Celebrities can tarnish brands too – time for more creativity in Asian marketing
13 March 2009
It’s time for brands and celebrities to take a long, hard look at each other. Are their tie ups really a match made in heaven? Or are they a tired formula coming under increasing pressure from celebrities’ misdemeanours (and sometimes those of companies too)?
Here in Asia where celebrities have traditionally kept squeaky clean, a number of recent incidents raise questions about the risks for both brands and celebrities in collaborations for endorsements.
A few mishaps which have raised the cringe factor for marketers recently:
- Canto-pop idols Kelvin Kwan Chor-yiu and Jill Vidal, on a short trip from their Hong Kong base to Tokyo, were arrested by police for alleged possession of cannabis in the hip Shibuya neighbourhood. [Unfortunately, the duo featured in a HK Government anti-drugs campaign two years ago, as well as having endorsements with a number of brands];
- Sex photos of Chinese-Canadian pop star Edison Chen and a bevy of Hong Kong starlets including Canto-pop singer Gillian Chung, actress Cecilia Cheung and former actress Bobo Chan were released on the Internet last year. The scandal was revived two weeks ago when Chen, in exile in Vancouver, gave evidence at a court hearing there for the trial of a computer technician accused of stealing and posting the snaps;
- In China, celebrities are upset about a new food safety law. It holds them liable if endorsed products are found to be unsafe. The Food Safety Law has been implemented in response to the dairy milk products scandal last year and holds individuals recommending food in advertisements “jointly liable” for damages. Movie director Feng Xiaogang revealed many stars were concerned and had asked him to raise the issue at the annual session of China’s political advisory body, the CPPCC. “If stars should shoulder joint liability, then quality inspection agencies and media which publicize the ads should be held liable, too,” he said. Several Chinese celebrities advertised Sanlu Group products before it was identified as having added melamine to milk. During the ensuing backlash, online posters demanded stars apologize and compensate families of the six babies killed and 300,000 who fell ill, according to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.
- The phenomenon is not limited to Asia, of course. US Olympics swimming sensation Michael Phelps must have had some difficult discussions with sponsors after a UK newspaper published photos of him smoking a pipe used for marijuana.
So, not only can an out-of-control celebrity risk damaging a brand by association, unsafe products in parts of Asia where safety issues are problematic can also tarnish a star.
Putting the issue of liability aside, it’s clear right across Asia the use of celebrities for PR and marketing is reaching saturation point. It’s really a question of creativity – marketers, creatives, PR consultants, advertisers and brand managers should be developing more engaging ways of connecting with audiences.
So many products and celebrities are supporting each other these days consumers are becoming overwhelmed and fatigued. On the other hand, there are occasional examples of brands and stars who do work so well together they are even complementary. I am thinking here about the Mandarin Oriental’s and Luis Vuitton’s celebrity-studded advertising campaigns, “Our Fans” and an ode to travel. [Interestingly, both celebrities and corporations in the adverts incorporate a cause marketing element, saying they both support various charities. The Mandarin website says it makes a US$10,000 donation.] These are cases of win-wins for brands and the stars’ own brand.
A celebrity endorsement, if being considered, should only be contemplated where they enhance a robust and creative marketing campaign, not be the centrepiece of it. A comprehensive strategy is needed to bring to life and emphasize product features, irrespective of whether there is an ambassador. Without a broader approach, the brand or product risks being perceived as shallow and, if things do go wrong, tied too closely to a naughty star.
If a star adds lustre to a brand, there are a number of actions marketers and brand managers can undertake to minimize risk surrounding celebrity endorsement:
- Undertake a risk audit of the celebrity. Check their background. Spend time with them and their management. Get to know them better – as well as the people they spend time with. Get out and ask around town, including media;
- Develop the brand so that it has its own celebrity status, not just that of the spokesperson ;
- Build profile for corporate and brand spokespeople separate to the stars. They should appear together, but not always;
- Develop a broader, deeper brand strategy, don’t rely solely on celebrity appeal.