You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Gone are the days of anonymous women in Virginia Slims ads, coupled with their memorable tagline.  In today’s celebrity obsessed culture, it seems that advertising and marketing has taken a turn from Mad Men esque ads, focused on witty taglines and imagery, to a focus on celebrity branding.  While the constant publicity garnered by a celebrity sponsor may be an initial boon to a company’s product, it remains that by having them promote a brand a company is, in turn, promoting the lifestyle they lead and the product’s place in said lifestyle.

As such, Tiger Woods’ marriage isn’t the only thing that has been affected by the recent media storm surrounding his infidelity.  As the weeks drag on, his many endorsements are coming under fire, with companies dropping him as more details are released and Woods’ image drifts further away from what the company seeks to align their product with.  While Accenture, Gillette, Gatorade, & A&T have essentially permanently ended their relationship with Woods, Tag Heuer, a watch company that initially dropped Woods’ ads within Australia, has released a statement that it is “downscaling the use of his image in certain markets for a period of time, depending on his decision about returning to professional golf”.  Which ever way the companies are spinning it in the media, one thing is clear: when a celebrity screws up, when their stock goes down, sponsors will drop them.

However, while the companies may have dropped Tiger for current and further advertisement of their brand, the fact remains that Woods will be forever associated with their brand.  Given this, I wonder whether using a celebrity endorsement for a product truly has long-term merit.

Companies have forever attempted to create a ‘lifestyle’ with their product.  Ads show potential consumers how a product will change their life – either by showing a consumer that they are behind the times by not using a product, that using such a product will increase their status, or various other ways a product is indispensible to living the good life.  When a celebrity endorsing a brand is scorned by the media, either for something as superficial as weight gain or for reasons such as infidelity or criminal activity, the bad publicity automatically translates to the brands they are aligned with.  As has become quite evident in our tabloidized culture, any tiny thing is significant when dealing with celebrity media and publicity.  Celebrities tend to be fickle creatures, making me wonder why companies take the risk of aligning their brands with celebrities.  Is SmartWater the brand for cat-loving spinsters, as their choice of Jennifer Aniston as a spokeswoman may suggest?  Should you buy a Tag Heuer watch so you know what time to call your wife to lie about your whereabouts while you’re out with your mistress, just like Tiger Woods? While these probably aren’t the thoughts advertisers planned on consumers having as a result of their ads, their choice to use celebrity endorsements leaves their ads open to interpretation in a way an anonymous face might not.

Now, I don’t mean to discredit the positive effect celebrity endorsement can have on a brand.  However, I do believe that having an implicit rather than explicit endorsement from a celebrity is probably more beneficial in the long run, especially given the volatility of celebrity stock.

Take, for instance, how Starbucks has skyrocketed into its position as a ‘lifestyle’ brand.  The constant onslaught of photographs of celebrities holding the ubiquitous Starbucks cup has, in no way whatsoever, hurt the brand.  If anything, it has become that little piece of luxury that people are willing to shell out over $6 a day for, if only to taste that aspect of elite that a Second Cup or Tim Hortons cup simply does not offer.  However, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would associate Starbucks with a celebrity in rough times and refuse to support the brand because of it.  It remains that a celebrity using a product in their day-to-day life and it being recognized, in whatever small way, has a larger effect than them getting paid to say they endorse it.

As a result, I think true endorsements, those used in daily life, are far more effective than explicit, paid endorsements from celebrities. Just like anyone else, a celeb is more than happy to gush about a product they are happy about.  Word of mouth and social graph endorsements hold far more water in the end than a Photoshopped ad or a spot free of ad-libs.

In this social climate, it remains that although celebrity endorsements seem to be the way things are going, advertisers and brands should continue to rely on the time-honoured tradition of building brand loyalty through word of mouth and implicit endorsement.

(Photos courtesy of Sexy Cigs &  vivre vite et mourir jeune on Flickr)