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Column: Does celebrity marketing actually work?

Hiring celebrities as spokespeople can create a lot of exposure for brands and stars alike. With all that added value, Judi Uhuegbu asks – do famous faces really sway our buying behaviour?

Judi Uhuegbu

AS CONSUMERS, WE tend to favour what we know. Yes, celebrities are strangers – strangers who many of us feel we know without ever befriending them. We know what they look like first thing in the morning, we know what medication they are on, and we know if they went to Asia to earn some bread, just like our nearest and dearest.

The Celebrity Proxy

Celebrities are prevalent in marketing. Depending on a company’s budget, a celebrity’s status (A-list, B-list and so on) and all the negotiations in between, stars can earn up to €50 million in exchange for their commercial support – just ask Beyoncé. It’s no wonder many companies take advantage of their disproportionate marketing influence. As Sean Combs once said, “My brand is rocket fuel. It would take this brand (Cîroc vodka) ten years to get to where I can take it in one year.” Whether celebrity endorsements are the best use of funds to gain customer loyalty is debatable. It depends on what kind of marketing approach works for each business, and what they hope to gain.

Big leading brands, usually the ones we already know well, have the money and muscle to make endorsement deals work. The excessive costs can be worthwhile in retaining a brand’s market position as well as keeping it appealing and newsworthy. As a rule, small obscure brands with limited funds should steer clear of celebrity branding. In this case, it is better to build the brand first by using public relations (PR) and a company boss or employee as a spokesperson. Remember Halifax Howard?

Companies can become short-sighted, focusing on quick sales and awareness. Just because we talk about the celebrity endorser and the new brand campaign does not mean we’ll go rushing to the shops to buy ‘brand X’. A celebrity is not a substitute for a good idea. Surprisingly, the hype a celebrity brings does not build up brands. Still, many companies try to gain credibility with consumers through celebrities. In fact, I would argue that PR and word-of-mouth are the best ways to build a brand in a consumer’s mind… As long as the idea is good, of course. Paying Bradley Cooper millions to smirk and hold a tub of ice-cream is no substitute for that.

The Importance of Trust

Chanel No5’s collaboration with Brad Pitt shows us that marketers can’t simply copy-and-paste a famous face to a brand and expect a warm reception. Although I respect the risk they took by using a male celebrity to promote a female beauty product, an ad where Pitt describes why Chanel is the “only true choice” for the woman in his life [insert model here à la Angelina Jolie], although very old-fashioned, would have made more sense. Instead, they gave us an overtly pretentious ad… about nothing.

Celebrity branding must be plausible. Various celebrities are known for their many short-term contracts and their willingness to say anything for a high fee. I would argue that it is better if the star is not too famous, and not in the public eye that often, so they don’t outshine the brands they promote. Long-term endorsement deals work well. A new face over and over seems a bit pointless, knowing that celebrities are lasting investments if both the star and the brand message can stand the test of time. Gary Lineker is still hogging crisps, Andie MacDowell proves she’s still worth it, and many people still don’t know what George Foreman did before selling grills.

Cost aside, the crux of each transaction is trust. Sometimes we buy things we need but don’t want and sometimes we buy things we want but don’t need. Regardless of why we purchase something, as we part with our euros we are trusting that the product or service will be as it should be. Likewise, we want to be sure that the celebrity endorser is trustworthy; we want to believe that they actually use the brand. Let’s not forget Britney Spears… maybe Coca-Cola was a poor choice of soft drink, knowing she was already signed to Pepsi. Needless to say, Brit was soon phased out in favour of Queen B.

Fingers Crossed

Celebrity branding is a gamble and has its drawbacks. The ‘right-here-right-now’ nature of social media further challenges a brand’s image. Also, marketers must carefully choose the right star for their brand: someone who is likeable, widely known and buzzworthy. However, like you and I, celebrities are only human. If all else fails, the strong brands will probably survive anyway.

Doping cost Lance Armstrong millions in endorsements (notably Nike), his role as chairman of Livestrong, seven Tour de France titles, and left him with a tainted sporting legacy. To add insult to injury for Nike, on Valentine’s Day, ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, who was found shot dead inside his home. Weirdly, a Nike ad featuring Pistorius on their site held the caption, “I am the bullet in the chamber.”

After the News of the World ran photos of Kate Moss “innocently” powdering her nose, Chanel, Burberry and H&M wanted nothing more to do with her. As well as this, Beyoncé’s global reign as Pepsi Queen hasn’t been without debate state-side. Some argue that a visibly healthy popstar, who only two years ago worked with Michelle Obama to get America’s kids exercising, shouldn’t be endorsing a product-type which is linked to childhood obesity.

Essentially, celebrities help reach the expected audience, not convert them. They help magnify already established credibility, not bestow it. Brand integrity can’t be earned so easily. After all, that would take away all the hard work and creativity. So, who’s in the mood for some Häagen-Dazs?

Judi Uhuegbu is a Media Production Management graduate and writer of The QWERTY Type, a blog on marketing, mass media pop culture and sociology. You can view her LinkedIn page here or follow her on Twitter here.

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