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Star wars – the highs and lows of hitching your brand to a celebrity

Originally published by Marketing Week March 2018

Kids. Animals. To that list you may as well add ‘celebrities’ as entities you should work with under caution when planning your next big-budget campaign. Celebs can reap success and insurmountable carnage in equal measure depending on their mood, public perception, behaviour or which way the zeitgeist is flowing but in today’s fame-obsessed world, they’re a necessary evil for some brands. Noise-making digital Catnip for the masses makes for millions of hard to reach eyeballs – these influential narcissists can either be a brand-builders dream or a total nightmare.

It’s nigh on impossible to find an ad that hasn’t had its script honed specifically for a star player in the spotlight. In the past you might have been limited by brand fit and budget – the latter of which in turn told you whether you could hire a Hollywood star or a former barmaid from Corrie. Now the celeb barometer goes way past D List, mumbles its way through former pop stars, politicians and journalists until it skids to an inglorious but timely stop in the gutter of reality TV.

Given the choice, no marketing director would pay the already minted social media celebrity clan a penny more than they already get for simply breathing and talking concurrently and yet trying to avoid their obvious charms is like saying you’ll never drink again after a teenage cider binge. Social influencers are popular – and as such a necessary evil.

You still retch at the thought but something unquantifiable gets the better of you every time. With their astonishing levels of influence, plasticised post-production looks and gazillions of social followers nibbling their every sponsored bleat like rabbits in a carrot farm you have to consider influencers if your target audience matches theirs, meaning that if you sell soft drinks, Apps, clothing, fast food, cars, music downloads, sunglasses or any number of youth-centric consumer goods you have to swallow your pride, lock away your self-esteem and pick up the phone to someone like Alfie Deyes (via his agent of course).

I may be getting too subjective here. In fact yes, there’s definitely a bitter taste in my mouth as I recall Kylie Jenner’s billionaire status earned, effectively, through nothing more than dumb luck, vacant popularity and the apparent collective lobotomy of her lipstick-buying fans. Celeb does sell. That’s the cause and effect of their very existence and there are plenty of great ad campaigns in which the celebrity in question adds insurmountably to the campaign and subsequent brand success.

Think of her highness Helen Mirren for L’Oréal. Her ladyship would only fit the brand better if they cast her body as a perfume bottle. Kevin Bacon, Alec Baldwin & Ryan Reynolds for BT. Funny, smart, self-depreciating – it’s a wonderful coming of age for British Telecom’s classic ‘Beattie’ ads of the ‘80s with the national treasure that is Maureen Lipman.

Peter Kay Having It for John Smiths? Ad perfection – reflected in the beer’s popularity during and after the series of ads came to an untimely end.

Looking down the other end of the celebrity spokesmodel telescope there are plenty of high cost car crashes to reflect on, too. Kylie’s sister Kendall Jenner’s efforts for Pepsi in 2017 had all the integrity of a Take That comeback tour. And remember Lance Armstrong? Nike were lucky they had such a deep mine of brand equity in their saving account as they spent their mortgage bailing themselves out when Armstrong’s true colours came to the fore.

The issue remains – if you want to make a mass market impact, especially as a boring product/ new starter/ challenger brand then wedding yourself to a star is still the most obvious way – even with the risk it entails.

As with any partnership, selecting a good influencer fit is essential to the success of the campaign and not just for the brand in question. Chris Davis, Head of Brand Partnerships at influencer agency Gleam Futures says “It’s important to understand the brand’s objectives and what they are trying to achieve before identifying the right level of talent for them to partner with. The talent on our roster turn down brand partnership opportunities on a regular basis. This is because they are passionate about only partnering with brands that are authentic to them and the content they create. Their audiences are savvy and can easily spot an inauthentic partnership which will have a negative impact on their opinion of the talent and will damage the strength of the relationship between talent and audience”

Alternatively, you can save your cash (it’ll be £20K + on top of your creative, production and media just to get hold of the tall one from B*Witched – nobody said fame was cheap) and get creative. Use fame to your brand’s advantage, for sure, but pay Chicken Cottage prices for a Le Gavroche dinner by purchasing fame by association – like bookmakers Paddy Power recently did with the significantly less famous Giggs brother, Rhodri…

Why fork out for a posh dinner for two when a takeaway will do the job perfectly well?

Paddy Power are not known for their subtlety. Their campaign strategy to date has relied on finding the edge and hurling some mildly offensive (and often very funny) silage over it onto a gleeful-slash-abhorrent public below. To date they’ve limited their use of celebrities to jockeys and the occasional footballer, preferring their campaigns to be driven by mirth, merriment and controversy over star power.

Then came Rhodri.

To be known as the everyman brother of a millionaire sporting superstar might be considered an unfortunate roll of the genetic dice.

To be cuckolded by that same brother must’ve made Rhodri feel like the unluckiest man alive.

That is, of course, until he was approached by Paddy Power with a sack load of cash and a witty script and told he had the chance for some very public pay back whilst selling the bookmaker’s Rewards program.

Only fools and horses work for a living, as they say, so Rodney (sorry, Rhodri) rightfully grabbed the loot, sold out his brother and has subsequently starred in one of the best below the belt shin-kickings ever seen in advertising. He wasn’t a star before (and is price tag would have reflected that) but he sure as hell is now.

The ad is beautifully crafted around the theme of rewards over the overrated and easily broken sentiment of loyalty with three or four excellent digs about the erstwhile Giggs brother now known to have played away once more than he should have done.

Maybe this is the way forward? Ignore the costly risk of fallible celebs and go for their grateful, connected and hugely pliable siblings instead. It’s a socialist’s dream and it might just give us a break from Nicole Scherzinger before she features in every ad break from here ‘til eternity.

We might have run out of Kardashian-Jenners to deify – but they must have a backwater cousin with buck teeth and an unhealthy gator obsession we can wheel out on the social freeway just to cause them discomfort?

Back to the question of celebrity grading - how did social media become the meal ticket for the mediocre? An element of this comes down to normalcy – Hollywood stars with unattainable looks and bodies have preened themselves out of the market. Now, the general public is so over-exposed to the unassailable looks of pop and movie stars that more regular types who have also ‘made it’ via the very social channels available to their fans are more desirable and reachable. An image or comment liked or – the holy grail – commented on by a Zoella and her ilk is the highest validation – bankable currency that tells the fan that they’re not only ‘special’ but also worthy the celeb’s time.

This closing of the celebrity divide has, as with most things, positive and negative outputs. On the negative side, everyone with a smartphone and an Insta account think that their photos and opinions are worthy of sharing, when of course the vast majority isn’t. On the positive side, social reach can be a force for good. Only recently a friend of mine was trying to Crowdfund support for her RHS ‘Believe in Tomorrow’ garden – designed to encourage kids to enjoy and engage with nature. I sent a ‘Hail Mary’ Tweet to Nick Knowles, star of DIY SOS, leader of 170k + followers and all-round good guy asking him to get behind the project, and within five minutes, he delivered:-

Celebrity is now a collective noun starting with the AAA list (Clooney et al) and ending with the bloke that came second on The Chase yesterday. Everyone has the capacity to have their voice heard on the global platform of a social media and it won’t be long that those who refuse to share their every whim online become, like those without tattoos, the exception rather than the norm.

For now, in a world drowning in content, those filled with Botox and an inflated sense of self float to the top.

Harry Lang is a strategic brand and marketing consultant and founder of Brand Architects. You can get in touch with him at or support the Believe In Tomorrow RHS kids garden project here

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