The boost or bust factor of celebrity endorsement

Celebrity tie-ins can make or break a product, and it's a lucrative market to tag your name to a brand. But why do firms drop one star, while keeping others. Penny McDonald finds out
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The Independent Online

Most brands start a life without personality. Let's be honest, a brand by itself will never walk, talk and get photographed. But by tying it with a celebrity, the name of a product or a company can take on instant glitz, glamour, charm, sex-appeal and aspiration. It comes alive in three dimensions. The inanimate then becomes human and desirable.

But when it all goes wrong, headlines are inevitable and as a result the brand can suffer. Ryvita teamed up with TV presenter Fern Britton to front ad campaigns for their Minis and Crispbreads. On the surface of it, it was a great tie-up – she was well-known, well-liked, had a great sense of humour and didn't take herself too seriously. She was candid, open, honest and respected by Ryvita's target market.

Then it was revealed, while Fern was fronting the Ryvita Bikini Fit Challenge, that she had a gastric band operation to help her lose weight two years earlier. The public felt hood-winked – in their eyes, she was no longer what she seemed and the implicit trust had evaporated. Britton maintained that her weight loss was as a result of healthy eating and exercise, but the damage with the public had already been done. Interestingly, with this example, Ryvita stood by their brand ambassador, publicly stating that they respected her rights to privacy on this personal matter. They pointed to the presenter's good works such as charity cycle rides across India and along the Nile as examples of what she has achieved while trying to get in shape.

Less forgiving was Dior in May this year. When Sharon Stone said in an interview that she believed China's earthquake was "karma" for the way they have treated Tibet, the fashion house was forced to pull all ads in China featuring Stone. But it took a while. After the comments, Dior issued an apology stating that they would continue to support the recovery and rebuilding work in China but this wasn't enough to dampen the public outcry in the country. We live in a global society, and once words are said and published in one country, there is barely time to act to limit the damage.

Publicly spouting ill-chosen words where tragedy and death is involved is one thing, but on occasions the controversy generated by a celeb letting down their guard and showing what they really are is not always a black day for them. Kate Moss was dropped in 2005 by H&M, Burberry and Rimmel, and Chanel failed to renew its contact, following publication of incriminating pictures of her in the tabloids. Damage limitation quickly followed, with Moss issuing a veiled apology, stopping short of admitting drug use.

However, unlike with Stone, Dior stood by Moss and in the immediate aftermath of the furore she continued to appear in major ad campaigns for them. She was soon courted successfully by Virgin Mobile and within months, advertisers were queuing round the block for her to sign with them. It no doubt didn't hurt that Moss was so publicly defended by friends and supporters – Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Catherine Deneuve, Johnny Depp, and Alexander McQueen. Notoriety really can help brand endorsements.

So why were brands still prepared to take on Moss? Simply, her alleged misdemeanours hadn't compromised her credibility. When everyone stopped to think, what was the surprise in a fashion model behaving badly?

How do you choose a celebrity for your brand? With the best celerity-brand tie-ups, the deal fits the celebrity's personal story (and sometimes it works the other way around). It's credible, believable – as if the partnership is the most natural thing in the world. To briefly refer to an example here at the Outside Organisation, we successfully helped to put Melanie Brown together with lingerie manufacturer Ultimo earlier this year. Excuse the pun, but Melanie is a great fit for the brand. She's a strong, confident woman who plays by her rules, she's incredibly athletic and she's a mum. She connects with Ultimo's target consumers. And importantly, from the publicity shots, you can tell she's proud of how she's got herself back into shape after having her second baby and she's having fun with the shoot. And that's genuine aspiration for Ultimo's consumers.

Credibility is at the core of the best brand-celeb tie-ups. It is an organic process. P Diddy's fragrance, Unforgivable, with Estée Lauder, is a perfect fit. P Diddy was fully involved from the start, not just starring in the ads but developing the fragrance and producing the visuals for the fragrance. The credibility of his tie-up ran through the whole project. It's aspirational, sexy and glamorous. Sean John Unforgivable achieved one of the top sales positions in Selfridges when it was launched.

P Diddy might own a record label called Bad Boy but he is a very different sponsorship proposition to Joey Barton, the Newcastle United footballer and wild man of the Premier League. Kate Moss might be able to get away with a little naughtiness but Barton's repeated violent behaviour was deemed unacceptable by Nike, the sports giant that sponsored the talented midfielder. When Barton was imprisoned for assault in May, Nike ended his two-year boot contract.

So why do brands put themselves through the risk of one of their endorsers making a gaffe and de-railing the show?

All in all, good brand endorsement is about commitment. It shouldn't be just about the money. The team behind the brand must research the "talent" and the "talent" must love the brand. Be it a well-known household brand or a charity, you must get the chemistry right and brand-celebrity tie-ups can work handsomely.

Penny McDonald is Managing Director of The Outside Organisation