The Problem with Celebrity Endorsements and Influencers

8119923047_47ef2cf2e8_mWhile social media is often pitted against more “traditional” marketing tactics, there is one commonality that tends to reign over all marketers. That is the desire for a big name to support and promote your company or your products. That could mean a well-known company writing you a glowing testimonial, a celebrity endorsing your product, or a well-known social media person sharing one of your posts or products with his or her large audience. These relationships create gold often enough that marketers continue to strive for them, no matter what happens.

One could certainly have argued a couple of weeks ago that Nike’s relationship with “the blade runner” Oscar Pistorius was a match made in heaven. Pistorius made a name for himself during the 2012 London Olympics. He was the first double amputee to race and he performed admirably. Stories about how he inspired many other physically challenged athletes were the talk of the summer.

That is all well in the past now. On Valentine’s Day, Pistorius was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, who was found shot inside his well fortified house.

In perhaps the most cringe-worthy incident of celebrity endorsements gone wrong, Pistorius had been hosting a Nike ad at his site that looked like this:

Screen capture from AdAge article

Screen capture from AdAge article

That’s right. It says, “I am the bullet in the chamber.”

Not surprisingly, Nike pulled this ad immediately. You can read more about Nike’s reaction in AdAge.

Of course, not all celebrity endorsements go this badly. Look how successful the Snickers campaign with Betty White was. It was great for her and for the company. But events like this make you wonder what else could go wrong in relationships between companies and influential individuals, whether those relationships are nurtured in the online world, the offline world, or both.

The Impact On Your Brand

Will anyone hold Nike responsible for using Pistorius as a celebrity endorser? Probably not. It was a match made in heaven. His Olympics performance seemed to embody Nike’s “Just do it” attitude. And how could they have known such a terrible thing would happen?

Here’s the problem, though. Most companies are not Nike. If you are a smaller company, if you are a nonprofit organization, and your entire strategy is built around one person giving you the exposure you need, you are inviting trouble. Big trouble. The safer bet is to go the grassroots path. Build brand loyalty through old-fashioned means like high-quality products, a strong brand, and effective customer service. Make lots of people want to talk about you rather than paying one person to talk about you. Build a community. Build what John Jantsch calls the Referral Engine. Build your company so that if one of your brand supporters disgraces him or self, your brand will be able to withstand the blow.

This is 180 degrees from the way social media marketing is going, by the way. In the online world, there are platforms like PeerIndex, Klout, and Kred that measure a person’s “influence.” Companies are being taught to look for people who are “influential” in their areas and then target those people with tweets or Facebook updates. The ability to get the word out about a product is not the same as being a credible person, however, and as of yet there is not a platform that can evaluate a person’s soul. When you align yourself with an individual, you are putting your company’s fate in that person’s hands. If that is your only strategy, a misstep could be the end of you.

What would you do if you had aligned with Pistorius? Would you have been more forceful in your statement or would you have backed away quickly and quietly as Nike did? How would you deal with the aftermath? How are you dealing with the “influencer” issue now?

We’d love to hear from you.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidcjones/8119923047/ via Creative Commons


27 comments on “The Problem with Celebrity Endorsements and Influencers

  1. I think it’s smart to wait for the facts to roll out before making taking definitive action. Nike’s approach seems to me to be fairly wise. (Of course, they have more experience with misbehaving endorsees than anyone in history, don’t they?)

  2. In my opinion, working with athletes and young performers presents challenges.

    First, they’re typically young folks. They’re still experiencing life. Some experiences are great — helping sick kids, for example – while others are not as stellar, e.g. drinking a beer before age 21, speeding, or like Michael Phelps, being photographed partaking of an illegal substance.

    Second, unlike most of their peers, the elite athlete is on a national or international stage.

    A solution: Add A Values Clause: Make the celebrity keenly aware of what behaviors will and won’t be tolerated, what will result in firing. (Of course, this potentially means valuing brand reputation over profits.) Include penalties, eg forfeiture of endorsement, repatriation of dollars, etc.

    And, Set an example. Don’t expect your talent to behave like a saint while you and your staff behave like sinners.

    • I think that’s fantastic advice. Sadly, if it turns out Pistorius really did what he is being accused of, there isn’t much his partner companies could do about it. You shouldn’t have to delineate, “Please do not commit any significant crimes,” right?

      The athlete issue is interesting. Charles Barkley made quite a splash with his “I’m not a role model” ad. I think athletes can seem attractive to some people because of their “Go get ’em” attitude, but sometimes people who are geared that way also have problems controlling anger or frustration. It’s a tricky issue.

  3. Margie – I think there is something to be said for grassroots endorsements. If you were in the market for a pair of sneakers, whose endorsement would you be more likely to believe, Michael Jordan (paid spokesperson) or your mom (unpaid and unbiased)?

  4. You could say the same thing about Tiger Woods five years ago. But Tiger Woods made Nike a lot of money. So did Lance Armstrong. So I am not sure I buy the fail and done. And how many endorsements go well for everyone that tanks out? I think the whole picture is important to consider.

    • Well companies like Nike have a lot more room for “readjusting.” People aren’t going to stop buying Nike products at this point because of a celebrity endorser. But if you’re a small company and you buy into the celebrity or “influencer” concept, it could really backfire on you. That’s my concern – the overall strategy of it.

  5. I would add that this is going to be more of an issue going forward — AND less of one.

    Our culture churns through more “celebrities” than ever, and with niche audiences and tools, and fragmented attention, few will be in the spotlight long enough to damage themselves while in the window of attention.

    Be honest — how many people would have associated Pistorius with Nike if it hadn’t been pointed out? Last year, yeah. This year, not so much.

    So, more fauxlebrities doing stupid things means more bad brand accidents — but it also means less lasting impact. There are only a few in the long-term category.

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