Why Celebrity is a Poor Substitute for Brand Equity

Why Celebrity is a Poor Substitute for Brand Equity

Remember the days when brands allowed product benefits to speak for themselves during market introduction?  Neither do I, but I do remember a time when a product endorsement at least implied that the endorser had some degree of affinity for the product. Now apparently the role of the celebrity endorser has evolved from the old model of persuasion to one of blatant attention-seeking behavior by brands (impact on equity be damned).

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Courtesy of David Roth/Lifesize/Getty images

It is not so much that we’re a more celebrity-crazed culture than we have been in past decades (ha ha, never mind, yes we are, all those celebrity reality TV shows provide the iron-clad proof), but that brands have caught on to the fact that one of the perceived easiest ways to break through marketplace clutter is to hitch your wagon to a star.  The question, really, is to what impact?  The answer is that while celebrity tie-ups may gain attention, they really are a poor substitute for building brand equity.

Hey, Hey We’re the Monkeys

In the book Brain Bugs Dean Buonomano tells a story of a chimpanzee colony where the dominant male hurt his hand and was limping.  The younger males in the group began to imitate his limp, deferring to the behaviors of the dominant male.

In another situation, rhesus monkeys were given the choice of a large amount of juice or a little juice and a peek at the headshot of another monkey.  Interestingly, the monkeys would choose the latter selection, but only if it was a picture of a dominant male (the monkeys’ version of a celeb).

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Courtesy of Westend61/Getty images

Hey, hey, we’re the monkeys.  We are both actively seeking to match the tastes and imitate the behaviors of the celebutantes of our society.  We will even give up something of value just to have an opportunity to see pictures of them (uh, except me, I subscribe to People Magazine for the articles).

The Brand Equity of Celebrities

Companies understand they can leverage the social status of stars to gain attention for brands in a cluttered marketplace.  This has brought about a new form of co-branding, more akin to hooking up than a real relationship, where a corporate brand joins forces with a celebrity brand in order to gain short-term attention for their product.

One example of this type of co-branding is the recent deal between rap artist Jay-Z and Samsung to release his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to Samsung Galaxy users first. This deal allowed Samsung users to download the album (album, what’s that?) three days before it was released to the general public. The Berklee College of Music’s Music Business Journal reported that Samsung paid for over one million copies of the album at five dollars each and estimated the entire value of the deal for Jay-Z to be nearing $30 million.  For Samsung, the returns are harder to estimate, but going back to our monkey example, it is likely that its users felt they received more value than a five dollar album.  And Jay-Z was just as sincere about his loyalty when he partnered with Nokia back in 2003.

I Stalk, Therefore I Am

Take it a step further, not that you’d really want to, and contemplate the fact that NEC IT Solutions now offers facial recognition tools to retailers to enable them to spot celebrities.  I have no doubt that a celebrity (however that term might be defined) frequenting your place of business might allow for a short-term bump in popularity.  But using software to figure this out is downright creepy (and hey, at least 50% of celebrities are people, too).  I’ll also say that, much like with product manufacturers, most retailers that go this route are only as good as their next celebrity visit.

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Courtesy of Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty images

This is not to say that all celebrity endorsements are bad, just that they have to fundamentally reinforce your brand essence, and allow you increased opportunities to innovate (think more Gatorade’s Be Like Mike (Jordan) campaign, less Midori’s Drink Like Kim (Kardashian) campaign).

The late American historian, Daniel Boorstin, once said “A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services.”  Brands are beginning to fully understand the strength of those names to ratchet up consumers’ awareness levels by leveraging celebrities; but the attention is almost as fleeting as celebrity itself.


Written by Brad Bane

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