Let the Games (and Stories) Begin

In a few hours, the 2012 London Olympics will officially begin. For the next 17 days, the world’s top athletes will take to a global stage. Intense competition and drama make the Olympics must-see TV regardless of how many time zones you are away from the action. And, buzz about the Olympics has migrated to social media, creating real time discussion of the Games. But, the most enduring aspect of Olympic competition is the stories of the athletes. Event broadcasts are complemented with profiles of the personalities, going beyond the uniformed competitors to give us glimpses of the people participating in the games.

Stories define athletes perhaps even more than their performances. Their Olympic moments are influential in shaping their personal brand stories. I will never forget speed skater Dan Jansen’s valiant performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Jansen competed through the grief of his sister dying and experienced disappointment when he fell during a race. He experienced more disappointment at the 1992 Games before finally winning a gold medal at the 1994 Olympics. Frankly, I could not recall Jansen’s medal count (he only one a single medal in three Olympics). It does not matter – his story eclipses his performances.

Sports marketing expert Jonathan Norman says that an Olympian’s “back story” plays a major role in determining his or her suitability as a product endorser. Brands are comprised of back stories, too, so the more that an athlete’s story resonates with a brand’s values, the more effective the athlete can be as a brand ambassador. Note that while being a gold medalist helps an athlete’s marketability as an endorser, it is not a prerequisite for being a valuable brand asset.

I am eager for the London Olympic Games to begin, not only to watch elite athletes compete for medals but to learn more about the stories of the competitors regardless of whether they medal. A small number of athletes will win gold medals, and an even smaller group of athletes will win marketing gold as their stories attract companies that desire to associate their brands with them. Enjoy the Games!

Use Celebrity Endorsers to Engage, not Impress

Celebrity endorsers have been used for decades by advertisers seeking to benefit from the familiarity and likeability of athletes, entertainers, or other famous people. Often, marketers do not fully leverage their association with celebrities. For example, ads in which the endorser is merely pictured or otherwise does not engage the audience with the story behind his or her association with the brand misses an opportunity to connect with the audience. A memorable example I once saw was an ad in a marketing trade magazine several years for a mailing list service that featured NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. His picture was in the ad, and while he flashed a nice smile it never was clear what his connection was to the product. I never knew Joe Montana was a mailing list expert (but he is a marketing expert if he could get a company to pay him to endorse the product!).

In contrast, I like the approach used by Unilever to integrate celebrity endorsers into its campaign for Dove Men+Care skin care line. The company has enlisted Major League Baseball personalities such as St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi in a video series. The “Journey to Comfort” campaign will feature 90-second videos as well as longer clips featuring the baseball stars (see a Pujols video here). A sweepstakes is part of the campaign, too, with the grand prize being a meeting with Pujols and watching him take batting practice.

Dove’s “Journey to Comfort” campaign is not guaranteed to move the sales needle, but then again no campaign has that capability. What the campaign does guarantee is a glimpse into the lives of three baseball heroes. The endorsers share personal experiences and stories in the videos that will allow fans to see a different side than the baseball accomplishments for which Pujols, Pettitte, and Girardi are known. A video campaign like the one Dove is conducting has the potential to effectively target men through their interest in baseball, getting their attention with the access to three well-known MLB personalities. The campaign sells Dove Men+Care in a subtle manner, connecting the brand to the lives of men via the MLB endorsers. And, it is a stronger customer relationship to the brand that will ultimately positively impact sales.

Marketing Daily – “Dove Links with MLB Figures for Videos, Sweeps”

Consumer Response to Celebrity Endorser Scandals: Yawn

Celebrity endorsers can be an effective promotion strategy to gain awareness and shape image. Pairing a brand with a well known or likable celebrity can elevate a brand, but what happens if the endorser runs into personal troubles (did anyone say Tiger Woods)? Marketers fear that the positive effects an endorser provides can be negated and harm done to the brand if the endorser receives publicity for problems or scandal. As a result, a standard part of endorser marketing agreements is some type of morals clause, which gives the company that hired the endorser an exit from the relationship. This response was seen in the Tiger Woods case as partners like Accenture and Gatorade made moves to distance themselves from Tiger.

Is it possible that marketers overreact when quickly disassociating themselves with a troubled endorser? The answer may be “yes” according to a study by Harris Interactive (for more info click here). A survey of more than 2,000 adults found that 74% felt no differently about a brand that employed a celebrity enmeshed in scandal. Approximately 22% said they feel worse about brands associated with a celebrity involved in scandal, and 5% said they actually feel better about brands that had endorsers associated with scandal. Persons aged 45-54 were more likely to feel negatively toward brands (28% of that group shared that sentiment), and 18-34 year-olds were more likely to feel better about brands (11%).

Do these results mean that marketers should simply let their endorsers “live and let live?” Not necessarily; a partnership with a celebrity endorser is usually an expensive one. A celebrity’s problems have the potential to create negative brand associations, and that is a risk many marketers simply are not willing (and should not) take. The surprisingly large percentage of people who are indifferent toward celebrity scandal suggests a couple of themes, though. One, we love our heroes, whether they be movie stars, athletes, musicians, or from some other source of fame. Americans are able to forgive and forget relatively fast when it comes to the transgressions of their heroes. Two, I wonder if we have become desensitized to events such as celebrities getting in trouble for drug use, infidelity, or some other form of unacceptable or illegal behavior. If we rationalize the behavior as just being part of the world we live in today, coupled with affinity for our heroes, we may be inclined to shrug our shoulders and move on.

DMA Agreement on New FTC Guidelines for Testimonials, Endorsers Too Late

The Federal Trade Commission announced significant changes in October to guidelines for the practices of product testimonials and endorsers in advertising (read the FTC’s release). Among notable changes included testimonials no longer being protected by the disclaimer “results not typical.” Instead, advertisers must disclose the results consumers should expect from the advertised product. Endorsements by celebrities, bloggers, or word-of-mouth marketers must now be disclosed in terms of stating the nature of a relationship between endorser and brand (e.g., paid endorsement or endorser received free products to evaluate).

This week, the Direct Marketing Association, an industry group impacted significantly by the FTC changes, released a statement that it had approved changes to its Guidelines for Ethical Business Practices to be consistent with the FTC. While the direct marketing industry should be commended for aligning its ethics policies with federal guidelines, it is disappointing that it took the FTC’s action to bring about change. This situation is a great example of how inattention to self-regulation by an industry can lead to government regulation forcing change. If the DMA had taken the lead on these issues long ago, particularly the testimonial issue that has long been contentious, it could have had a stronger voice in setting policy.

It is almost always better for an industry to be responsible for policing itself instead of allowing regulatory agencies to dictate guidelines (at least from the industry’s perspective). In this case, the direct marketing industry either refused to believe the FTC would make changes (the existing guidelines were developed in 1980), or it failed to anticipate a new administration’s stance on consumer protection could accelerate government involvement in changing the guidelines. Perhaps other industries will learn from the DMA’s experience and be more proactive in self-regulation.

The Tiger (Negative) Effect

I blew this one. In a blog post on December 1, I maintained that Tiger Woods’ value as a celebrity endorser would likely be impacted little by the fallout triggered by his traffic accident on Thanksgiving morning. That assertion was based on an assumption that his transgressions were limited in scope. We have since come to learn otherwise!

Now that Tiger has announced an indefinite leave from golf and the PGA Tour, sorting out the damage done becomes a bit easier. Three parties hurt by this situation are:

3. Tiger’s sponsors – Companies that have Woods under contract as an endorser are having to deal with the embarrassment of the situation, but their brands stand for more than Tiger Woods. The more heavily invested a company’s marketing platform is in Woods, the greater it will be hurt. Accenture is a sponsor whose marketing is heavily linked with Woods. On the other hand, Gillette has many other endorsers that it can shift focus toward and minimize its association with Tiger Woods if it chooses.

2. Tiger Woods – His brand image and reputation have taken serious hits, but not before raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement earnings. And, there is the opportunity for redemption. While his brand equity in the marketplace may never return to pre-scandal heights, there is potential to remain a viable brand.

1. PGA and golf in general – The biggest loser is the PGA Tour. We have seen glimpses of what a Tiger-less PGA Tour is like when he missed time following knee surgery. TV ratings drop and event attendance declines. While some events hold star power such as The Masters and U.S. Open, many tour stops benefit from Tiger Woods being in the field.

Let’s hope Tiger Woods makes a comeback. He’s good for golf, but more importantly, his return to golf would signal progress in rehabbing problems in his personal life.

Tiger Woods’ Endorser Value Likely Unchanged

News of a traffic accident involving Tiger Woods created concern, followed by curiosity about how and why Woods had a wreck in the early hours of November 27. While there is a great deal of speculation about what happened, speculation that better fits the content of gossip web sites than a marketing blog, there seems to be little evidence that the episode will negatively impact Tiger Woods, endorser extraordinaire. So far, sponsors have agreed with Woods’ assertion that the incident is a private matter and have largely stayed out of the situation.

Unless revelations of inappropriate behavior by Tiger Woods surface, the fallout from his accident on his endorsement potential will be minimal. Tiger has built tremendous brand equity through years of superior play and consistency as a product endorser. The image of Tiger Woods is largely positive, and while embarrassing details could emerge that change the way some people view him, Tiger Woods will continue to be an effective endorser. Americans have a short memory and forgiving heart when it comes to their heroes. I believe Tiger Woods’ situation will benefit from those characteristics of the American public.

Marketing Daily – “Brands Line Up Behind Tiger: ‘Private Matter'”

Celebrity Endorsers Influence Buying Decisions… Occasionally

Celebrity endorsements can move a brand from relative obscurity to greater awareness among consumers and increased buzz in the marketplace. But, which types of celebrities resonate as effective endorsers? According to a recent Adweek Media/Harris Poll, business leaders and professional athletes have the greatest impact. Not surprisingly, consumers view business leaders as the most persuasive (37% cited business leaders). Their expertise in business gives them a high level of credibility when endorsing products.

Enlisting professional athletes as product endorsers is a practice that spans several decades, and consumers still seem to be receptive to famous athletes hawking products (21% said athletes were most persuasive endorser). Acceptance of athlete endorsers was highest among persons ages 18-34, with 24% of that segment indicating athletes were the most persuasive type of endorser. In contrast, only 13% of the sample said athletes were the least persuasive endorser type, with business leaders being the only type with a lower percentage (11%).

Why do pro athletes go over well as product endorsers? First, many of them are well known. Their familiarity helps create awareness for the brands that hired them. Second, they are often admired by sports fans. The image people hold for Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods can influence the image held for brands endorsed by these premier athletes. Creation of a favorable brand image sets the stage for responses by consumers that could ultimately include product purchase.

Despite the warm and fuzzy feelings pro athletes might create, the reality is that endorsement advertising impacts a relatively small percentage of the overall audience. The Adweek/Harris study found that 80% of persons surveyed are not swayed by the presence of celebrities in ads. The implication of this finding is that marketers must understand celebrity endorsements are not the answer for every brand. We return to a basic tenet of marketing: know thy customer. Will your target market be persuaded in some way by your brand’s association with a celebrity? Moreover, is it worth the investment required to sign a celebrity? If the answer to either question is “no,” hiring a celebrity endorser is not the appropriate strategy.

Center for Media Research – “Endorsements Are a Mixed Bag”

Why Kellogg Had to Drop Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps has made news worldwide in recent days for the wrong reason. A British tabloid published a photo of Phelps partaking of marijuana at a party. While the picture is certainly embarrassing for Phelps, it created an even more uncomfortable situation for Phelps’ numerous corporate partners. Several companies inked Phelps to endorsement deals before and after the 2008 Olympics. Now, his remarkable achievements in the water are overshadowed by behavior unbecoming an athlete and role model.

When a celebrity endorser gets into trouble, companies sponsoring the celeb have to decide whether to ride out the situation or cut ties and move on. In Michael Phelps’ case, three companies have come out to take a stand. Speedo and Visa quickly made statements in support of Phelps and intend to continue their relationships. Kellogg, on the other hand, announced it would not renew its contract with Phelps when it expires this month.

It can be argued that all three companies made the correct choice. Speedo sells swimming apparel; Michael Phelps is a world class swimmer. Until his performance declines in the water, he is an effective endorser for Speedo. Visa has a broad target market, and its services have nothing to do with Phelps’ source of celebrity. He was hired for the name recognition and familiarity he can bring to the brand. So, while Visa would probably prefer he not embarrass himself, it can withstand a situation like this. We are a celebrity culture; we love our heroes and have always been rather forgiving of most their transgressions (most O.J., not all).

Kellogg had little choice but to sever ties with Phelps. Its products are based on promoting good health, and its target market is moms and children. Associating with someone who is perceived as a party guy (other photos and video help create that image), Kellogg cannot afford to risk its brand reputation further. A common theoretical explanation for how celebrity endorsements impact consumer behavior is that the image of the endorser transfers to the image of the brand being endorsed. In this case, Kellogg cannot take a chance on negative associations with Michael Phelps having a negative impact on its brand.

Tiger Woods Fails to Make Cut with Cost Cutting GM

Tiger Woods is second only to Michael Jordan in his prowess as a product endorser. He has associated his name with several products since arriving on the national sports scene in the mid 1990s, but one of Tiger’s most visible endorsements has been of General Motors’ Buick brand. His relationship with Buick seemed both appropriate and odd. The pair was appropriate because of an overlap between the target market characteristics for Buick and PGA Tour followers. The Tiger-Buick link seemed odd because Buick and golf are perceived as skewing toward older males, and here was a twenty-something “kid” endorsing an old guy’s brand. Turns out that the partnership worked for Buick as owner data indicates the average age of a Buick driver dropped from around 50 to 40 during the Tiger Woods-Buick era.

That era is coming to an end as Woods and Buick amicably part ways. Both sides are saying all the right things, but GM’s woeful financial picture has to have played a role in the decision to end the relationship. GM had already announced it would not be advertising during upcoming high profile events such as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. Fortunately for GM, the positive effects of its association with Tiger Woods will likely carry over for a period of time following the end of his endorsement deal. While brand building needs are taking a hit at GM these days, the company is in a fight for survival first.

Link: Ad Age – “GM Ending Tiger Woods Endorsement Deal”