Friday, January 14, 2011

The Future of Celebrity Endorsements... Is there one?

Are celebrity endorsements dead for 2011?

I wouldn't be surprised.

We all know the power of celebrities and reference groups when it comes to influencing purchasing decisions.  Whether we like it or not, people are influenced by those who they respect, look up to or want to emulate.  I know I am guilty as charged: anyone my age probably remembers wanting one of those silly three-ski sleds, more than likely because Brett Hull was all over their advertisements.  What does Brett Hull have to do with sleds?  Not much, but did it increase sales?  You bet it did.

So clearly there is a case to be made that celebrity endorsements are a great tool for influencing buying decisions.  But there is no such thing as a 'free lunch', and using celebrity star power has it's drawbacks.  It's all about losing control and risk.

Using a celebrity can be beneficial: associating yourself with a successful celebrity means associating your brand with a successful brand.  Finding fit between your brand and that of a celebrity is key.  However, when you decide to use a celebrity to be the face of your product (or in many cases the face of your entire company), you are losing control over some or all of your brand.  The strength, integrity and success of your brand is now intertwined with a brand over which you have zero control.  This loss of control doesn't necessarily mean you're in trouble, but it could if you do not properly assess the risk you're undertaking.  What is the risk that our celebrity will go out and do something stupid?  Get involved in something embarrassing, illegal... etc?

In it's most basic form:  what is the risk we're gonna end up with mud on our faces?  Even the most squeaky clean celebrities have been found fallible (we need only look at Tiger Woods for proof). 

Marketers certainly understand these costs and risks, and yet celebrity endorsements have still made recent successes.  So why do I think the days of the Brett Hull's and Tiger's are over?  Information.  We as consumers have access to more information and news than ever before.  This has led to an increasingly skeptical consumer base; we're skeptical about claims on performance, price and features.  I have discussed this before, but I haven't discussed how consumers are more knowledgeable and skeptical of their celebrities.  I was stunned how quickly the news of a Cadillac hitting a hydrant rocketed around the world, and how quickly an immaculate brand built over years was destroyed in just days.  Stunned how some inappropriate text messages from an NFL superstar became national news.  Even the smallest conflict or issue can explode into a massive smear against someone, growing exponentially and doing irreversible damage to both the individual and the companies they represent.  No one can claim to control the animal that is the Internet, and it's ability to magnify and spread any information.

In today's growing world of cell phone cameras, smart-phones and internet, celebrities are more under the spotlight now then they have ever been.  Given the current amount of information, the speed with which it travels and then saturates an area, how can a marketer take a risk on a celebrity? You'd have to be prepared to take on not only the lost of control and individual risk, but the additional risk of celebrity attention and study.  I'm not say that as of tomorrow, celebrity endorsements will end.  But I am saying that as companies because more risk-adverse and brand-aware, and as the risk of using celebrities increases with it, we'll see a decline in the use of celebrity endorsements.

I don't think we'll see many more "Be a Tiger" slogans in the future, as celebrity endorsement is going to become an "out-of-bounds" for marketers.