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For every amazing Jean-Claude Van Damme / Volvo campaign or George Clooney / Nespresso endorsement, it seems there’s also a celebrity endorsement disaster.
These range from brand ambassadors not using or wearing the products they are paid to endorse (Charlize Theron and Raymond Weil; Ellen DeGeneres and Samsung; Alicia Keys and BlackBerry), to disaster by association (we’re looking at you, Oscar Pistorius and Paris Hilton).
So, why do brands still compete to secure Kim Kardashian’s services, or eagerly sign up JLo for yet another fragrance release? Because when it works it can provide spectacular reach and grow your business, says Doug Nash, Director of Strategy at marketing group Interbrand Sydney.
“Take a company like Nike, for example. They have a celebrity endorsement in every stream. Their business, to start with, was running shoes. But they’ve used celebrities to help them expand and build credibility in other categories. It was a very calculated move. Michael Jordan did it for basketball, Lance Armstrong for cycling, Tiger Woods for golf, and so on.”
Celebrities are real people with real problems. When you’re trying to tie your product to that person, you need to make sure that both parties are aligned and boundaries are set."
Doug Nash, Interbrand Sydney
Some marketers might cringe at references to Armstrong or Woods, but they’re great examples of how a brand and a celebrity can ride the wave, experiencing phenomenal growth in previously untapped markets, only for it to all go south when the celebrity is exposed for making poor career or personal choices, and for disappointing a legion of fans.
“Celebrities are real people with real problems,” says Nash. “When you’re trying to tie your product to that person, you need to make sure that both parties are aligned and boundaries are set. Brands always do their best to choose endorsees with integrity and credibility but, as we’ve seen, people can self-destruct and the fallout often hurts the brand as much as the celebrity.”
For a celebrity endorsement to be effective, the audience must believe the celebrity really likes, uses or lives in alignment with the brand they’re spruiking. According to Clemence Harvey, Director of Harvey Publicity, today’s public can see straight through a “cash for comment” arrangement. “Any endorsement must be authentic and brand congruent, where the brand and the celebrity can leverage off each other,” she says.
“Louis Vuitton did this well in a campaign with Keith Richards and Bono. The celebrity gains prestige by being associated with a high-end brand, and the brand gets an added dose of cool by aligning itself with likeable celebrities – in this case, rock stars,” says Harvey.
There are several ways that celebrity endorsements can work, from drawing traffic to an event or product, to attracting media attention, to informing and influencing the public. “In PR the world is your oyster,” says Harvey. “Celebrity endorsements can cover everything, from socialites attending events, to campaigns worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you get to the top end, everything is negotiable.”
Nash sounds a warning, though: “The higher the investment and degree of association, the higher the stakes if it should all come undone.” He emphasises that brands must identify what they want and need from partnerships. “It’s not just about exploiting a celebrity’s image. If a brand only does that, it will fail to build any real value or authenticity – it’s a wasted brand-building exercise.”
Celebrity endorsements can also be used to establish brand expertise in a certain area, such as chef Curtis Stone for Coles, or they can be used to develop or grow a brand’s aesthetic.
A great example of this, says Nash, is Marc Newson for Qantas. “From overhauling first-class lounges, to designing the interior of new A380s, everything has his aesthetic and it’s a coherent, deeply branded experience. Newson is a taste-maker who Qantas sought out to align itself with a design-conscious public, and it works brilliantly.”
The general public’s thirst for celebrity fodder, gossip and a sneak peek into the lives of the rich and famous will ensure that celebrity endorsements – in varying forms – will continue for quite some time.
“People are fascinated by fame, beauty, youth and glamour,” concludes Harvey, who has signed supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Eva Herzigova in the past for fashion work. “No matter how many bad experiences or fallen stars, the public wants to buy into the magic of celebrity, and brand endorsements will continue to facilitate that.”