Celebrity endorsement and the misuse of influence

Russell Glenister, SnapRapid founder & CEO

Celebrities have been endorsing products more or less as long as there have been celebrities.

And now, as social media challenges the established marketing order and shakes advertising by the throat, we appear to be entering a Golden Age of celebrity influence over consumers.

Back in the day it was baseball legend Babe Ruth peddling Old Gold cigarettes and Red Rock Cola – apparently “the finest I have ever tasted”- from billboards and newspaper ads Coast to Coast.

Today Cristiano Ronaldo does the same job for brands selling everything from sneakers to underwear, taking in fast food (KFC) and motor oil (Castrol) and it has all helped earn a chunk of his reported $300 million personal wealth. But what hikes Ronaldo’s value is not just his presence on commercials across broadcast and print media but his 30.6 million Twitter followers and 100m Facebook likes.

The shift of advertising dollars to social media has not only boosted the earning power of sports and entertainment stars, it has helped create and enrich a breed of star born out of social media itself. According to San Francisco-based agency Capitv8 anyone can make Big Bucks from endorsements so long as they have the right number of social media followers because, even if they have never made a movie, released a single or scored a goal or touchdown, they have influence….and they have it in spades.

Captiv8 says that top internet celebrities can earn $75,000 a brand-plugging Instagram post and $30,000 per Tweet. At only 140 characters that’s $214 every time a finger hits the keyboard.

Social media has certainly driven the premium on celebrity endorsements which has been fired-up by ad-blocking software which means that branding and endorsement which appears in images and video posted by or on behalf of celebs and then re-posted by the public have become gold dust.

Of course there have always been influencers, like the feared – and probably hated – Broadway critics who could close a show and ruin reputations with a single barbed review. There have, for some time now, been society figures whose fashion sense has shaped a season’s ‘look’ as well as singers, actors and models and even politicians whose own choices and endorsements shapes the way the public thinks and critically, what the public buys.

But the inclusive and interactive nature of social media has taken the potential of celebrity endorsement to a new level….so long as the context and conditions are appreciated and that it is done, not just properly, but well.

Right now the use of social media influencers by brands is under scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US the FTC investigated and found against Warner Bros for paying social influencers to plug their Shadow of Mordor game without insuring that the payments were publicly disclosed. Those influencers included the Swedish YouTube “legend” PewDiePie who was reported as saying that while he had disclosed (somewhat discretely?), disclosure rules remained a confused area.

That’s bad news for the brands and the endorsers because the one thing that makes endorsement effective is trust. In the days of standard TV and press ads the public understood it was all about a transaction and formed opinions accordingly. That wasn’t the case of a newspaper cinema reviewer who was expected to be entirely impartial. Their influence was based on trust.

It’s against this background that my company SnapRapid, have come across a few examples – amongst many – of recent celebrity endorsements which would have produced different results for different reasons.

Let’s start at the Olympic Games where British distance runner Mo Farah celebrated a gold medal by clumsily hanging his gleaming yellow Nike shoes around his neck in full view of photographers and TV cameras, knowing that the moment would be captured and posted thousands of times within minutes.

Now Farah is sponsored by Nike but Nike itself is not an Olympic Games sponsor and was forced to operate with a degree of stealth during Rio 2016. I watched the race live and this looked like an over-thought, clunky, graceless and, frankly, unnecessary effort to bend the rules. It may have delivered exposure but did little for either brand Nike or brand Farah. We know he is on Nike’s payroll but was this part of the deal?

The European football transfer window also brought to the surface a video, which shows what a crude instrument sponsorship deals, combined with celebrity access for brand exposure, can be in the wrong hands and how things can backfire. Shkodran Mustafi, the German international who signed for Premier League Club Arsenal, was captured on video in the build up to a press conference for his former team Valencia of Spain.

As he took his seat in front of the customary logo board of club sponsors, the player, who is a Muslim, spotted a bottle of a sponsor’s beer placed directly in front of him to ensure maximum exposure for the Estrella brand. As a teetotaller he asked for it to be removed, invoking a standoff with a club official who, when the player tried to compromise, by moving the bottle to the side of the desk, was having none of it, reducing the whole episode to farce – a farce which was captured for social media. The result was that the club looked foolish, the sponsor brand was diminished through no fault of its own and only the player came out with his reputation enhanced for trying to stick to his beliefs. One very practical lesson is that if you are going to screw up like that it’s best not to do it at a media conference, that then gets posted online.

Unless he had an exclusion in his contract, Mustafi was being paid to carry out his duties as a player and, therefore, to promote its sponsors for his club. Yet the sponsor and club suffered because the detail had not been thought through.

For an example of celebrity endorsement which really hit the mark we go back to the Olympic Games where Fiji, a comparatively tiny South Seas island nation, won the Gold Medal in the first ever Olympics Sevens Rugby competition. It was a priceless moment because it wasn’t just the first Sevens medal but the first ever Olympic medal of any colour, for any sport, won by Fiji. Naturally it triggered national rejoicing and the team’s English coach was given three acres of land and made a Chief as a reward.

Interviewed after the Gold medal game the team’s captain, Osea Kolinisau, had a message for the people back home: “Go crazy,” he said. “Go nuts. You deserve this. This victory is for all of Fiji and all of the Pacific islands.”

Asked how he would celebrate the success he said: “McDonalds! We weren’t allowed to go! So I’m really looking forward to having a Big Mac right now!”

Now that just about nails it. A money-can’t-buy endorsement that, so far as we know, money hadn’t bought. As a result, it was heartfelt, genuine and entirely credible, unlike the other examples I’ve highlighted.

I don’t know whether the Fiji team is now contracted to McDonald’s but maybe McDonald’s should consider it, as it would be a good fit – the kind of fit we have found to work effectively, but only if they were keep faith with the kind of golden moment, as delivered by Fiji’s captain, that followed Fiji’s triumphant success.

The point is that social media has made the world of celebrity endorsement more powerful and valuable but there are banana skins along the way, particularly if the content produced for a brand and featuring a celebrity lacks any sort of passion or conviction – or any credibility.

That’s why I have spent the last year or so with my team at SnapRapid developing sophisticated proprietary technology, which enable us to identify brands and celebrities wherever they appear across social media platforms. It’s part of a suite of endorsement and sponsorship tools which allow us not only to identify where and for how long the exposure takes place, but the context and sentiment around it. We’re able to identify sources, track what types of content work and which don’t and, using another development based on deep learning, analyse millions of social media posts to find powerful links and trends.

If brands are going continue to plough money into working with rights holders and celebrities, they need to start doing so based on detailed analysis. They require access to relevant data, which will enable them to develop strategies, which help avoid building the kind of inappropriate relationships we see playing out in public view daily, through the social media data we analyse.

If these brands, who are involved in significant sponsorship and endorsement deals, were to see what we see, they’d rethink their strategies. Surprisingly, they continue to splurge substantial sums on sponsorship and endorsement deals they have little understanding of, either in terms of how effective they are, or credible they are perceived.

Without the conviction and knowledge that real data delivers, their investments will inevitably result, not only in wasted expenditure, but inappropriate and misplaced exposure, which is potentially damaging to the most important aspect of any company, their brand image.

brandcelebrityCristiano RonaldoendorsementMo Farahsocial media

Russell Glenister • 7th September 2016

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