Celebrity Endorsements: Selling And Unselling

Jack TroutMarch 19, 20085594 min

In a recent post I raised the issue of people and brands licensing their names. My general conclusion was that for the most part, it’s a waste of money and could be a problem for the brand itself.

It might be worth some words on the use of celebrities in the brand business: the good, the bad and the ugly.

What prompts my further thoughts on this subject is Macy’s major celebrity effort to try and restore some luster to its recent and somewhat unsuccessful effort to build a national chain of 825 stores under the Macy’s brand. Their television ads feature such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jessica Simpson, Donald Trump and Emeril Lagasse. All have something in common: They sell name-branded items at Macy’s.

Will this do the trick? Will this jazz up the department-store category under attack from the mass merchandisers or the specialty retailers? My feeling is that the answer to this question is: not likely. Here are the reasons.

First of all, successful celebrity brands have to have a very direct connection to the celebrity. It has to make sense to the prospect. Michael Jordan selling Nike sneakers is the Mount Everest of marketing.

Why has the Air Jordan brand been such success year in and year out? Michael could play basketball and jump like few others could. And sneakers are critical to that skill. The prospective customer figures that those sneakers help Michael do what he could do and some of that magic might be in those expensive basketball shoes. Shaquille O’Neil has a sneaker brand that has made very little impact for the simple reason that he doesn’t jump very high or move that well. No connection. On the other hand, his efforts to sell a pain reliever probably worked out quite well. Everyone realizes that there’s a lot of pain in that big body game.

Consider Tiger Woods and his Nike golf balls. When his name wasn’t connected to Nike golf products, their golf balls didn’t sell. As soon as the world saw that they were what he was playing with, they suddenly became a lot more popular. (Though not as popular as that category leader, Titleist, that has the most professional golfers using them.) But can Tiger Woods sell Buicks? No way, for the simple reason that the prospective customer sees no natural connection to his driving a Buick. He was just paid to be in the commercial and everyone knows that with his money, he should be driving a Bentley, not a Buick.

That said, let’s get back to Macy’s. Is there a natural connection to Martha Stewart’s home products? Sure. As a result, they might sell some of these items. But they won’t sell anywhere near the amount that the known brands of cookware and china sell.

Donald Trump has a natural connection to real estate, not suits. Besides, not only does he always look like he’s in the same clothes, most people spend all their time looking at his hair, not what he’s wearing. And with his money, he’ probably wearing custom tailored suits anyway.

Jessica Simpson shoes? No big deal. Emeril Lagasse cookware? Sure, but now you’re competing with Martha’s cookware.

The bottom line is that all these celebrity brands aren’t enough to make Macy’s a cool place to visit. And then there’s the question of all the other stuff on sale at the store? Will I pick up a celebrity item and walk past all those other counters? I have a clear perception of why I should go to Wal-Mart (low prices), Target (department store products for less) or Nordstrom (service), Saks (prestige products).

Macy’s is in dire need of a clear positioning or differentiation strategy, and those celebrities aren’t it. If they and other celebrities all shopped there, maybe. But the fact that they sell their stuff there isn’t much of a reason to pass up all those other stores I can visit.

Finally, there is the issue that sometimes celebrities can unsell products and cause problems for their sponsor.

James Garner was selling beef–until he had a widely publicized heart attack and resulting triple bypass. Uh, oh!

Reebok spent $25 million on an ad campaign for two track and field stars (Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson). Dan failed to capture a single medal. Dave won only a bronze. Uh, oh!

Tennis star Martina Hingis was an endorser for an Italian sneaker and tennis-gear company until she sued them, claiming the shoes were the cause of her injuries. Uh, oh!

Kobe Bryant was in McDonald’s, Sprite and Nutella promotions until he was charged with sexual assault. Uh, oh!

Michael Vick was one of those Nike athletes until he was convicted of dog fighting. Uh, oh!

Unfortunately, there’s always the danger that your celebrity, being human, will do something that will embarrass your branding program. You can fire them, but damage can still be done. (Nike quickly took away Michael Vick’s “Swoosh.”)

One of my favorite celebrity programs is that of Betty Crocker. She’s been selling baked goods for decades. And because she’s make-believe, she never goes astray and she never wants a raise. And, the last time I checked with General Mills, she still gets mail from her fans.

The Blake Project can help you discover the right celebrity endorsement for your brand based on emotional connection measurement. Further, we work with all of Hollywood’s A list celebrities and can strategize and facilitate your celebrity endorsement.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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Jack Trout

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