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The science behind star power

The science behind star power

Does basking in the reflected glory of celebrity endorsement guarantee long-term success for brands?

October 5, 2008 8:52 by

Precious de Leon

There’s nothing like an endorsement from a good friend. You trust that friend’s judgment. You have the same likes and dislikes and, more importantly, your friend understands your needs. Brands cannot ignore that there’s an emotional connection there, a very strong bond or affinity.

Now, imagine if that friend is an alpha leader in their circle of friends, someone who can easily influence the rest of the group. Then, imagine that friend is really popular and has hundreds, even thousands, of friends. How far would brands go to befriend that friend?

On the surface, celebrity endorsement seems like little more than hanging on the coat-tails of the superstar du jour. While most such partnerships may be just that – and sometimes that’s enough if raising brand awareness is the only goal, there is a science behind star power that is of keen interest to marketers and brand guardians.

“Endorsements add credibility to the products – if the top football star earns their money by playing in those boots then those boots must be the best,” says Eduard Massier, marketing and business development director, Adidas Emerging Markets.

Celebrity endorsement is a staple in the premium segment. Louis Vuitton, for instance, received global attention with its Journey campaign, which most recently starred Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter, Sofia. In addition, Samsonite, which is aiming for premium positioning, took on Milla Jovovich for its latest range.

“The challenge for new brands thinking about brand endorsement is: can this star and my brand become a famous winning partnership, or will the celebrity overshadow my brand or even be recalled for another brand it works with?” says Douglas Palau, VP, Network Marketing/Client Service, Impact BBDO.

In the GCC, the surge of celebrity endorsers is particularly felt in the property sector; from the Riffa Views’ Signature Estates in Bahrain and Tiger Woods Dubai to property launches billed with the likes of Christina Aguilera and Elissa.

The money paid for these “collaborations” varies. Industry insiders estimate that, regionally, endorsements can range from simple cost-effective adaptations to expensive localised campaigns that could cost half a million dollars or more. These partnerships can have different functions. The immediate awareness that a celebrity brings to a project or brand can be invaluable, especially when the brand is new.

“Celebrity endorsement is normally chosen because of strong connectivity and recall,” says Sandeep Saighal, GM, Telecoms Division – MENA, Samsung. The company took on Lebanese singer Elissa as ambassador for its music phone category early this year.

“To solely use the aura of a celebrity to endorse a brand is naive and short-sighted. Audiences are becoming savvier and can see through this,” says Michael Hughes, executive director of Strategy, The Brand Union, Middle East.

Dubai Infinity Holdings’ CEO, Samira Abdulrazzak, agrees. “We do not believe in licensing agreements that can be replicated to the high bidder; there is no added value”.

One particular project that received much coverage for its celebrity connections is German company ACI Real Estate. The company took on three sports icons for its Sports Legends business developments; racing legends Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher, plus tennis ace Boris Becker.

“There are more than 200 towers in Dubai’s Business Bay. If I ask anyone to name 30 towers there, it won’t be easy. We wanted to brand a set of our projects differently with names that people were aware of,” says Robin Lohmann, ACI managing director.

Lohmann admits that Lauda, the first to come on board the project, wasn’t as well known in the region. “We started with marketing him first,” he says. “We started with communicating photos of his youth first – his early racing days – and then we showed his transition through history. We slowly introduced more recent photos of him after his car crash and when he went back behind the wheel at F1 even with everything he’s been through.”

So why these three? Lohmann says the trio each had characteristics that aligned with the company’s core values. “As a German brand that launched in the Middle East five years ago, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. The resilience, passion and longevity these three have are something ACI draws parallels with.”

He says ACI hasn’t raised its prices on the endorsed buildings despite the celebrity connections.
Increasingly, celebrities are becoming involved at the product’s design and development stage, when their persona will be made a part of the brand. This deeper collaboration assumes that the celebrity has the knowledge and background to contribute to the progress of the brand or project. In other words, the connection must be authentic.

In the property sector particularly, celebrity designers are helping create projects like hotels and “haute homes”. Karl Lagerfeld and Dubai Infinity Holdings (DIH), and Tiger Woods and Elie Saab in Tiger Woods Dubai, are two examples.

“The properties are a reflection of the designer’s skills and therefore complement them. Our clients are fashion conscious and appreciate the beauty of the work put into designing their homes. We believe that this is what will draw the line between the designers’ talent and their public image,” says Samira Abdulrazzak, CEO, DIH.

One easily discernable tie-up is that of sports brands and athletes. Using the products every time they practise or compete guarantees strong visibility and adds credibility and authenticity. Adidas, for example, employs several athlete endorsers for its product ranges, from tennis player Ana Ivanovic to UAE football star Ismail Mattar.

A pragmatic POV is that these celebrities are brands themselves and are treated as such. It could arguably even be seen as more like a co-branding exercise. And, like any other brand tie-up, there are risks; compatibility is crucial.

Often, however, it seems that, once a celebrity comes into the marketing equation, they become the centre of the campaign to the point where they overshadow the product itself.

“Unfortunately, companies see a quick fix in buying equity from a celebrity and don’t consider the long-term implications. This doesn’t necessarily create or build aspiration for the brand,” says The Brand Union’s Hughes. “A brand is your reputation; do you want to build your reputation purely on someone else’s or do you want to craft a unique, a distinctive brand that will stand the test of time?”
Adidas’ Messier agrees. “Often, brands choose celebrities purely for the sake of marketing a product. If the celebrity is strong, the brand rather weak – and if there is no association between both – then there is a risk that the brand does not get the needed attention.”

Building a brand alongside a celebrity can be tricky, and careful selection is a must. What happens, for instance, when the celebrity attracts negative press? Should the associated brand stick it out or head for the hills?

“You’d need to be brave… and lucky. It really depends on how maverick or irreverent your brand is and on the type of negative publicity that ensues,” says John Brash, founder and CEO, Brash Brands. “It’s all about weighing risk versus reward.”

The risks can be unpredictable. “While you can disassociate your brand from the celebrity through swift communication and actions it is sometimes difficult to measure the long-term damage to your brand and how and whether this can be repaired,” says Hughes. “What is more dangerous and a more common mistake is choosing the wrong celebrity through a lack of understanding of the brand and/or celebrity, and all that money invested (fees, media, creative) is wasted.”

An equally challenging, albeit less dramatic, situation is when the stars have too many endorsements.
“There could be dilution,” says Mark Langhammer, regional sales manager, Crocs. “But perhaps that person is in demand so much because he’s a global brand and it’s worth it. If you’re going into that, though, the key is to do something unique.”

Crocs recently took on rising celebrity chef Mario Batali for Bistro, a line of shoes designed especially for professionals in the kitchen. Langhammer recognises, though, that in emerging markets it’s good PR to make sure top athletes or other celebrities wear their shoes. “Aspirations are at the centre of endorsements,” he says.

By the same token, a direct link between brand and ambassador is vital. “Assuming the same ad spend in a certain market, consumers are more likely to recall Beckham playing in Adidas boots than shaving with Gillette,” says Massier. “The ‘natural’ and ‘easy-to-understand’ connection between, for example, David Beckham and Adidas football boots is there.

“Even outside the sporting sector, brands should constantly work towards building this visible link. Pure media hype would work only in cases where a brand overspends disproportionally and the celebrity endorses that particular brand exclusively.”

In other words, building brand longevity requires taking partnerships at more than just face value.
Brands must weigh their objectives before taking on a partnership. As Brash says: “A brand needs to strive to connect with stakeholders on an emotional level – it’s far deeper than identification. Brand association in its purest form should be an integral part of the brand-building process, even if it is just done for future thinking.”

Marketers must also consider that celebrities are usually fleeting.

“Fame is a slippery thing and the risk of a disastrous turn in a celebrity’s career could have negative repercussions on a brand’s image, which is why unique ideas that stand out maximise the brand’s image and equity, not just the celebrity,” says Palau.

Brash concurs. “The overall global trend for ‘celebrity endorsement for celebrity’s sake’ has become tired and less relevant. We’ve slowly become Beckham-ed out.”

Celebrity endorsement has been around for a long time, but there is some doubt as to whether it has achieved its full potential as a marketing tool. As Hughes puts it: “Companies need to get smarter and serious about how they build the long-term reputation of the brand – not just look for short-term campaign gimmicks.”

In some ways, celebrity endorsement is like choosing a best friend. For the relationship to last, it has to be genuine. Friends should share similar passions, interests and principles. Only then can they effectively recommend you to meet more of their fans, um, I mean, friends.

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