Celebrities and marketing: A match made in heaven…or not?

By Lawrence Chia

With the thrill of the FIFA World Cup 2014 now behind us, Hong Kong is getting back to work.

The memories of the tournament will last a lifetime, especially for the new celebrities whose star is on the rise, like German World Cup hero Mario Gotze, who scored the championship-winning goal in extra time. This handsome 22-year-old now has the world at his feet and is no doubt being courted by any and every big brand – from famous sportswear brands to drink manufacturers to cars, watches, and beyond.

The essence of celebrity marketing is choosing a famous personality – sports star, pop singer, movie star, and so on – to endorse a product or brand in order to create positive association, build intimacy, and affect purchasing intentions. This practice has been in wide use the world over for decades, but it is particularly prevalent in Hong Kong.

Fame can bring faux pas

Earlier though, Gotze made a serious faux pas when he appeared at a press conference for his new team Bayern Munich sporting a Nike T-shirt. The problem being that the team is sponsored and partly-owned by Adidas, who were “negatively surprised” by the star’s fashion disaster.

Anyone in marketing will wince at the disastrous implications of having a celebrity show up to your company’s sponsored event wearing your direct competitor’s logo. Accident or otherwise, this brings into focus the fact that celebrity marketing is a valuable tool that can also be unpredictable and difficult to master.

In Hong Kong’s small, saturated market, brands often need an extra kick to differentiate their products from the herd. Our city environment is also media-intensive, and the explosive attention-getting power of celebrities can create instant response and engagement. This can be expensive – a personal appearance by an A-lister carries a hefty fee – but it’s a financial risk many brands are willing to take in Hong Kong, where ‘celebrity worship’ is widespread.

Big rewards, but big risks

However, this is not always the case. One late-2013 study on the influence of celebrities in advertising returned very mixed results, describing their presence as a ‘mixed bag’ for brands. Often celebrity ads underperformed, except when the personalities appeared to have a strong, emotional connection to the brand they were endorsing. It is this connection that is crucial.

When people ‘love’ a celebrity, they are especially attuned to their emotional state, and if fans perceive a celebrity is just ‘going through the motions’, the connection will not be real and believable and thus, not marketable.

So how can your brand ‘do’ celebrity marketing in Hong Kong properly? By paying close attention to the following four points:

1. Do your research and pick the right celebrity

Not all celebrities are suitable for all brands. No matter if you are aiming at a younger, more lively demographic, or seek to create an air of trustworthiness and gravitas, make sure the celebrity you select matches your brand image and embodies the values and lifestyle you want to help your audience connect with.

Also make sure they are not endorsing too many other brands at the same time, or your brand association will not make the same impact.

2. Make sure the rest of your campaign is solid

While the celebrity may be the ‘face’ of your campaign, the script, preparation, and event management form the rest of campaign’s body – without which it would not function.

The hard work of brand-building comes after the initial celebrity appearance, when marketers work to keep the ‘flame of engagement’ alive.Once a celebrity endorsement is confirmed, plan on spending at least the same amount for buying media time and campaign collaterals to allow the campaign to grow.

3. Create a strong connection between the celebrity and the product

It’s vital that your celebrity is switched on, focused, and engaged with your product, in the words of a Ketchum report, “endorsements should create a credible belief that the celebrity would be interested in buying and using your product or service despite being paid to do so. If that is not achieved, you have wasted your money.”

Indeed – without this belief, there is no connection and no audience engagement.

4. Manage any appearances carefully

Generally what can go wrong often does, as Gotze’s wardrobe malfunction shows. Spend the time to research, run through, strategize, and above all communicate to ensure that you have everything possible covered and an action plan for if things go wrong.

Celebrities can give your brand the extra elevation they need to reach the wide audience you deserve, but use them sparingly, wisely, and with caution.

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