Harnessing a big name can be a big asset or a big problem.
A few years back we worked on the Green Belt Movement’s fundraising materials. One of our goals was to manage founder and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai’s growing celebrity presence vis-à-vis the organization. Maathai might inspire, but donors actually gave to the movement. As a result, we made Maathai’s presence secondary in importance to that of the movement’s participants, Kenyan women. Thus, Maathai’s face was not on the cover of Green Belt Movement materials, nor was her photo used everywhere, as you might find Oprah’s image used in all her materials.
Managing celebrity status is not easy, even when the celebrity is an organization’s founder. Celebrities tend to overshadow what they promote, which leads to a host of marketing challenges. Celebrities are certainly appealing, but frankly, they can be a big distraction. Studies show that people are more likely to recall the famous person than what he or she is promoting.
Case in point: a study of Indian consumers showed that 42 percent of participants could not recall which celebrity went with which product, and that percentage shot to 66 percent when a celeb endorsed more than one thing. Furthermore, celebrities did nothing to build brand trust or belief in product efficiency, and they didn’t encourage word of mouth.
According to an article in Ad Age magazine, the 2007 “Red Campaign” to fight AIDS in Africa, which made strong use of famous people including Steven Spielberg and Christy Turlington and was fronted by Bono, was a failure. The campaign was so focused on big names—and participating companies—that they overshadowed the people the campaign was supposed to help.
And this doesn’t even take into account the trouble caused when celebs behave badly. McDonalds dropped Kobe Bryant like a baked hot apple pie after he was accused of rape. Pepsi tiptoed away from Madonna after her spiritually ecstatic and bodily erotic “Like a Prayer” video. James Garner seemed swell as a spokesman for the Beef Industry Council of the Meat Board and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, until he had a heart attack and resulting triple bypass surgery. Oh, and need I mention Tiger Woods?
This is not to pooh-pooh famous folk. George Foreman and Paul Newman have done spectacular jobs promoting their products, for example. But what makes some work and others not?
There has been a lot of talk about the decline of endorsements (see BusinessWeek and Newsweek, for example), but they will not disappear. Here are some suggestions on how to use celebrity endorsements effectively:
• There must be a strong, credible connection between the spokesperson and the product or company being promoted. These relationships may be trickier to figure out than they first appear. On the surface, Shaquille O’Neal seems a good fit for a sneaker brand, except that he doesn’t actually jump high or move well. And does anybody believe that Tiger Woods was hot and heavy about endorsing Buick? Really? Putting his name behind TAG Heuer luxury watches made more sense, though the point is now moot. Michael Jordan and Nike sneakers are a perfect example of matching person and product.
• A spokesperson can learn. There were a lot of skeptics about Bono getting behind the debt-relief campaign for developing countries, but he did his homework and is now regarded as an authority. Noreena Hertz does a wonderful job writing about this transformation in The Debt Threat.
• Use a spokesperson consistently over a long period of time—think Ed McMahon and American Family Publishers (though his employer was often confused with Publishers Clearing House), and the before mentioned Paul Newman and George Foreman.
• Consider using employees as pitch people. They know their stuff, are enthusiastic, and are far cheaper than celebs. For example, Best Buy uses employees called “blue shirts” on TV and Twitter.
• Create a celebrity, like Subway has done with customer Jared Fogle, but beware. Just because he is cheaper than big names, he is still susceptible to similar pitfalls.
• Use an actor as a celebrity mascot. Verizon has dressed up Paul Marcarelli in a gray Verizon jacket and glasses for a few years, to great success. The Verizon “Test Man” was even named one of the most intriguing people of 2002 by Entertainment Weekly.
• Monitor your celeb’s news, and have a back-up plan. Remember, even founders are not immune from media trouble. (Remember Martha Stewart?)
Do your homework, and you can end up with a celeb whose star power helps you shine without getting burned.
Additional reference: Celebrity Endorsement: Agency Manager’s Perspective