Long before TMZ discovered sports, and every gossip and media entity unilaterally decided that it was their rightful place to comment on the personal lives of athletes, the business of assessing spokesperson ROI had been a hot topic for many marketers.
Extensive research that we and others have done over the years has not only shed macro-level insight on the effectiveness and impact of celebrity endorsements as a whole, but has also led to some interesting conclusions about this genre of marketing in the first place.
John Gray, author of the popular 1992 book, Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus, could have probably written an entire sequel on the impact of aspirational advertising on the sexes. Gender, generational cohort, affluence and age all weigh heavily on the ability of celebrity endorsement to positively or adversely affect a brand's image and desirability against a variety of consumer segments.
At the risk of over-generalizing, our work has shown that the traditional aspirational model does not always work well with men, particularly older, successful and affluent professional men who tend to be sports fans. The way I have typically framed it over the years, is that men "Do not want to be like Mike ... They want to beat him to a pulp." In other words, gratuitous pandering to celebrity will typically fall on deaf ears or eyes for this target. If one is fiercely competitive and successful in his own right, our research has shown celebrity worship to have little resonance.
However, I'm not at all concluding that the right type of associations can't be effective with a male target. Far from it. The key, we've found is to frame associations in personally relevant ways and from a non-condescending vantage point.
One way that we, as researchers, assess whether an association or positioning is working, is through a variety of "projective techniques" called personification. Simply put, personification exercises, often used in focus groups or in one-on-one qualitative interviews, force respondents to take themselves out of the equation.
A commonly used exercise asks a respondent to equate brands to other brands in disparate categories ... or, more aptly, to indicate which celebrities one might envision would legitimately use the product or service being tested.
The richness of the technique comes not just from the brands or celebrities mentioned, but from the reasons cited by the respondents. I can recall a particular project for a sporting goods manufacturer where, much to the client's amusement, the celebrities cited for a competitor's product were all dead!
Further probing elicited the relevant associations that clearly revealed that the competitive brand in question was suffering from a dated and tired set of perceptions. The marketing utility was obvious. An opportunity arose for our client to play up these perceptions and position their brands in a more relevant and comfortable way.
Further work of this type allowed a greater exploration of which potential spokespeople might provide for a consistent fit with both the desired and actual image of the client's brand. And it's critical, we've found, that celebrity endorsers must be perceived to be both expressive of the brand's desired positioning as well as credible and believable as an endorser of that particular brand, to maximize positive impact.
Making the right endorsement decisions has truly become a more complex confluence of art meeting science. And with the constant scrutiny and waning privacy that is a reality of our world today, it's a decision that requires brand investment both before and after the spokesperson is selected.