Direct Line marketing director: Successful celebrity brand endorsements have a purpose at their heart

Celebrities are everywhere, or so it seems in today’s marketing world. Endorsement has been around since advertising began but it has become the plat du jour over the past decade. High-profile figures can make a real difference to a brand’s reputation and sales.

People relate to people far more readily than they do to products and services. Famous people in particular bring an aspirational quality to anything they endorse. Celebrities help bring credibility and affiliation; the consumer mind-set is often ‘if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me’.

However, it is crucial only to start an association with a personality that is relevant to your brand and audience. Plausibility is key. If it doesn’t seem realistic that the celebrity would use your product in ‘real life’, your customers won’t be fooled.

In 2005, American clothing store Gap made Sarah Jessica Parker the face of its latest range. The $38m collaboration was set to be the company’s first ever multi-season campaign but it lasted less than a year. Carrie Bradshaw, the character Parker played on TV show Sex and the City, is famed for haute couture and designer labels. The public simply didn’t believe that she would shop at Gap.

Conversely, in one of the most successful brand-celebrity partnerships, purpose was at the heart of Nike’s choice for former basketball player Michael Jordan to be the face of its Air products over 20 years ago. An athlete synonymous with making match-winning shots endorsing sports shoes with new technology so you too can fly through the air? Perfect. On the flip side, Nike is also a great example of the inherent risk of celebrity faux pas, for example the Lance Armstrong advert in 2001 where he goaded critics with the now infamous line ‘What am I on? I’m on my bike’.

Celebrity endorsement is normally used to promote products that are viewed as aspirational or to give functional products an extra something. The insurance industry is a great example. With so much distrust in our industry, it is difficult to navigate the marketplace as a consumer. In 2012, we overhauled our thinking and ambition for the Direct Line brand, reframing the purpose of insurance and differentiating ourselves in a commoditised market. We aimed to be useful at the point of need, rather than focusing on the process of purchase like everyone else was doing. We needed to fix people’s problems. Our purpose was clear.

We wanted to personify our commitment to our customers with a high impact campaign that made the public question if their existing insurance policies would deliver the same standard of customer service as Direct Line (“Can your insurance do that?”). Harvey Keitel’s Pulp Fiction character Winston Wolfe — the fixer — was the perfect metaphor for our intent. The campaign tested in the top 2% of advertising campaigns for its ability to increase brand consideration.

The ‘Winston Wolfe’ mentality has become a north star for all brand activity. Internally, we are asking our staff to be ‘fixers’ to help solve customers’ problems fast.

The use of celebrity endorsement in marketing can work very well for a brand, as long as the celebrity depicts what you want your brand to stand for in customers’ minds. The association between celebrity and brand must be purposeful. Where the celebrity merely provides borrowed fame the campaign is far more likely to wither and even cause brand damage.

Mark Evans will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing in November. For more details visit

This is part of a series of columns written by our Vision 100 inductees, who will share their experiences, best practice and thoughts on what makes visionary marketers and organisations. Marketing Week’s Vision 100 in association with Adobe is an exclusive club of the brightest, best and most visionary executives.

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