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How brands should use celebrities to build their business

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

Try this simple test to prove to yourself that it’s not just ‘other people’ who are beguiled by famous people: next time you see a celebrity try not telling your partner, friends, or colleagues about the incident. It’s almost impossible to contain yourself.

There’s no doubt that there’s such a thing as star power, but how best to harness it for your brand? There are five key points to appreciate in order to do so successfully.

1. Celebrity is not a silver bullet

As Alan Cluer (during his lifetime the leading agent for advertisers and agencies, used by Martin Boase, Frank Lowe, David Abbott, and other luminaries) said: “Stars are merely actors that people like better than other actors.” A celebrity isn’t an idea, it’s an execution.

So it’s essential to focus on crafting the part to be played, ie to deliver the brand’s communications idea. Then executing the idea with a star in the role is a powerful way to amplify and accelerate the communication.

Bacardi’s ‘Champions Drink Responsibly’ is now in its seventh year with champion surfer Joel Parkinson, its third celebrity ambassador, delivering the messages established by Michael Schumacher and Rafael Nadal. This continuity around a core idea has succeeded in significantly building the social media reach of Bacardi’s CSR brand.

2. There needs to be a perfect fit between idea, star, and audience

Arguably the UK’s most successful long-term celebrity campaign is for Walkers crisps, starring Gary Lineker. This success is because the partnership between celebrity and brand is based upon a powerful core idea: “Walkers Crisps are so good they’ll even make a nice guy nasty”.

At Boase Massimi Pollitt, John Webster’s original casting of this unusually nice footballer against type was a stroke of genius. Lineker was known for never having been cautioned by a referee for foul play and for never receiving a yellow or red card. And all credit to Abbott Mead Vickers and client Martin Glenn for carrying on the campaign when they inherited the account rather than the usual ‘not invented here’ destruction of brand equity.

3. The creative idea should serve the celebrity as well as the brand

The use of famous people in advertising is likely to be greeted with cynicism - the public suspect (quite rightly) that the star is really only doing it for the money. So to counterbalance this there has to be another plausible reason why the celebrity is involved, even if the fit is good.

The star needs to be seen by consumers to have a stake in the relationship with the brand. The Usain Bolt role reversal with Richard Branson lifted what could have been a mere association between Virgin Media broadband and world record speed into a piece of engaging entertainment which spoke volumes of a genuine relationship.

4. You can use different elements of a celebrity

Clearly using a famous person can be expensive, if you use the whole person that is. Carlsberg’s 'Probably the best lager in the world' wouldn’t have been as convincing had it not been one of the greatest cinematographers who declaimed it.

While not in Orson Welles’ league, the use of Geoffrey Palmer’s voice to intone the end-line “Vorsprung durch Technik, as they say in Germany” imbued the Audi brand with the engineering values it lacked, in a laconic and amusingly self-deprecating manner.

5. You can use a celebrity in ways other than advertising

While ‘Testimonial’ is the best-known utilisation of a star, the other five main ways should be considered if the brand wishes to pursue a celebrity execution of its brand idea.

Celebrity customer

Having a celebrity customer who has voluntarily chosen the brand can be incredibly powerful because it avoids all the cynicism that might otherwise be provoked. But how many companies scrutinise their customer databases to discern whether or not they have a major star who is already a user of the brand?

Celebrity product placement

There's a very good reason why jewellers like Harry Winston and Tiffany & Co. fight tooth and nail to get leading actresses to wear their necklaces as they walk up the red carpet to the Oscars – the global exposure in aspirational company is what builds their brands at a relatively low cost.

Celebrity employee

In early 2013 Blackberry announced the appointment of singer Alicia Keys as its global creative director to widespread bemusement. A year later her employment was terminated and the cynics were proven right.

However, celebrity employees can be powerful if there’s a genuine alignment between their skills and the brand, Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury’s being one of the most successful examples.

Celebrity owners

People like Larry Page and Sergey Brin became celebrities because of their business success. As such their influence is particularly potent during the period in which they retain a significant ownership: not only do they have the magnetic attraction of stardom but also economic and decision-making power which can make things happen.

Celebrity sponsorship

This is one of the most commonly used linkages between a brand and a star because it usually doesn't involve the latter in anything particularly onerous. Indeed the main areas of sponsorship merely require the celebrity to carry on doing whatever they normally do, except using a particular brand in the process. This is why the whole area of sports equipment is such a happy hunting ground for sponsorships.

Indeed Nike, one of the greatest sports brands of all time, built its business by providing running shoes to athletes and was a relative latecomer to paid-for advertising.

If these are the top tips for success in using a celebrity to build your brand, then there’s also one in the event of something going wrong. Take a leaf out of Nike’s book and stand by your star until it’s proven they’ve broken the law. Minor misdemeanours usually just generate more media coverage, and even a close shave can add star quality, as Kate Moss has found.

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