Using celebrities to endorse brands is like riding a tiger
By Samit Sinha
Celebrities don’t come cheap. The greater a celebrity’s fame, the more money a brand has to spend to bask in the glow of their reflected glory. So, despite the huge marketing investments and the attendant risks involved, what tempts even the most seasoned marketers to go after celebrities to endorse their brands? The answer clearly lies in the fact that in many instances, celebrity endorsements provide a safe return on marketing investments. But there are also a few examples of it going horribly wrong for the brand, as illustrated by the recent brouhaha involving Coca-Cola and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It should be fairly obvious that a celebrity’s principal constituency is their fans. Therefore, it stands to reason that they would be more concerned about managing their image amongst their followers, rather than amongst the consumers of the brands they endorse. Their popularity — apart from their skills and performances in their respective realms — depends on their public image.
The only real motivation for celebrities to endorse brands is to financially capitalise on their 15 minutes of fame, during which time brands line up to ride on their coattails. The reverse is very rare — though there are exceptions; notably, the girl who became famous as the face of Airtel. However, in most cases, the balance of power is decidedly tilted in favour of the celebrity, rather than the brands they endorse. That’s the main reason why a celebrity’s obligation towards the brands they endorse is more contractual than moral. It would be naïve on the part of marketers to expect otherwise.
Having said that, the contracts between marketers and celebrities tend to be quite tight and specific, and professionalism (not to mention, the threat of lawsuits and loss of income) dictates those celebrities to discharge their contractual responsibilities. But outside of that, brands have very little control on the celebrity’s conduct, or for that matter their continued success — be it a scandal, as in the case of Tiger Woods or closer home, Salman Khan, or a sudden loss of popularity, which is not uncommon, especially in sports. These clearly damage the celebrity’s own image more than that of the brands they endorse and, therefore, are obviously unintentional.
Then there are instances when celebrities decide to publicly state their personal views or to take a stand on controversial social and political issues. Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro publicly roasting a sitting president, Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem, Aamir Khan expressing his insecurity about the socio-political atmosphere in India, and Deepika Padukone manifestly conveying solidarity with JNU students, are all examples of celebrities exercising their freedom of expression, which no one can take away. They have every right to such utterances and actions, unless their brand contracts expressly forbid them from doing so.
However, celebrities do have an obligation to discharge their professional responsibilities towards the brands that they endorse and for which they get paid handsomely. This ought to make them extremely mindful about ensuring that they do not directly damage the reputation of the brands they endorse. To my mind, instances of unacceptable conduct would be LeBron James disparagingly tweeting his issues with a Samsung phone while being paid a huge amount to endorse it, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Charlize Theron making public appearances wearing a Christian Dior watch, while being under contract with Raymond Weil as its brand ambassador.
In conclusion, while celebrity endorsements can be mutually rewarding, they can also backfire. The best a brand can do to safeguard its interests — that too, only to an extent — is to enter into as comprehensive a contract as possible.
The author is founder and managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting