Perhaps that should be rephrased as “Do celebs sell products?”
Almost every brand which can afford communication today seems to have a celebrity endorsee or brand ambassador.
Celebrity endorsement is an advertising strategy which involves celebrities or a well-known person using their social status or their fame to help promote a product, service or even raise awareness on environmental or social matters. (Wikipedia, 2017).
Celebrity endorsement is not a new hack. Not at all. It started when cigarette brands in the U.S., started inserting baseball player cards in the packs. Obviously, baseball fans puffed away in their attempts to collect the entire set of cards.
Other brands and categories quickly caught on. Initially, they used other athletes. But then, cosmetic brands figured out that film stars worked better for them. We’ve seen it in India too. Being selected as the face of Lux Beauty Toilet Soap was unofficial recognition of the star’s elevation to the number one spot.
Brands which think the strategy through, often find diamonds in the rough. For example, in 1984, a new running shoe brand called Nike, found a young brilliant basketball player called Michael Jordan, signed him, and became a basketball shoe giant. Of course, His Airness also became a marketing powerhouse.
The trend continues. In the 2000s, another new athletic shoe brand called Under Armor, found a new exciting basketball player called Steph Curry, signed him on, and became the new basketball shoe giant.
Let us take a reality check.
What does a celebrity endorsee actually do for a brand, or company, or nonprofit organization?
A celebrity endorsee increases Reach. Fans of the celebrity actor or athlete follow news about the celebrity. In the process, the brand also gets some eyeballs, often from people who would otherwise never have eyed the brand. Of course, eyeing and buying are two very different things!
A celebrity endorsee can bolster Brand Image. When a refined, cultured gent like the Nawab of Pataudi, (Mansur Ali Khan), professes t hat his palace is painted with Dulux, the brand goes up a few notches in the estimation of other newbie nawabs, titled or not.
A celebrity endorsee should enhance Brand Recognition. At least, that is what the brand managers fervently hope for, when they shell out billion rupee fees.
Now, do canny Indian shoppers, who bargain at the drop of a rupee coin, actually believe that ABC cinestar or cricketer actually uses the products they are pushing? This is the actual million rupee question.
The Indian psyche used to be rather cynical. But recent developments in the country indicate that Indians are becoming more than a little gullible. Or is it just that the brand or agency executive wants to get a selfie with the star (whichever gender), and go viral on social media?
Suppose we take the stand that celebrity endorsees do actually work? And we want to sign one?
Then there is work involved in selecting the celebrity. An athlete endorsing sports gear that helps him perform better is eminently believable. A millionaire athlete endorsing luxury products is even more believable. A gorgeous star endorsing grooming products in believable. An ageing, multimillionaire megastar endorsing multivitamins is utterly believable.
There is a ‘fit’ in these cases. The believability vanishes if there is not ‘fit’.
The celebrity should be selected based on a few essential criteria.
The audience. The wildly aspirational, star struck, glamour hungry, Indian lower middle class, will believe anything that their hero says. Or so they say. The campaign managers hope that they will also buy. They may. Or may not. The more erudite audiences may take advertising claims with more than a pinch of salt, iodized or otherwise.
Characteristics. Of the endorsee, not of the brand or product. Of course, the target audience cannot afford French knickers, so the coarse Indian brief is the one that he buys. It may feel a little better, if a big time star says he finds it comfortable. After all, the mind is the biggest weapon in the marketing armory.
Image. A classy endorsee, will hopefully, infuse the crudest brand with some pizzazz.
Attractiveness. No arguments here. In the mirror, everybody is as glamorous as the hottest star. And they are worth whichever cosmetic, or tooth whitener, or hair conditioner, their preferred star plugs. And hopefully uses.
Cost. The endorsees know that the sun is currently shining, if not India. Those with sufficiently deep and dark pockets, where the sun never reaches, get the celebs. The others have to search for a good communication idea.
Credibility. Some marketers know this. Some don’t. For the endorsee, in most cases, it hardly makes a difference. Athletes like Pullela Gopichand, who refused a multicrore deal, from a soft drink giant, are very very rare.
However, the brand, or the brand executive must also realize that there are disadvantages too, with taking on a celebrity brand ambassador.
Eclipsing or Overshadowing. Will the celebrity become even more popular, at the risk of the sponsor losing all memorability?
Overexposure. Celebs who endorse everything under the sun, from soft drinks to software, may not be believed at all.
Image change. Sometimes celebs come out with their personal beliefs. The general public may reach in unpredictable ways. Most client brands predictably drop the celebs. Martina Navratilova, straight up. Or not.
Loss of Popularity. The athlete stops winning, the star starts flopping. Most client brands exit the contracts.
Other Risks with Celebs.
If there is miscommunication between the audience beliefs about the celeb and the representation of the product. A recent men;s vest tv commercial featuring a well regarded star, may sell the product to the intended audience, but to other audiences, the star comes off as a clown, more than a celeb.
If the celebrity is found using competing products. The famous case of Heineken Beer, which had the slogan ‘Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach. In this case, the celeb athlete in question was tennis player Carling Basset, daughter of the Carling Beer family. Basset was photographed drinking a can of Heineken. The next day’s newspapers had the news clipping as the illustration for an ad which read “Heineken refreshes the parts Daddy’s beer cannot reach.”
Scandals. Commonly related to alcohol, drugs, sex, or crime. Tiger Woods, and Maria Sharapova and the brands which used them as celebrity endorsers have all paid the price.
After weighing the pros and cons, the final question is, does celebrity endorsement help sell products or ideas?
If a celeb is chosen carefully to fit the brand and campaign, if the creative is done around an idea, rather than the celeb, and if the progress is monitored carefully, celebrity endorsement can help. But if the brand doesn’t have the money, a mascot might do better!