Celebrity Endorsement Heartache

The announcements this week that Nike and Anheuser-Busch were ending their relationships with cyclist Lance Armstrong is a reminder of how celebrity endorsements can bite the endorsed companies.   The companies had stood by Armstrong while doping allegations dogged him the past few years.  But an extensive report detailing how Armstrong doped while winning the Tour de France seven times and the subsequent stripping of those victories were too much to ignore.

The important lesson for all marketers is that when you use a celebrity endorser, you are tying your company’s brand to his/her brand.  All the positive equity this entails can be instantly undone if the celebrity gets in trouble.  If the celebrity’s brand takes a hit, your brand takes a hit because he/she not only speaks for your company, but everyone knows you pay the celebrity to represent for your company.

This is not Nike’s first issue with an endorser running into trouble.  The company stood by Tiger Woods during his marital infidelity scandal and Kobe Bryant when he was accused of sexual assault.  The fact that the company dropped Armstrong shows just how damning the report is.

The problem with celebrity endorsers is they are alive and they are human. That combination can lead them to do things that damage their reputations and, by extension, the reputations of the companies they endorse.  A marital scandal, financial issues, a DUI: You name it and it can cause problems, especially if the company banks on the celebrity endorser’s image as an upstanding citizen, a family person, etc.

And just because you create a fictional character as a celebrity spokesperson, don’t think that gets you off the hook.  Remember the Dell Dude (“Dude, you’re getting a Dell”)?  Ben Curtis, the actor who played the role, was busted trying to buy pot in New York, and it led to the viral email “Dude, you’re getting a cell”.  His contract with Dell ended soon afterwards, although the company claimed it was in the process of phasing out the Dell Dude commercials.  Maybe the only totally safe bet is the Geico gecko.

When I hired high-profile speakers for conferences we vetted the potential speakers thoroughly before signing them.  These were one-off events, but we wanted to make sure there was nothing embarrassing that would impact our event.  The stakes are much higher with an ongoing celebrity endorsement agreement.

Here are a few questions to think about if you are considering using a celebrity endorser:

How well does the endorser’s image align with the brand your company wants to achieve? – The attributes the celebrity is known for must align with the attributes you want associated with your company brand.  If there is any disconnect between the celebrity’s reputation and your brand reputation, it creates confusion and is a waste of money.

Are you in it for the long term? – Like all marketing communications, it will take time for customers and prospects to associate the celebrity with your brand.  You are making an investment and it will take time for that investment to pay off.

Will you get value from the fees you’re paying? – You have many options for your marketing dollars so you need to make sure the fees you pay a celebrity are the best use of your marketing budget.

What happens when it’s over? – Relationships with celebrity endorsers can end for a number of reasons, including action on their part or the company moving in a different direction.  The contract should spell out what happens so both parties can move on when the relationship ends.

Celebrity endorsements can be very valuable to a company when the celebrity’s image and the company image are in sync.  But they also have inherent dangers that must be weighed when making the decision to use a celebrity endorser in your branding efforts.

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