Celebrity Nightmare

The decision to secure a celebrity to represent your brand must not be taken lightly. Not only should you consider how your customers will perceive him, but his overall reputation. There are a host of problems that may arise from your decision to bring on a big name celebrity to join your advertising team, so choose wisely before proceeding and putting your brand on the line. It can be about losing your brand message (in profit to the celebrity), a possible mismatch can lead to poor performance, there is a possibility of complete absence of consumer behavioral change…but the most important, the person you’re hiring might be perfect at the time but not in a long perspective.


And the pace and tenor of social media have made it more difficult for brands to curate their image, and enlisting a celebrity spokesperson adds a significant layer of risk, notes Patti Williams, professor of marketing at Wharton. “Traditionally, a celebrity would agree to be in an advertisement, and that was essentially the extent of the relationship,” she says. “Now, celebrities are encouraged to engage with the [firm’s] customers in other ways. This could be through the company’s own media or through the celebrity’s own media, like Twitter or Facebook. The nature of the celebrity endorsement is a 360 degree proposition — and that’s where many of the risks come from.”

Take Jessica Simpson’s reported $4 million deal to serve as a spokesperson for Weight Watchers. The endorsement became a laughingstock once her surprise second pregnancy — which was speculated about for weeks on the Internet before she confirmed it via Twitter — put a crimp in her weight loss plans. “In the past, the downside [of such endorsements] was relatively limited: It might have been a failed ad that a few customers might have mentioned to their friends,” notes Williams. “Today, when something goes wrong, it’s no longer just a failed ad — the rejection of the message takes on a life of its own. [The endorsement] can very quickly become an object of mass ridicule. It might not hurt the brand permanently, but it can do short-term damage.”

Celebrity endorsements are a time-honored marketing tool. The theory is that borrowing some of a celebrity’s star power will create both an awareness of, and an interest in, a given product. Apparently, the strategy works: A 2011 study published in the Journal of Advertising that looked at athletes’ support for brands found that such endorsements produced a 4% growth in revenue (about $10 million a year in added sales of the branded products), and a 0.25% rise in stock returns.

“There are two schools of thought [on choosing the right celebrity for your brand],” says Barbara Kahn, director at Wharton. “One is that you want to choose a celebrity who evokes positive emotions in your target market. You want someone who has a broad appeal, someone who creates buzz, someone who is likeable. The second is that you want someone who is a good fit or has some expertise with your product. This gives credibility.”

To some extent, the rise of the Internet has accentuated the value of celebrity endorsements. As marketers vie for a precious share of consumers’ ever-shortening attention span, a big-name spokesperson can help a brand get noticed. “It’s hard to get people’s attention through all this clutter and noise,” Kahn says. “It was hard before, and it is even harder now. Celebrities — for better or for worse — do get our attention.”

In the social media realm, celebrities have more cachet and influence than brands. On Twitter, for instance, Justin Bieber has 34.5 million followers, Oprah Winfrey has 16.6 million….and Kim Kardashian has 17.3 million followers. Starbucks has 3.4 million Twitter followers, Rolling Stone magazine has 2.3 million and Gap has 177,000.  It’s no surprise, then, that advertisers are increasingly leveraging social networking and celebrities to attract consumers. After all, Internet users spend more time on social networks than any other category of websites, according to a report by Nielsen. The report found that 20% of people’s time on PCs was devoted to social channels, and 30% of their mobile time went to social networks. About 17% of consumers’ PC time is spent on Facebook, which remains the most popular web brand and mobile app in the U.S., according to a report by comScore, which does digital business analytics.

Celebrities are valuable to advertisers, but so are celebrities’ fans on social media sites, according to a separate study by Nielsen. The study found that 64% of American adults who follow a celebrity online also follow a brand, and that a celebrity follower is four times more likely to follow a brand than the average U.S. adult online. The Nielsen study also found that such fans are also more likely to offer advice and opinions to fellow online consumers.

“A celebrity endorsement is a signal, or a trigger,” says Mark Bonchek, founder of Orbit + Co, a social media strategy company “People are looking for signals. If they see a celebrity they like that sends the signal that the product is a good one. It’s part of [consumers’] conversation around a brand or product.”

While this kind of customer-to-customer conversation is sought after by companies, it is also a risky proposition when it moves online: What’s said during a coffee klatch or over a water cooler chat at the office is quite different from what’s said on a social network like Facebook. Nearly three-quarters of social media users say they use social networks to hear others’ experiences with brands, according to Nielsen. Of those, about 65% want to learn more about brands’ products and services; 53% wish to compliment brands, and 50% want to express concerns or complaints about brands and services. Social media allows consumers to have a voice with other consumers — this can be a positive or a negative. You do want people talking about your brand, but you want the chatter to be positive or neutral.”


The rise of technology and the accelerated pace by which information spreads has made it harder for companies to ensure that the conversation around their brands remains “positive or neutral,” however. A celebrity spokesperson creates an extra liability. But with social media, the potential public eye is greater.All it takes is one person to snap a picture of that celebrity or a negative conversation to go on, and that exposure becomes part of the 24/7 cycle. Like the rest of us, celebrities have their frailties and errors in judgment. Unlike the rest of us, however, these errors in judgment are highly scrutinized. When the celebrities in question are also “brand ambassadors,” this bad behavior is especially problematic. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, lost Kellogg’s as a sponsor after a photograph of him smoking marijuana appeared in News of the World. Tiger Woods lost his deals with Tag Heuer, Gillette, Accenture, Gatorade and a slew of other firms after it was discovered that he had extramarital affairs with at least a dozen women. And most recently, Nike, Oakley and other big-name sponsors dropped South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius following charges that he shot and killed his girlfriend. And we don’t know yet what will happen to Maria Sharapova for alleged drug usage. And once a celebrity makes the news, “social media feeds off the news cycle,” says Berger, professor of marketing at Wharton and the author of Contagious: The Secret Behind Why Things Catch On. “Everyone wants to know what’s new and what’s happening. In politics, no gaffe goes unnoticed. And it’s the same in advertising.”

And, hazard is still tricky, when the same day Sharapova gets into trouble, Under Armour reveals a fantastic campaign with Michael Phelps, which says ‘It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light’. Damn…rule yourself, gentlemen.



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