The Power and Risk of Using Celebrities and Influencers for Marketing

The Power and Risk of Using Celebrities and Influencers for Marketing

James Martin-Harper |

A marketing message can’t be all message and no come-on. You need to do something to get consumers to pay attention to what you have to say. A celebrity can often fill that role. Consumers are remarkably able to detect celebrities who are just “mouthing the words” as opposed to celebrities who seem to believe in the merits of the brand.

But there are also three reasons to not use a celebrity as your visual hammer: (1) Celebrities are expensive, (2) Celebrities aren’t always credible consumers of your product, and (3) Celebrities are human and subject to human frailties that could damage your brand.

It’s always a risk to hire a celebrity as a spokesperson for your brand.

That’s why Tiger’s endorsement of Nike, the No.1. athletic-shoe brand in the world makes sense. But suppose he had endorsed Reebok or Adidas instead? Would that have worked? Of course, not. You need to be consistent. The world’s best athlete (Tiger Woods) needs to be coupled with a strong leadership brand. Not Buick or Reebok. It’s also why Tiger Woods was a good choice for Accenture, one of the world’s leading technology and consulting companies. Unlike shoes, consulting firms like Accenture provide an invisible service.  Celebrities like Tiger Woods can visualise the invisible. In the six years that Tiger Woods was the visual hammer for the Accenture brand, he greatly improved its visibility. Revenues also increased from $13.4 Billion in 2003 to $23.2 billion in 2009, an increase of 73%. In those same six years, Accenture’s biggest competitor (IBM) increased its revenues only 12%.

In America, you might remember the New Orleans Saints won the football game, but do you remember who won the advertising game? It was the television actress Betty White. According to the USA Today, the snickers TV commercial featuring the 88-year-old actress playing football was the most popular ad on the Super Bowl. Theme: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” If there is one critical thing you need to know about marketing, it is this: Marketing is not a short-term fix. (If you need to do something in the short term, run a sale.) Marketing is a long-term proposition. Don’t think in years, think in decades. Unfortunately, Betty White is not in a long-term position to endorse the Snickers brand. But even worse, where is the connection between Betty White and a candy? There isn’t any. It was one funny commercial that did little for the brand.

Did you ever see a marketing plan with pictures or illustrations? I haven’t. A marketing plan is usually nothing but words. In the future, marketing plans are likely to include visuals along with words. Take O, the Oprah Winfrey magazine, the most successful publication launched in the last two decades. The current circulation of the magazine is more than two million. No publisher would say that using the Oprah name on a magazine wasn’t a good idea. But how many of these publishers would have taken the next step: Using Oprah’s picture on the cover of every issue? That’s a visual hammer that accounts for much of the success of O magazine. On the other hand, not using Oprah on most of the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) television shows is what partly accounts for the network’s lack of success.

Also, take Dell. Back in 2000, the company was eager to get into the consumer market to complement its leadership in business computers. Not a good strategy, but what was worse was the verbal nail and the visual hammer the company chose for the launch of its consumer line. “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” was the verbal nail in a series of TV commercials starring Ben Curtis, a 21-year-old college student. (It didn’t help Dell’s image that three years later, Benjamin Curtis was arrested for criminal possession of marijuana.)

If you study advertising history, you will find many celebrities (both real and invented) used in marketing campaigns. Most of them last for a few years and then disappear. The companies that hire them are determined to do better the next time. But the problem is not usually the hammer. The problem is usually the lack of an effective nail.

It was the ability to connect the two, the celebrity hammer and the soft nail, that were the essential ingredients in the brand’s success. Pick the right nail and almost any celebrity will turbo-charge your brand.  Pick the wrong nail and even George Clooney will have trouble getting your brand off the ground.