Celebrities in advertising, is it always the right thing to do?

Well-known faces have been used in advertising since the dawn of the industry. Even deceased figures from popular culture have been resurrected from the grave to help sell a brand and its product. Most notably Steve McQueen for Ford and more recently Audrey Hepburn has been flogging Galaxy chocolate.

But does this approach work? Recently Halifax has invested millions in a campaign featuring Top Cat and the gang from the classic 1960s Hanna Barbera cartoon series. Is it just me or is this a little weird? It’s even more confusing if you see the outdoor before you see the TV ad as I did.


Is this a reaction to Halifax’s recent drop in advertising awareness? According to the YouGov BrandIndex the financial brand’s ad awareness score has fallen 3.8 points. One of the biggest drops ever recorded on the list of the UK’s 30 biggest banking and building society brands.

Halifax Marketing Communications Director, Ros King, even admitted she wanted to inject more humour and ‘oomph’ into the brand’s advertising. And it’s not a short-term decision; “British consumers appreciate and respond well to a good sense of humour so we’re confident this new direction can be something we can use for years to come."

But are they not just being lured into partnering with big movie studios (Warner Bros own the rights to T.C. and the gang) and characters that they’ve grown up with? And is it just me, but wasn’t Top Cat a bit of a shady character, loveable rogue yes, but always trying to outsmart the law. So again, the right ambassador for a bank? I don’t want my bank manager or mortgage advisor to be constantly outsmarting Officer Dibble.

Having said that, Halifax’s ad awareness score has increased from nine to 16% in the space of a week, proving that, at the very least, the ad is memorable.

I would argue the Peter Kay partnership with John Smiths and Jean Claude Van Damme’s relationship with the Coors brand have been more successful. These ambassadors have obviously been chosen very carefully; matching what each brand stands for. They are also public figures the target audience for those brands has an affinity too.

Warburtons have also spent a lot of time recently hanging out with famous faces, in the hope it will sell more loaves. First they partnered with Sylvester Stallone. A move that I have to admit felt a little at odds with the British-ness of the brand. However their more recent collaboration with The Muppets (even though, like Sly, very American) hit the mark. The family friendly campaign to promote their giant crumpets was well written, produced and very funny and most certainly appealed to the mass family market they were targeting.

One of the longest serving champions of celebrity advertising comes from across the pond. American breakfast cereal Wheaties has used famous sport stars on their packaging since the 1930s. Throughout the years Wheaties has partnered with many sporting icons including possibly the greatest; Muhammad Ali. The tagline ‘Breakfast of champions’ tying the cereal and sporting icon together is also believed to be the origin of said phrase.

In a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research it’s claimed that when marketers get the endorsement balance right it can really work. Co-author Jeroen Verleun claims that when companies announce a new deal with a prominent athlete, sales for the product being endorsed rise by an average of 4%.

But brands must also be wary of their superstar being just that and overshadowing the product they’re promoting. I remember Peter Kay was advertising John Smiths beer, but I’m in the industry, so I should. I’d be keen to know exactly how many of the public remember that it was a John Smiths ad and not just a promo for the well-loved comedian.

Obviously the biggest concern for brands should be their superstar’s behaviour. Brand sponsors were quick to scrap deals and distance themselves when Tiger Wood’s private life became less private in 2009. Pre-scandal, Woods would earn up to $110m in endorsements a year. Nowadays he can expect to earn less than half that. And we’ve seen the same thing more recently with Maria Sharapova who, at her peak was one of the most bankable female sporting icons on the planet.

Of course there's the more subtle way; product placement. One of the finest examples of this in recent years is from Beats by Dre. The headphone giant gave away free product to all athletes competing at London 2012. Cue all of the finest sports men and women from across the globe trotting out into packed stadiums, watched by billions at home, to compete for the biggest prizes in sport, all wearing Beats by Dre. This solidified Beats’ approach for the coming years, using only the best sports megastars including Serena Williams and Richie McCraw to promote its products.

Our recommendation? Take stock from the good examples; Coors, John Smiths and Beats. Choose your ambassador wisely. Their persona must match and compliment your brands personality and tone of voice. And most important of all; they must be someone your target audiences admire and trusts; someone that can connect with them in an immersive way.

An example of this type of successful celebrity endorsement can be seen in our work with ‘u-can’ and their range of DIY products. The campaign focused on encouraging people to overcome their ‘DIY Fears’ and tackle their DIY nightmares themselves (with the help of u-can products of course). As part of the campaign a competition was carried out fronted by Julia Kendell, then-presenter of popular television program DIY SOS. Here the link is clear to see, the celebrity in question is well-known for carrying out exactly the type of activity u-can are encouraging. 

Click here to read the full u-can story and to see the successful results.

Get these basics right and you too could reap the rewards, and maybe get to meet a famous person along the way.



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