This post originally appeared on the Kilts Center Faculty Blog.
When asked about what she wore to bed, the late Marilyn Monroe is supposed to have famously said, “a few drops of Chanel No. 5,” thereby sparking a surge of interest in the brand as well as robust sales. The power of celebrity is evident even today—50 years after her death, Marilyn is back as the “new” face of the iconic perfume. Of course the celebrity association does not always work: witness the less successful, previous campaign of the same brand that used Brad Pitt as the celebrity in question.
Having a celebrity spokesperson has long been a mainstream play in the marketer’s playbook, and it’s often had mixed results. Key to the success of this approach is the match between the celebrity’s image and the product or service being endorsed. So although Bill Cosby was successful as a spokesperson for Jell-O, a role that matched his affable personality on TV, he was perhaps less successful as a spokesperson for other brands. For example, having little credibility in the area of finance and investments made him a less-than-ideal promoter of the E. F. Hutton & Co brokerage firm.
Another oversight involving celebrity endorsements has been to associate a product with the name and image of a celebrity who is otherwise uninvolved with the product itself. Bill Murray’s Bob Harris epitomized this attitude in the movie Lost in Translation, when he pitched Suntory Whiskey while holding a glass of iced tea.
Fast forward to the present day, and we see a new incarnation of the celebrity-endorsed brand—the celebrity-involved brand. It is well known that rapper 50 Cent not only made a financial investment in Glaceau, the manufacturer of Vitaminwater, but also participated in the design of Formula 50, a product that reflected his (rapper) name. Taking the financial risk had a big payoff for Kelvin Martin (50’s real name) when the Coca-Cola company purchased Glaceau. Some reports put the payoff in the range of $60 million to $100 million. The involvement of the endorser in various fundamental aspects of the product, from financing to design, marks a real change from the early days of celebrity endorsements.
Involved celebrities are also exploiting their online clout (or to be more precise, Klout, the score that measures an individual’s “social networking potential”) by targeting their offerings to people who seem most likely to value their celebrity association, for example followers on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. So when Jessica Alba tweets about a new baby product launched by the Honest Company (with which she has a relationship), or when Kim Kardashian posts her latest shoe design available at Shoe Dazzle, the celebrities are communicating with fans. The assumption here is that if I am interested in the life of Kim Kardashian and associate myself with the things she might wear, I could potentially be interested in buying a pair of shoes that reflects her style and personality. In the case of Ms. Alba, the effectiveness would depend, crucially, on the number of followers interested in Ms. Alba for her role as real-life mom over the actress’ other roles.
A third notable aspect of celebrity-involved products is the willingness to experiment with various business models. For example, in the case of Shoe Dazzle, the company started off with a subscription model only to discover that consumers were unwilling to part with a fixed sum of money for a new pair of shoes every month. The Honest Company uses a more flexible model in which consumers can either choose the monthly subscription plan for products like diapers and wipes, or purchase those products gradually. Clearly these celebrities, like entrepreneurs in general, are interested in figuring out the best way to survive in business. So although at times they’ve had to make potentially costly changes—Shoe Dazzle moved away from the subscription model, had a change at the helm and let go almost 10 percent of the staff—celebrities are also aligning themselves closely with real entrepreneurs and business folk, bringing complementary skills to bear in the quest for success.
The evolution of the celebrity endorser is ongoing, and it is unclear whether many of these efforts will pay off in the long run. Nevertheless, the move towards more involved celebrities who are making investments in companies, getting involved in product design, exploiting more targeted marketing channels, and seeking complementary skills, all point towards better exercise of marketing principles.