Star Search

As social media mints new celebrities, marketers now have a much larger pool of spokespeople to choose from to carry their message

By Chuck Kapelke

Snoop Dogg meets a cold beer in a new ad for Corona (the rapper is also featured in an ad campaign plugging home security firm Vivint). Companies are tapping into a different brand of celebrity to carry their message — while also relying on familiar faces to get the word out. Either way, when using celebrity spokespeople pairing market research with data about stars’ existing audiences is key. Corona USA/YouTube

When family-owned ice cream brand Blue Bunny launched a program to provide grants to ice cream parlors that had been shuttered during the pandemic, the company enlisted celebrity designer Nate Berkus, who is known — at least to his 1.1 million Instagram followers — as an ice cream devotee. The program, titled “The Heart of Fun,” included a grand prize worth up to $55,000.

“We wanted to bring someone who is passionate about this,” says Andrés Ordóñez, chief creative officer at ANA member FCB Chicago, which orchestrated the campaign. “When you bring a celebrity, they have to align with the values of the company. Every influencer and every celebrity exists for a different reason and has a very different superpower.”

Blue Bunny’s ad campaign helps to illustrate how companies are tapping into a different brand of celebrity to carry their message — while relying on familiar faces still holds great appeal.

Recent examples abound. Snoop Dogg, the rapper and self-proclaimed stoner, sells both Corona beer and home security firm Vivint. Shaquille O’Neal not only created Papa John’s “Shaq-A-Roni” pizza, but joined the company’s board of directors. Subway squeezed sports stars Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Steph Curry, and Tom Brady into a single ad.

Subway recruited several sports celebrities for a new ad promoting the fast-food chain’s various sandwiches. In the spot, tennis sensation Serena Williams hands off Subway’s message to soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who tosses it to NBA great Steph Curry, who is — playfully — upstaged by Tom Brady. As the definition of celebrity spokespeople evolves, marketers have a much wider aperture to find spokespeople who can reach new audiences and spark conversation. Subway Restaurants/YouTube

Celebrity spokespeople are a major component of brand marketing, of course. But how much celebrities boost a brand’s reputation is not entirely clear. While 40 percent of 1,000 gen Zers, on average, said they would be more likely to go to a fast-casual establishment if it were endorsed by a celebrity, according to a November 2020 survey released by Morning Consult, just 16 percent were able to match celebrities with brands they have worked with.

“The immediate impact of using celebrities as spokespeople is a salience boost, and brands get to piggyback on the easy-to-recall nature of celebrities to augment the ‘mental availability’ of the brand in any consideration decision,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. “The pitfall often is that recall stops short of the brand association, and consumers may easily recall the specific campaign and celebrity but struggle to associate it with the brand that bankrolled it.”


Bigger Not Always Better

Finding the right celebrity for advertising starts with having a deep understanding of the brand’s audience, and working with creative partners to find an appropriate spokesperson to match the tone of the campaign.

Before Hilton Global debuted its “Expect Better. Expect Hilton.” ad campaign, for example, the company’s ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, wrote sample scripts for a range of actresses, ultimately selecting Anna Kendrick. The choice resulted in double-digit growth in brand consideration among leisure travelers who saw the campaign’s TV ads, while consumers’ intent to book directly with Hilton also spiked.

“When you find a celebrity that agrees to do your campaign, let them be part of it. Let them be them.”
— Andrés Ordóñez, chief creative officer at FCB Chicago

“The archetype of the Hilton campaign was about a savvy traveler, and you can picture someone like Anna Kendrick knowing what she likes, knowing what she doesn’t like, and having a very good take on it,” says Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY. “It’s about being able to understand the brand’s archetype, and then looking at pop culture and all the people with personalities that fit.”

Pairing market research with data about stars’ existing audiences is key. Nielsen Sports’ list of the 50 most marketable athletes, for example, benchmarks global sports stars based on “relevance, reach, return, and resonance.”

“Bigger is not always better when it comes to marketability and relevance for brands,” says Salvatore De Angelis, head of digital, international at Nielsen Sports. “With the granularity of the data that you have access to right now, you can immediately understand whether a personality is a good fit or not for your brand, not exclusively based on popularity, but also on the relevance toward a specific audience or demographic.”


Let the Stars Shine

A celebrity should not be seen as a blank slate, but as a sustained partner who is driving the brand message forward.

Unilever’s Dove brand, for example, extended its Self Esteem Project by selecting Grammy-winning singer Lizzo as a brand ambassador to promote body positivity via social media. The singer announced the partnership by sharing an unaltered naked selfie with her over 11 million Instagram followers.

“Our first challenge together was to transform social media into a more positive and empowering place for the next generation through the Dove Self-Esteem Project,” says Kathryn Fernandez, global brand director, skin cleansing, at ANA member Unilever. “We couldn’t think of a more perfect voice and partner to join us as we continue on our mission to change beauty.”

The more celebrity partners are encouraged to be themselves, the better the brand message will pop. “If you dictate what you want the influencer or the celebrity to do, consumers can smell it, and that’s not a good thing,” Ordóñez says. “When you find a celebrity that agrees to do your campaign, let them be part of it. Let them be them.”


Nurture Long-Term Partnerships

To inoculate themselves against any unforeseen circumstances, brands should craft agreements with celebrity partners that encourage a prolonged relationship, and support the talent in using their platforms to amplify a shared message. “Brands and athletes need to work together as co-creators,” De Angelis says. “It’s not just having the athlete give a testimonial anymore. Episodic content — rather than one shot activities — seem to drive a really high engagement.”

Rather than burn their budgets on a single celebrity, brands might consider diversifying their celebrity portfolios to connect with disparate audiences. Mobile phone provider Verizon, for example, has tapped an array of celebrities in recent months, including Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kate McKinnon.

“We don’t take a one-size fits all approach, [but] develop each campaign strategy as a unique entity,” says Andrew McKechnie, chief creative officer at ANA member Verizon. “The talent, combined with the overall concept, packaging, delivery, placement, and timing of launch, are the key factors that need to be working together to garner success.”

Marketers are also advised to keep an eye out for emerging talent, and look for undervalued stars. In today’s media landscape, stars can emerge overnight. Take the 2020 TikTok video showing a man skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac’s classic tune “Dreams” while quaffing a bottle of Ocean Spray juice.

The post went viral, racking up tens of millions of views and oodles of earned media; the company jumped in by giving the guy a truck packed with its juices.

“Brands should keep a pulse on the zeitgeist and identify emerging stars before they hit the big time,” Ordóñez says. “The more channels there are, the more celebrities and influencers are starting to appear. It’s important to be embedded into the system to understand who is the best match to your brand.”



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