MBPT Spotlight: If The Brand Don’t Fit, The Celebrity Won’t Wear It

Hard as it is to believe, the ad business had its own BCE period—meaning, Before Celebrity Endorsements, a time when stars wouldn’t lend their name to products. At least that was the case in the United States; outside the U.S., it was fair game, and Japan was a big market for American celebrity endorsers.

All that has, of course, changed. Entertainers found that endorsements provided an easy, inarguable income stream, and was a lot easier than an acting gig: Lend your name to the product, pose for a couple of ads, and maybe show up at some retail events and for drinks with the agency after the shoot. Then the checks roll in.

And it went both ways: It was easier for companies to hire a celebrity to stand next to its products—and have the product leech some sort of associated, borrowed equity off the celebrity—than to actually create a resonating brand.

To be fair, it was always dificult to create a brand that was known for something beyond simply being known, and being ubiquitously available. And, over the years, it’s just gotten harder. Nowadays it’s near impossible.

But the endorsing has helped. And understand, when I say “celebrity” in relation to these rules and situations, I’m talking about entertainers and actors and movie stars. Professional athletes—who are, today, perhaps bigger celebrities than celebrities—have always seemed immune to the taint that came with commercializing their talents and product endorsements, and have a long history of such associations. Derek Jeter carried Visa. And Reggie White slurped big-time for Campbell’s Chunky soups.

DiMaggio: From Joltin’ Joe to Cuppa Joe
This isn’t a modern phenomenon. “Joltin’” Joe DiMaggio sold Mr. Coffee machines and the great Yogi Berra asked America “Wasn’t it time for Yoo-Hoo?” Oh, and Joe Namath wore panty hose.

The trick was to find an athlete with some kind of “fit” (no pun intended) between the product and the athlete, where an emotional connection could be made.

It seems to work better with athletes than it does with movie stars who are supposed to be able to act any way the script goes. And nowhere has the success of this approach been as obvious as in the sports apparel category, particularly athletic shoes. Think Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant for Nike. And Allen Iverson for Reebok. And Derrick Rose for Adidas. All these deals have been lucrative for the athletes. But as expensive as they may seem, high-profile endorsements work really well in this category.

There’s an emotional connection made with fans when they see their sport heroes endorsing a line of shoes. It’s something that they physically and emotionally identify with. Maybe they even think in their heart of hearts that the equipment will help them play a bit better; maybe not. But consumers always seem to walk a bit taller and jump a bit higher when they get their hands on the season’s newest sports apparel. They certainly claim bragging rights.

LeBron’s Fitting Comments
Nike came out with its new $200 LeBron 11 basketball shoes in October, calling them “one of the most innovative Nike basketball shoes to date.”

And while fans have been thrilled, one wonders about Mr. James. Apparently in 18 games played since the season opener, Mr. James has only worn the new LeBron 11’s for two complete games. A few times he started the game with the 11’s but switched back to last season’s X model. So what are fans to think when the guy with his name on the shoe isn’t wearing the shoe? What’s a sponsor to think?

Sponsors have been known to show their displeasure when celebrities don’t wear the goods. Swiss watchmaker Raymond Weil accused actress Charlize Theron of two-timing them after Ms. Theron was seen wearing a Christian Dior watch in a perfume ad, and at the SXSW film festival, and in an ad for an AIDS charity. So they sued the Oscar-winning actress for breach of contract. Theron explained it was all just an oversight and eventually settled with her sponsor. Sorry, no terms were disclosed.

Granted, LeBron didn’t wear a competitor’s shoe, but apparently the new 11’s don’t fit him quite so well. He was quoted as saying, “I just want to be able to wear them. It has been a frustrating process. But obviously I know that Nike wants to do what’s best. They’re not going to put me in harm’s way. So we’re redefining the shoe to fit what’s best for my foot and I feel like this next round is going to be perfect.”

The bottom line? That would be exactly what you want from your shoes and your celebrity endorsers—the perfect fit.

Passikoff is founder & president of Brand Keys, Inc., a global brand and engagement consultancy. He can be reached at robertp@brandkeys.com.