Do celebrity endorsements work for rural brands?

Using the brand equity of someone else to prop up your own can signal a weak brand or a creative team who have run out of ideas. It seems if you have little brand credibility, you can simply purchase it. Or can you?

One of the more recent rural endorsements is Fonterra using Richie McCaw whose services are also employed by Westpac, Versatile Building, MasterCard, AIG and Air New Zealand. I could have missed others and some commentators suggest his dance card is full whilst farmer-shareholders I know felt that same money could have been better spent elsewhere. Whilst Fonterra's Milk for Schools programme is a great initiative and one that should be applauded especially for those farmers who donate their milk freely, I believe the best ads Fonterra do are those that promote their own.

Celebrity Endorsements & The Vampire Effect

The problem with endorsements is what’s called the “vampire effect”. This is where an endorsing brand sucks the equity out of your brand and boosts their own whilst being paid for by yours truly. The question becomes which do you remember more: the sponsoring brand or the celebrity used to endorse it?

Research studies have suggested endorsements don’t always work and can even backfire with the unprompted or prompted recall of the sponsoring brand suffering as a result of being over-shadowed by the stronger endorser brand. This means you need to tread carefully and consider all the options before being swayed by the allure of a big celebrity.

Tiger Woods didn’t work out well for Hertz or Buick and Mike Tyson didn’t work out that well for Toyota. Closer to home, Richard Long’s credibility as our nation’s newsreader didn’t end well with Strategic Finance. And former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle was jailed for child pornography. Endorsement strategies always represent risk and that risk always needs to be managed.

On the plus side, Graham Norton has done a fantastic job for Invivo sales in Ireland. Dove Soap’s Real Beauty campaign has done and continues to do a fantastic job celebrating the beauty of natural women. It’s made their brand and what they stand for genuine, authentic and relatable to many women wining countless awards along the way. Whilst they’ve stayed true to this strategy, so have the big beauty product brands using Hollywood celebrities. As always, consumer will make up their on minds with their wallets.

What are good celebrity endorsement examples?

If you are committed to a celebrity endorsement or brand ambassador programme within your rural marketing programme and are looking for where you can learn more from, I believe one of the best in the business is Greg Murphy and Holden. It’s been a long-standing, professional partnership that’s been nurtured and reinforced for years. Their latest Holden Street Smart campaign advocates for safer youth driving. Murphy hasn’t put a foot wrong and is loved by his fans and has the endearing attributes many brands would relish. He’s humble, grounded, straightforward and a gritty hard-working kiwi bloke that many can relate to (except for Ford fans!).

George Clooney and Nespresso is another. The fit is perfect, almost semiotic. A bit like Bladerunner’s Rutger Hauer who was cast specifically to emulate the same attributes as a pint of Guinness (white hair, dark body).

Trotting out Steve Hansen to sell garage doors is something I struggle with. To me it did a great disservice to his brand and someone I, like many others, admire highly for his judgement and values. It felt like it was more about money than any kind of strategic consideration about how it might affect his own personal brand. It’s an example of one of those short term “let’s get X” associations that quickly evaporates as soon as the advertising dollars ran out a bit like that Ray White campaign here in NZ that I've seen only once (despite being in the market at the time). We'll have to wait and see whether someone can tap into the mana of Wayne Smith on a more long-term basis (and if he's any good he'll choose his associations wisely).

Much like sponsorship commitments, you need to look much further out and integrate any endorsement or ambassador partnership into a wider marketing plan (not forgetting the rise of ad blockers either). Short term cash and logo jobs don't offer much ROI.

Using kids or cute animals might pull at the heart strings but it can be perceived as an admission of how poorly with which the affection or warmth of your brand is held. The cynics amongst us spot these clues a mile off. A better proposition to build that same warmth and endearment could be by better understanding your customers at a deeper ethnographic or observational level that allows you to develop or refine products or services that meet and exceed their needs. Or committing to a more humanised brand strategy with more of a human touch which is something that’s becoming increasingly important as we see the integration of rise of AI and algorithmic bots in customer service. 

We have to think carefully about celebrity endorsements commitments nowadays because to me they don’t pack the same punch they did in earlier years because they are so widely used. A research study by Collective Bias suggests there is greater value in brands being associated with true and meaningful authenticity. In their national US survey across nearly 14000 consumers they found “30 percent of consumers are more likely to purchase a product endorsed by a non-celebrity blogger than a celebrity.” 

If you’re still committed to an endorsement programme, here are some ideas that can help guide you through decisions:

- how did they, or their agent, get to the proposed fee? (remember you are providing their brand with air time as well so it’s a two-way street)

- what commitment are they making vs. the ones they have already? Or are they selective like good actors who only commit to directors and scripts that work for them in the long-term

- is it an exchange of dollars and PAs (personal appearances) or an exchange of mutual commercial value?

- have they been over-exposed already?

- do they have an impeccable personal brand with the highest levels of professionalism and a dependable character with maturity? 

- any commercial arrangement needs to be based on the long term in order for consumers to make and remember the association

- don’t be star struck and get all giggly- they are humans too, the more humility and objectivity the better

- if there a true value exchange? i.e. does their association and endorsement leave you brand in a better or worse shape once their contract has run out?

There are other ways you can build equity in your brand too so here’s a few ideas to get you thinking about how you can build more stock in your brand:

- can you differentiate on branded service by mapping the entire customer experience?

- can you rally your own customer base to be more authentic and credible endorsers instead of using celebrities (AllBirds)

- can you product or service feature great usability that delights customers (who doesn’t like the Skip Intro feature on Netflix)?

- have you considered product placements? (the last series of Homeland was full of them)

- can you mobilise media journalists, critics or reviewers to be positive advocates for your brand?

- can you target “alpha” farming people who others look to and admire in their district?

- can you mobilise your staff or team to be promoters rather than detractors of your brand? (Southwest Airlines, Air New Zealand)

As a customer, I’d always rather listen to my own. If I want product endorsements or service provider suggestions I ask my networks, friends and families. They will give me their recommendations and share their experiences with me openly and honestly. I’m always going to trust people I know. Not some celebrity I don’t. 

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What do you think? Do you think using celebrity endorsement is an effective strategy for rural brands or not? Please share using the Share button below or feel free to comment below.

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