Celebrity endorsement – a brand’s boon or bane?

Backing of superstar is a double-edged sword

Those of us living in Lebanon can’t but notice the recent profusion of ads featuring celebrities promoting different causes: actors and athletes encouraging people to drive carefully, well-known female figures supporting breast cancer awareness month and singers vowing to protect the environment. More recently, local corporate brands seem to have jumped on the bandwagon, with a partnership between a financial institution and a leading TV talk show host.

Celebrity endorsement has become a common communication practice: Every week we hear about a new deal, sometimes rumored to be in the seven figures, and the consumer landscape is now filled with celebrities plastered on billboards, magazines, TV ads and on our daily news feed on social media. The point is: celebrity sells.

Throughout the years, evidence has shown that celebrities sponsoring products is beneficial, especially in cluttered markets, to generate buzz and get people talking. However, as many brands have learned, connecting their image to that of a person can sometimes go horribly wrong.

Win-win

Celebrity endorsement is first and foremost a marketing tool used by companies to enhance their brand equity and increase their name recognition. Let’s take the example of Nike, an iconic brand famous for its consistent use of celebrities to endorse its wide range of products.

When Nike sponsored Michael Jordan in 1984 and Tiger Woods in 1996, the brand was still known primarily for sponsoring tennis and track athletes. By partnering with the world’s top basketball player and golfer, Nike succeeded in expanding into new markets. It created the subsidiary company “Air Jordan” in the first case and in the second, changed the perception of golf from that of an elitist game to one appreciated by and accessible to all.

As mentioned earlier, celebrity endorsement sells. In fact, from a pure marketing and sales perspective, associating a brand with a celebrity greatly influences consumers’ purchases. It is no secret that people look up to celebrities and do their best to imitate them, and one of the easiest ways to do so is by buying the products they seem to prefer. We all remember the buzz that surrounded the ad campaign for men’s underwear featuring David Beckham, which reportedly even caused traffic jams. More than just a pretty face, sales for H&M’s Bodywear line went up 28 percent after Beckham’s campaign this year, according to Selfridges, one of the UK’s leading retailers.

“Because I’m worth it” has become an instantly recognizable tagline, thanks to L’Oréal’s ads featuring a stream of celebrities endorsing each product. There may well be better products on the market, but who wouldn’t want to have the perfect complexion of Aishwarya Rai or the glossy hair of Eva Longoria? In fact, a celebrity testimony adds credibility to the product and ultimately increases sales and revenues.

Away from its mercantile dimension, when celebrities support causes through public service announcements, they succeed in drawing the public’s attention and raising awareness around important social issues. In the United States, the renowned “Got Milk” campaign, famous for its white moustache, featured athletes, musicians, actors and politicians, among others, all pitching in to shed light on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. In Lebanon, a leading NGO focusing on road safety launched an awareness campaign by featuring local celebrities including dancers, actors and media figures.

Potential drawbacks

That said, and despite all these advantages, celebrity endorsement can certainly go wrong, bringing significant harm to the brand’s image.

Let’s talk about Credit Suisse, Rolex, Wilson, Nike, Mercedes Benz, Jura, Moet & Chandon, Lindt, Gillette and Nationale Suisse. While this might seem like a random listing of brands, they do have a common denominator: the endorsement of Roger Federer. From here comes a major drawback of celebrity affiliation: overexposure. As the popular saying goes, “less is more”. In fact, when a celebrity is involved with a large number of brands, his or her credibility might suffer, which then reflects on the brands themselves. Consumers feel that the endorser is motivated by financial remuneration rather than promoting a product he or she truly believes in, which will in turn dilute the message the brand wants to convey.

Another problem is one of human nature. Image changes, celebrities lose their fame, people make mistakes and celebrities can go off script. When they do, it takes a toll on the brand. A brand can be seriously damaged because of an image gone bad: Nike had to deal with the Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods scandals, and recently that of Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic champion charged with murdering his girlfriend.

Another risk a brand faces when using a celebrity is that the consumer might focus on the endorser rather than the product itself. This is especially true when the brand and its recognition are not yet mature or well-established in consumers’ minds. This creates an overshadowing effect whereby consumers remember the celebrity and not the brand. Case in point: Very few consumers in the US and elsewhere seem to recall the 2005 partnership between St John, the luxury brand apparel, and Angelina Jolie, which lasted three consecutive years.

Getting it right  

For many companies, celebrity endorsement seems to be the perfect communication initiative that can propel the product and the brand. However, given the risks and the price brands will have to pay in case of failure, companies should look into many parameters prior to investing in a multi-million dollar deal.

Is celebrity endorsement right for the brand? The first question to answer is whether celebrity endorsement is the right strategy to follow. Has the brand been established and rooted long and well enough in consumer minds that it would not risk being overshadowed by a celebrity? As an example, at a certain point, Rolex had endorsement deals with 24 golf players, seven tennis professionals, four equestrians, three yachtsmen, two race car drivers, a skier and a polo player. Never once has that eclipsed the recognition of this mature brand.

How to ensure the success of the partnership? If the answer to the first question is yes, then the company needs to set the right key performance indicators to measure the effectiveness of the partnership: What are the objectives the brand is trying to achieve by the association? What are the right measurement tools to assess the effectiveness of the endorsement in achieving its objectives?

How to select the right celebrity for the brand? At this point, selecting the right celebrity to become the spokesperson for the brand becomes critical.

Profile: Companies need to ensure that the celebrity is attractive enough to create a positive association with the product or service. Moreover, the image of the celebrity needs to be consistent and in line with that of the brand to successfully establish a strong personality and identity for both. Most of us fell for the obvious charm of George Clooney walking into a Nespresso shop to buy a machine and have his daily espresso. Yet beyond the seduction and wit of the ads, George Clooney also perfectly represented the image Nestle wanted to convey about this new product: dark, rich, refined and mature.

Relevance: When famous weight loss programs decided to team up with celebrities to endorse their products, they chose those who struggled with weight loss and who achieved their goals by resorting to the dieting plans offered by them. From here we see the importance of showing a clear relevance and association between the celebrity and the product and/or service.

Credibility: Selecting a global ambassador should be a smooth transaction, whereby the celebrity should not come across as selling the product but rather endorsing it for the various benefits and advantages it brings to his or her lifestyle. Indeed, many celebrities were the laughing stock of consumers when it was clear that their association with a brand was more of a business transaction. Drinking Coca Cola while endorsing Pepsi, using an Apple product when sponsoring Samsung, or even driving a Bentley when endorsing a Volkswagen are common missteps that negatively affect the brand and harm its credibility.

Opting for celebrity endorsement when the brand is just not ready or spending money on the wrong person can be detrimental to a brand. Not setting the right objectives and tools to measure success is another mistake when embarking on an expensive celebrity relationship. It is therefore essential that brands develop a well-thought out strategy before striking a deal, as the rumored seven figure numbers we hear about can become painfully real when brands have to pay the price for an endorsement gone wrong.

 

Line Tabet, Zeina Loutf and Ramsay Najjar work for communication firm S2C

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