Celebrity vs Influencers? The Power of Endorsements

One of the fastest growing categories in the UK Sponsorship Awards over recent years has been the Best Use of Celebrity and Influencer Endorsement, introduced five editions ago to recognise the importance of brand-talent relationships in the sponsorship mix.

The use of famous faces to endorse brands has always been a key part of the marketing mix – whether integrated into sponsorships or used as a stand-alone engagement platform (through advertising for example). But now that consumers are assailed by so many commercial messages throughout the day, celebrities have become even more important as a way of carving through the clutter. 

Below, we explore some of the pros and cons of endorsement and offer a few tips on how to get the best out of your celebrity/talent partnerships. In addition, we look at the difference between celebrities and influencers as sponsorship amplifiers. Social media/digital influencers were added to this category in 2018 and, to some extent, can be viewed as a sub-set of ‘celebrity’. This is especially true now that so many of them are crossing over into film and TV. However, influencers also have unique characteristics that set them apart; and these will be explored in the second part of this article.

Part 1: The Pros & Cons of Sponsorship Endorsement

Legitimacy/Relatability: This is top of the checklist for brands. Any company with enough money can sponsor a team or event – regardless of its pre-existing connection with the franchise in question. But celebrity endorsement or approval transfers legitimacy to the sponsor/brand – thus enabling it to activate its investment more effectively. This only works, however, if the brand/celebrity relationship is perceived as authentic (a much over-used word but an important one in the social media era). Celebrities that promote your product but eat/drive/wear a rival brand in public are a PR problem. 

Depending on the status of the brand, it can help if the celebrity is high-profile. A market-leading sponsor that isn’t able to call on A List talent can look peripheral to consumers – particularly if they start to overclaim about their involvement. That said, some of the best partnerships are where the brand and the talent grow together, since this speaks to the point about authenticity. It’s worth noting, for example, that last year’s winner of this UKSA category was a campaign from Wavemaker on behalf of Vodafone/Voxi, which involved working with 100 young artists, musicians and designers. The choice of talent made sense because Voxi was trying to reach out to under 25s (a demographic that prides itself on discovering new talent).Similarly, DHL/Maverick Sports’ 2019 shortlisted campaign involved yachtswoman Susie Goodall, a fairly unknown female ambassador. Intended as a test and learn, the campaign helped increase awareness of the brand and its values to its employee base, and grew the B2B2C audience. It was also particular effective among female audiences, which regarded Susie as an inspirational female role model.

Top Tips – Celebrity endorsement can be very expensive, so make sure you know exactly what you get for your money when you sign up a celebrity. Name specific elements/expectations in the contract but, in addition, try to find someone who isn’t looking to just do the bare minimum. It really helps if the endorser genuinely loves your brand. 

In addition, analyse the celebrity’s existing commitments before signing a deal, to make sure they aren’t stretched too thin. If they have lots of brand partnerships (particularly ones that pay them more than you) they are likely to be difficult to pin down and less enthusiastic about the work you request. Maybe consider setting up a business JV to incentivise your partner. Or, encourage loyalty to your brand by providing support to the celebrity in their own business ventures.

Rapid Recognition: Consumers tend not to notice brands and sponsors very quickly, even if they are staring them in the face (something that is self-evident from spontaneous recall research surveys). However, celebrities can trigger immediate attention for your brand. Because fans are interested in what their heroes do, they will take note of what they are endorsing and may become advocates.

Top Tip – Talk to the celebrity about ways in which they might be able to integrate your product into their lifestyle in a seamless way. Look at their diary and try to identify opportunities. Don’t irritate or alienate them by trying to force fit placement messages but try to be creative about opportunities. Think about competitions, interactions with fans etc – things that will benefit your brand but will also be seen by the celebrity as an opportunity to cement their personal brand status

Brand Repositioning/New Positioning: Endorsements can be useful for brands that want to reposition or which are new to a sector or territory. In each of these scenarios, celebrities can create a surge of consumer interest that is sometimes amplified by PR coverage. For start up brands, celebrities can provide instant credibility.

Top Tip – Don’t be starry eyed. Just because you like or admire a celebrity it doesn’t mean they are right for your brand. You need to apply the same rigorous analysis as you would in sponsorship selection. Celebrity selection and activation are classic scenarios where the ‘chairman’s whim’ can distort a brand’s decision making.

Enhanced Reputation: One Harvard academic postulated that the announcement of a celebrity endorsement can have an immediate positive effect on stock price. There is something about signing a celebrity that reinforces that overall status of a brand. That said, keep in mind that a mismatch can actually have the reverse effect, since it implies the senior leadership don't know their own business.

Top Tip – Celebrities are human – so consumers won’t mind if they fall short of perfection every now and then. But it is important to do some due diligence on your proposed partner – and ask yourself how your brand would be affected if the worst happened and your celebrity fell off their pedestal. Also monitor the relationship on an ongoing basis so it doesn’t become a habit. Check regularly to see if they are still aligned with your brand values and be prepared to intervene if they are not.

Media Activation: Celebrities have their own channels to market, which brands can piggyback (eg. Facebook and Twitter followers). Do it right and you can get the celebrity’s fans promoting your product. There are two things to be careful of here, however. The first is to make sure the tone of their social media sites fit that of your brand. The second is to make sure the headline numbers are accurate. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot of social media celebrity followers/friends are fake or haven’t actively engaged in a long time. Celebrities also help tackle the complex issue of media messaging in the digital era. Because they are often within content streams they can help brands reach elusive audiences. By a similar token, celebrities in TV ads can make the viewer’s hand pause over the remote, maybe choosing to watch an ad instead of skip.

Top Tip – Try to track your celebrity’s media exposure in advance of signing a deal. Develop a clear picture of how they use media and where they most often appear. Plan your activation against the backdrop of the media data you generate. A good example of how to get the media piece right is UKSA’s 2019 shortlisted campaign Ryvita x Davina McCall. Sponsored by Ryvita and entered by Wavemaker, this campaign was about reconnecting the brand with females. Based on a new take on healthy living dubbed ‘Get More Good In’, Wavemaker brokered a talent partnership with Davina McCall, then created a 360 strategy to produce a suite of content assets, with McCall at the heart.

In addition, try and be creative with your partner and keep in mind that former stars can be as effective as current stars (depending on the demo you are chasing). One of the beauties of former stars is that they have more time to engage in marketing work than their active counterparts (though there may be a trade off in terms of fan enthusiasm). NatWest’s Freddie vs Freddie is an innovative example of how to work with a celebrity in a way that stretches endorsement.

Grass Roots Support: Getting celebrities to turn up to grass roots events is a surefire way of getting ordinary punters to do so as well. This creates goodwill towards the brand - especially when celebrities really roll up their sleeves and get involved (i.e., no glum-faced signings or photo opportunities – real human engagement wins). It also helps generate plenty of coverage across local media outlets.

Top Tip – Try to see if you can match up your CSR agenda with something that the celebrity is passionate about. If they are already doing some kind of community outreach work then see if you can weave that into your own brand priorities. Also consider the benefits of working with a team rather than an individual. A 2019 example was Cadbury FC - Ambassador Squad, sponsored by Cadbury and entered by MKTG. This partnership took its inspiration from the brand’s relationship with the English Premier League. To build on this, Cadbury worked with a variety of football legends and personalities. 

Team partnerships mean you can get access to one star if another isn't available (spreading the workload). Furthermore, one team member might be a better face in a particular situation than another (think diversity). Getting a few celebs together at once can create an engaging, sometimes spontaneous, storytelling interaction. This can be especially effective if the celebs come from different fields – eg. Samsung School of Rugby. Likewise with the UKSA 2019 shortlisted campaign The Power of Support - Team England (nPower/Ear to the Ground), which used the Commonwealth Games 2018 to build an authentic and emotional connection between the brand and fans. The campaign created mass appeal by bringing talent together from across sport, entertainment and music to give Team England cultural relevance with new audiences, beyond the back pages.

Part 2: Celebrities vs Influencers

At a basic level, these two groups look the same. There’s no question, for example, that the right social media influencer can deliver the rapid recognition and legitimacy referenced above, just as well as a sports, screen or music celebrity/star. Having said that, there are different characteristics that need to be taken into account. The Drum has a very good opinion piece on the distinction between the two.

One key distinction is that there is a much more direct connection between audiences and influencers than there is between audiences and celebrities. Social media fans typically choose which influencers they want to follow because they aspire to be like them. For this reason, they will be predisposed to sample products that the influencer presents to them (fashion, food, entertainment etc). As long as the influencer doesn't stray from their emotional heartland, the fan will continue to trust their judgement and may also become an advocate for the product in question via their own channels. 

By contrast, audiences are less directly engaged with celebrity endorsements of brands. As a result, they may buy into the overarching messages being delivered, but not necessarily experience an immediate call to action. This distinction breaks down to some extent in the case of mega-celebrities that also have strong social media followings (Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande, The Rock, etc.). But as a rule, brands need to be looking at how they can combine the power of celebrity fame with the immediacy of influencers.

In The Drum opinion piece referenced above, the author also makes the point that celebrities and influencers come from very different starting positions. While the former tend to rely on high-profile exposure via traditional media to drive their fame, the latter tend to grow organically with their digital audience. Psychologically, this affects the way fans think about the two groups (influencers can seem like friends, more vulnerable if fans suspect betrayal). Just as importantly, the way in which the two media (traditional/digital) are measured and policed are very different. Influencers operate in a world where there are high numbers of fake followers and where it is easy to overstep the mark in terms of marketing ethics  (eg.overclaiming to fans about product benefits; or not alerting the audience when a product is being promoted in return for a fee). 

In terms of the potential for negative feedback, the overall impression is that it is possible for both celebrity and influencer campaigns to go wrong. Both can result in a social media backlash and both have the potential for brands to back the wrong talent. Having said this, it is harder for brands to control their message on the internet.

While the world of influencer endorsement can still seem like the marketing sector’s Wild West, there are advocates who are convinced it is more effective than traditional celebrity endorsement. There is, for example, an interesting piece of academic research from the Netherlands which concludes the bond between fans, influencers and brands is especially strong: “Overall,” said the authors, “our results showed that participants identify more with influencers than celebrities, feel more similar to influencers than celebrities, and trust influencers more than celebrities. In all, our results show the added value of using influencer endorsers over celebrity endorsers and the importance of similarity, identification and trust in this process.” With this in mind, also worth reading is this blog which outlines the major ways in which brands/sponsors can work with influencers.

If you want to enter this category at the 2020 UK Sponsorship Awards go hereDetails on UKSA 2020 deadlines and all the other categories are also available. The venue for the event itself will be the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square, with the Gala Dinner on March 24, 2020.

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