Influencers: The dilemma of having celebrity brand evangelists
by Jason Stewart (@HaveYouHeard_SA) One definition of endorsement is a ‘formal and explicit approval’. Another is ‘a signature that validates something’ as in “the cashier would not cash the check without an endorsement”. This highlights for me how important endorsement is.
It is your personal and unique mark, and there is an inherent and unquestioning trust in your mark. If it is not your mark, it is fraud; it is illegal and you can go to jail for using it incorrectly.
A celebrity endorsement is akin to influence on steroids. The aspirations of celebrities, their reach and the affinity people hold for them increase the weight of their opinions and recommendations exponentially.
The first-ever ‘official and recorded’ celebrity endorsement was at the turn of the 20th century by none other than the Holy Father himself — the Pope. If that doesn’t surprise you, possibly the product he endorsed will: a wine called Mariana, named after its maker. The wine was enormously popular and the Pope loved it so much he awarded it a gold medal from the Vatican. The kicker of the story is that the wine included a hefty dash of cocaine, the combination being said to enhance even further the experience of ‘just doing’ the white powder.
I’m not sure if the Pope were aware of this but, in the advert in which he appeared, he endorsed its ability to cure illness, no doubt his belief stemming from the powerful surge of energy he received from drinking it.
No ‘brand slut’
But, to the Pope’s credit, he was no ‘brand slut’. He stuck to just one product, in contrast to the current generation of celebrities who will endorse anything and anyone on condition that the sum is right.
But there’s a hitch. Remember Kwaito star and television icon, Zola, who became the face of any brand that could afford him? His overexposure destroyed his influence and his endorsement went from an influential action-driver to mild association.
This is where the learning is: there is a very fine line between using your influence wisely and greedily destroying it.
Quantifying individual reach
Social media has proliferated celebrity endorsement because it allows marketers to quantify the reach of an individual. Take Twitter, for example. In South Africa, Trevor Noah has the highest following with over 1.24 million followers. This makes him exceptionally desirable for marketers.
Adly in the US has built its business upon selling celebrity endorsements online, promising to “work with advertisers to match them with the right celebrities to execute scalable endorsements that engage and resonate”. Kim Kardashian is on the books and she gets paid over US$10 000 for a single tweet.
But is this money well spent? Can you measure influence and potential return on investment by reach?
Experts in their own fields
Northwestern University conducted research to answer this, and found that some of Twitter’s most popular influencers aren’t really all that influential. Instead, the most influential users are those individuals who have much lower profiles but are experts in their own fields. Why? Because of the weight of their recommendations, which get passed along and retweeted to others.
This is true of the offline world. But, while we can’t track it, Twitter has helped us prove it. Context is therefore the most important definer for influence as no one can be influential in more than three spheres and usually only one.
Locally, we did some research of our own, and one comment really summed up the findings: “I’ve never bought anything that I’ve seen on advertised on TV because I’m not an idiot.” (Natasha, Durban, 24-years old).
I agree with this, and I also disagree with it. Celebrities definitely build affinity and aspiration. Yet, when we know that they are being paid for their relationships, we stop believing.
Beyonce endorses three different perfumes at the same time (True Star, Diamonds and Heat) and we’re aware she probably doesn’t wear use herself. The point is that we’re more inclined to trying one or all three, because of her association.
Yet, if we knew for sure that Beyoncé absolutely loved one of them, and wore it on special occasions, then sales would increase drastically. Authentic endorsement means a lot more to us.
Fine line and the bottom line
There is a fine line between being authentic and selling out. If celebrities use products because they’ve been paid to, they are no longer endorsing these products but act as another communication channel building awareness and sending out contrived and untrusted messages.
However, if celebrities use products because they love them, they are providing a highly credible endorsement that will drive behaviour and purchase change among their fans.
As with normal influence dynamics, the more honest, authentic and true the recommendation is, the more powerful and impactful it is for your bottom line.
Jason Stewart, a Red & Yellow School graduate, joined the industry as a project manager at Draftfcb Cape Town before taking on business development responsibilities at Instant Grass, a position he held for three years. He is now managing director of HaveYouHeard (@HaveYouHeard_SA), an innovative word-of-mouth and social media agency founded in Cape Town in 2008.
— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every three work days. Sign up here!