Celebrity Endorsements and Brand Management – the good, the bad and the ugly

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Recently, I’ve been having some fun thinking about celebrity endorsements. In a January 2010 article, Forbes ranked the 10 celebrities Americans trust most. Among them:  James Earl Jones, Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Morgan Freeman, Sally Field, Ron Howard, Will Smith and Denzel Washington. It’s true, I’m buying what they’re selling – there’s no way Morgan Freeman’s mellow brown eyes would lie to me.

But it got me thinking. These actors/celebrities have spent their careers building respectable, wholesome reputations, lending themselves to natural credibility. What happens when a brand’s chosen face or voice is a little less “saintly,” and missteps in full view of the public eye?

Celebrity endorsements aren’t new to marketers; however, in light of viral news feeds and the explosion of citizen journalism in recent years, the rules of such endorsements are changing.

With phrases like “endorsement morality clause” getting tossed around, I’m reminded of the precarious nature of celebrity endorsements. Don’t get me wrong, I think they can be brilliantly effective. But like any stunning firecracker, they also have the potential to blow up in your face.

Examine first what I see as a great pairing: the official union of rapper Jay-Z and baseball powerhouse the New York Yankees. For a limited time, prior to the September concert he would perform at Yankee Stadium, Jay-Z and the NYY sold co-branded merchandise, available exclusively in the House That Ruth Built. Co-branded to include both Jay-Z and NYY logos, the apparel was designed “solely” to commemorate the first concert performance at the new stadium. But we all know it’s more than that; the NYY are looking for renewed brand elevation.

In pop culture terms, Jay-Z has long been aligned with the NYY franchise; both icons are synonymous examples of power, pride, wealth, and the Empire State. In his Blueprint 3 album, Jay-Z boasted that he “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can,” an inarguable truth – the man is rarely, if ever, photographed without it. With the release of co-branded merchandise, the NYY solidified Jay-Z as  their ballclub’s brand spokesman.

As to the success of the co-brand, Jay-Z/NYY baseball caps are now going for $200+ on e-bay, while the simple, old fashioned MLB Yankees hats fetch only $10+. While I can’t say what will become of this marketers’ dream endorsement, I can say the forecast is filled with good vibes and great brand revenue.*

Onto a not-so-perfect union: the recent news surrounding Wrangler spokesman Brett Favre. Caught up in a scandal involving accusations that he couldn’t keep his Wranglers on and sent inappropriate images/texts to a certain game hostess at the NY Jets, Favre’s reputation as an All-American icon has been muddied. How is Wrangler’s branding campaign faring amid the controversy?

Wrangler strives for a hometown, wholesome American brand – which, at a point, Brett Favre embodied as the QB with the most starts in NFL history. Now everyone’s asking if Wrangler will pull the spots featuring Favre and nix his presence on their website, advertisements, etc before their whole brand message – complete with “Bad to the Bone” theme music and golden retriever pup – becomes a societal laughing stock. For now, Wrangler is still onboard waiting to see how this thing plays out, because after all, as Darren Rovell of CNBC points out, the endorsement up until this point has been a great fit. While Wrangler’s marketing team muses, “how bad could it get? Maybe it will all blow over!” I have to ask, have we possibly forgotten the fall of Tiger Woods, a premiere example of risk in celebrity endorsements?

Oh Tiger, one of the best professional golfers of all time, and rumored to be the wealthiest athlete on the planet – largely due to the $100 million he is said to have earned through endorsements in past years.  As soon as news of his mistress misdeeds broke, he went from arguably the most celebrated golfer of all time to the most reviled; a man who had it all and arrogantly cast it aside – I mean, we were nauseated! Not only was he eviscerated by late night TV, but he was dropped from most of his major sponsorship partners. Kudos to Gatorade, AT&T, and Accenture for recognizing the danger his PR media-muck nightmare caused to their brand management campaign. However, Nike and EA Sports kept their endorsements with Tiger intact and were taxed heavily for it. In the wake of the Tiger meltdown, it fell on Nike to manage the brand of its spokesperson just to keep their brand’s reputation intact. With Nike sticking its neck out to pick up its spokesperson and catching so much flack for it, you have to wonder why they didn’t cut ties and bolt.

Before you think about tainting your brand with crazed couch-jumping/borderline committable antics by teaming up with someone like Tom Cruise, its best to recognize that celebrity endorsements can be a risky business. Ask first: could the conduct, pursuits or conquests of your celebrity spokesperson transfer bad taste onto your brand endorsement?   It’s best to identify, and conduct your due diligence as to which brand needs more management – that of your company, or that of your celebrity spokesperson. Your brand reputation can be your greatest asset, so promote it, and protect it wisely.

*Author’s note: While the author’s support of the Jay-Z/New York Yankee co-branding campaign in no way reflects her opinion of NYY baseball or her relentless devotion to Boston’s most beloved ballclub, it does correctly express her affection for Hova.

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4 Responses to “Celebrity Endorsements and Brand Management – the good, the bad and the ugly”

  1. Amy Says:

    Well said!

  2. Amy G Says:

    Love the dedication to your roots!! Great Read!!!

  3. kathy (wk with Amy G.) Says:

    good job

  4. Follow you, follow me: Nike’s experiments for the little people « Says:

    […] their thoughts and personalities into the campaigns themselves.  In an era of seemingly continuous athlete scandals, consumers get the opportunity to tell the world how hard they work, and what it means to […]

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