a double-edged promotional sword.” Authors, Alan R. Miciak and William L. Shanklin, wrote those words in their article ‘Choosing Celebrity Endorsers’ that was published in Marketing Management, Vol. 3, in 1994. A quote that is as much relevant when the queen lent her face to a Cadbury’s advert in 1854 as it is today. On one hand, celebrities can help with brand positioning and image building. On the other, you’re looking at whopping costs and uncontrollable risks. A celebrity can be anyone who enjoys public recognition and who has some clout with the audiences. With the arrival of social media, this has become even easier to quantify. But that shouldn’t be the green light to rush off into locking down the latest influencer, movie star or athlete to be the face of your brand – or at least be seen with your product.
Business and brand strategist, Martin Roll, defines an endorsement as, “a channel of brand communication in which a celebrity acts as the brand’s spokesperson and certifies the brand’s claim and position by extending his/her personality, popularity, stature in the society or expertise in the field to the brand.” If you take into consideration how saturated the market place – nationally and internationally – has become, there is a need for brands to differentiate themselves. Many brands have seen that the easiest way of doing so is by associating with a leading celebrity. Even the Founder and CEO of The Business of Fashion, Imran Amed, has been quoted saying,
“Many fashion brands may have been built on the dreams created by out-of-this world haute couture collections. But today, for many brands, this desire is built on the image of celebrity, which can arguably reach more people than the Haute Couture shows ever will.”
This could be explained by the Match-Up Hypothesis (MUH) and the Meaning Transfer Model (MTM). MUH thrives off of the love triangle among the consumer, celebrity and brand. The marketing team takes into consideration the symbolic meaning of the product and uses this information to find a celebrity that appropriately conveys this. Getting this right could make a brand appear more credible and enhance their overall image. But they also have to consider the target consumer. The product and the celebrity chosen has to align with their customers perceived characteristics of the two. Conversely, MTM in summary refers to a celebrity’s ability to transfer meaning to a product or brand they’re linked to, creating its persona, and then conveying all this to the consumer. The transfer is considered successful if the consumer is able to capture the similarity between the product and the chosen celebrity. Factors that tend to aid this include lifestyle, personality, age, class and gender. But most importability traits such as expertise, likeability, physical attractiveness and trustworthiness are considered crucial for MTM to work. But should celebrity endorsement be the prime conduit of brand communications?
Argument for Celebrity Endorsement
Can help to expand your empire: Getting a recognized celebrity to build band equity could do the trick. It is how sports brand, Nike, went from chiefly backing track athletics and tennis to the world of basketball. And in the process, created the Nike-Jordan partnership that became a multibillion dollar subsidiary.
Makes ads more memorable: Studies have shown that customers are more likely to recall an advert with an attractive celebrity than an everyday civilian or expert. This is because the celebrity impacts the customers’ attention, recollection, assessments and purchase intentions.
Argument against Celebrity Endorsement
Reputations change: For celebrity endorsements to work, it needs to be a long-term tactic that uses repetition for association to stick. Yet, a celebrity’ career ebbs and flows; one moment the media can’t get enough of them, the next they can’t even make the 10am news. Sometimes they make grave mistakes that ruin their image and cause a disassociation in the public’s eye and hurting your partnership.
Overexposure: A celebrity at their height can endorse more than one product. This could cheapen how credible the public views the celebrity and as a result, your brand won’t be viewed in an esteemed light. You’re brand isn’t a Pokémon and your celebrity should never look like they’re in it for the money. Tom Ford claims to have never paid a celebrity to wear his designs. They come to him, which makes his brand even more desirable.
The vampire effect: Their stardom could overshadow your product completely. With all the focus resting on the individual and not on your product, could make this deal a bad investment. You can easily tell if this is happening to you through consumer feedback, if they can’t remember your product in the ad, that partnership wasn’t in your favour.
Monetary returns: While some campaigns will have you laughing all the way to the bank, some celebrity endorsements may not necessarily translate into sales or brand loyalty. You have to prepare yourself for the possibility that after spending money on customizing the product, delivering it, paying the celebrity endorsement fees and perhaps even for the photography/video used, all you may have to show for it is likes and shares on social media.
Celebrity Endorsement Do’s and Don’ts
Do pin point the right celebrities: it’s tempting to go with the ‘It’ celebrity of the moment. However, the smart move is to define your brand’s/ product’s attributes and pick a celebrity whose qualities, passions and public beliefs are aligned with them. You also want to look at their past endorsement history, even if they aren’t in the fashion industry. It’ll provide an idea of what they will portray about your brand to the public, as well as, help you to avoid overexposure or the vampire effect.
Don’t forget legal contracts and trademarks: Have your legal team/council do a background check on the celebrity you have your sights on. You don’t want to step on pre-existing agreements when you sign up your star. Do this partnership by the book to avoid any nasty or damaging surprises later on. Then there’s publicity claims you have to be aware of. Just because you’ve seen a celebrity wearing or using your product doesn’t mean that you can use it as promotion for your brand. There’s a clear difference between free endorsement and unauthorized use of identity.
Do opt for uniqueness: If they’ve endorsed your competitors’ product or have been associated with a product that is completely different from your own. For example, Justin Bieber shouldn’t promote Coke and then Pepsi. Nor should he promote Coke and then an anti-sugar campaign. You want a situation where the message they end up transferring is clear in personality and identity.
Don’t select celebrities with high-risk lifestyles: you can’t predict what an individual will get up to on a daily basis, but it’s best to steer clear of the wild horses. For example Lindsey Lohan or Charlie Sheen are known to be unpredictable and plagued by bad publicity. Such qualities can easily be transferred to your brand.
Do think long-term partnerships: As mentioned earlier, consistency is required in order to create associations in the consumers’ mind. True benefits can be achieved when the celebrity is associated with the brand as much as the brand is associated with the celebrity.
Do continually observe their engagement: You want to partner with a celebrity whose large following not only listens to them, but also acts on recommendations made. This crucial piece of the puzzle, where a celebrity gets at least 0.5% engagement from their total online followers, ensures you make an optimal returns on your investment. This monitoring will also help to know if their public image and conduct is taking a left turn and thus, helps you to stop negative publicity in its tracks.
Don’t forget to get it in writing: This is not the time for a gentleman’s agreement. Work out an agreement that favours both sides and write in detail how the compensation will be executed. Be it through a one-off payment, revenue sharing, and/or free merchandise.
Do consider timing: there’s always a fresh face entering the arena of fame. Stay on the lookout for emerging celebrities who you can sign while they’re still in their formative years. Having the ability to identify potential and promise, could result in a successful campaign; especially when their career takes off superlatively.
That being said, celebrity endorsement really is only a channel. It can’t be considered a brand goal nor can it replace the brand building process. While it does have its advantages, brands should use every communication channel available to them, rather than rely solely on the celebrity effect. When you identify and maintain your brand strategy, your customers will perceive you as dependable and reliable. Once this is established, then if you choose to involve a celerity, the endorsement has a higher possibility of coming across as cutting edge. But remember, celebrity endorsement can be tricky business and thus should be approached carefully. No celebrity or partnership is the same.