Public figures and celebrities have been paid to advertise and promote products for at least 250 years. The idea that celebrities promote a product, or give product credibility arose in the 1700s when royal endorsements were used as a type of celebrity branding to promote products. The first was pottery and Chinaware label, Wedgwood. Wedgwood founder Josiah Wedgwood used endorsements from the British royal family to promote its products. For the next century, royal endorsement in the form of ‘By Appointment to HRH’ became a way to promote an item as ‘premium’.
This form of lending credibility to a brand by using celebrity endorsement has evolved in the past 250 years. While for some time it was royals, it then became movie stars and singers who were telling us what to wear, eat and drive, then it descended to include sports stars and socialites. In 2021, the list of celebrity endorsements includes people who have ‘followers’ on social media and who may or may not have any other desirable skills, attributes or qualities. For this reason, have consumers become numb to the effects of celebrity endorsement?
Celebrities might not be effective for all product categories and target audiences. Marketing managers must carefully consider:
- product attributes
- celebrity personality
- target audience
Some celebrities will lend their image to almost any product, devaluing their endorsement and weakening trust from consumers. While some celebrities have a following that will always buy the products that they promote, it can devalue your brand if you choose a celebrity known for this. Ignoring the quality of your brand image for a few quick views on social media rarely pays off, and it is well worth taking the time to research any ‘celebrity’ you wish to have endorsed your brand to ensure that their values meet with the values of your brand. For example, if your product is vegan, you should be certain that the celebrity that you choose is also vegan with a solid history of support from the vegan community.
Researchers have found a correlation between celebrity endorsement with celebrity trustworthiness, expertise and attractiveness. If these ‘qualities’ are perceived as possessed by the target audience, it will have a positive impact on consumer buying behaviour. Most brands use celebrity endorsement on some level to promote their products, so it is important that marketers understand how consumers receive such advertising and what affects associating your brand with a personality can have – positive and negative.
Britney Spears was once the face of soft drink brand Pepsi. She was the face of the brand for the early years of the 2000s. Spears was one in a long line of music stars who have endorsed the brand, such as Ray Charles and Michael Jackson, and they all came away from their deals richer and without tarnish. This has not been the case for the pop musician, Beyoncé. Former US first lady Michelle Obama launched a “let’s move” campaign to help people in the US better understand health and wellness. Beyonce partnered with Obama on the project, after she had already signed a deal worth US$50 million with the soft drink company. The singer did not end her contract with either Pepsi or Let’s Move, instead of in 2013 saying:
Pepsi is a brand I’ve grown up seeing my heroes collaborate with. The company respects musicians and artistry. I wouldn’t encourage any person, especially a child, to live life without balance.
It is this attitude that not only led many groups in the US to launch petitions requesting that Beyonce step down as a spokesperson for the White House campaign, but has also called into question the integrity of the singer as a brand ambassador. There is a clear conflict of interest – working with a group that speaks out against childhood obesity while at the same time advertising Pepsi, a sugary drink that like other soft drinks has been linked with the potential to develop diabetes if consumed in excess.
However, Pepsi is known for making musicians stars. They can take a successful singer and make them a household name seemingly overnight. The singer drops a new album, the drink manufacturer buys millions of copies to ‘gift’ to consumers and promotes the singer. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement for the brand and the celebrity, and one that consumers tend not to notice.
Most brands do not have this level of buying power and cannot offer such deals to attract celebrities willing to compromise their image and ‘values’. As social media pervades the shopper’s purchase journey, companies are using more influencers to place brands before consumers, which can be challenging as brands have less control over their voice in the hands of amateurs.
A solid PR strategy, investigation of possible influencers and awareness of conflicts of interest need to be managed before a contract is signed. Having a personality represent a brand can be a liability, as it is less easy to control public perception and manage the message. However, consumers know this, so are audiences still interested in buying products promoted by celebrities?
The Psychology of Celebrity Endorsements and Consumer Decisions
A study conducted in Taiwan showed that consumers have greater recall of products endorsed by celebrities, regardless of whether the audience is fans of the celebrity or not. The assumption is that our brain recognizes celebrities in the same way as people we know, and for this reason, we trust their endorsement because we view that person as a friend or someone we have a personal relationship with.
Celebrities can help brands increase awareness, trust and familiarity, which are important variables in the purchase decision-making process. Consumers subconsciously believe that purchasing a product that’s promoted by a celebrity they admire will allow them to emulate that celebrity or attract similar people into their lives. Consumers associate the celebrities’ success, appearance, talent or skill with a particular product.
This association varies depending on the age group. For those who have not grown up with social media, it seems that celebrity endorsement has less of an influence, while for younger generations who have been exposed to the constant bombardment of targeted advertising who are more susceptible to the influence of celebrity.
Social media gives audiences access to public figures in a more intimate way than ever before. Hordes of fans will ‘follow’ celebrities online and feel that they build intimate connections with the ‘celebrities’ that they follow. Many of these personalities on social media, such as Kim Kardashian, are paid US$20,000 for a single, 140-character tweet endorsing a product. It seems that younger people are still flocking to purchase products endorsed by such people despite the availability of quick research to ensure that the product would answer their needs.
In the US, about 14-19% of advertisements aired feature celebrities that endorse products and brands. That number is even higher in some other markets, particularly in Asia. Nike reportedly spends about US$475 million signing athletes to their brand, which when announced publicly can cause company stock prices to rise slightly and increase sales by 4% on average. Soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo signed a lifetime deal with Nike reportedly worth more than US$1 billion. His relationship with the sports brand has been lucrative for the brand and for the footballer who is hugely respected internationally and continues to spread positive influence in the sporting world. This is a case of a positive brand-celebrity relationship that has seen the celebrity extend his influence and name to more than his sport and become an internationally recognised figure who is held in high esteem as a sportsman and personality. When Nike and Tiger Woods inked an endorsement deal in 2000, Nike’s market share went from 0.9% to 4% in 6 months. However, Nike decided to maintain Woods’ contract after it was revealed that he had been having an affair, which was subsequently dragged out in the media and affected his golfing career. The company suffered a loss of US$1.7 million in sales and 105,000 customers because of its choice.
Celebrity endorsement does work, but its influence is not unnoticed. Consumers are aware that they are being sold brands through a desire for association with celebrities. And most people feel that this is not wrong. Consumers only expect that such endorsements are made transparent and are not hidden. Many consumers are even ok with celebrities endorsing many brands as they see these people as friends, multifaceted people, just like themselves. The only danger in this is ensuring that the personality does not undermine their publicly stated values. Mitigating these risks is easy if proper research and PR campaigning is done before singing a personality to your brand.