There was a time when young boys doffed their caps as their headmaster passed by, when bank managers were held in high regard and politicians were revered.
In short, we all used to defer to a higher authority, one composed of our elders and betters. In the age of deference, everything was so much simpler – a small band of professionals and “betters”was lionised as the voice of a generation, its views espoused and sanctified as gospel.
However, consumers no longer feel the need to reference their behaviour against this small band of individuals. There is an ever-increasing chasm of trust between the mandarins of history and today’s consumer. Trust in society’s betters has wavered considerably, and in many cases has vanished altogether.
It seems we are now influenced by a continuous stream of persuasive reference sources, that might include other consumers, employees, friends and family, third-party endorsement, experts, TV personalities, the media, brand experience and – most worryingly – celebrities.
The opinions of Fern Britton and Phillip Schofield – the presenters of ITV1’s This Morning – are more likely to carry weight and influence as to the efficacy of a new drug than any leading physician or politician. Coleen McLoughlin is now the face of Asda, having replaced her boyfriend Wayne Rooney, and many newspapers are devoid of news but full of celebrity chitchat. It is not trust itself that has disappeared, but the individuals and sectors of society that we used to invest our trust in.
Hence the rise in the number of celebrities – the new bastions of society and de facto doyennes of taste – who are seen as replacements for the more solid pillars of earlier times. How far celebrities are a good investment for marketers and the brands that they represent is debatable.
Recent research, for example, suggests marketers should err on the side of caution when using celebrities, and shows that consumers are now less susceptible to, and more sceptical about, the link between product and superstardom. So why is there still such a demand for product endorsement by so many brands? The simple answer is that marketers believe that some of the infamy of the celebrity – along with their unquantifiable brand values – will somehow rub off on their products. Healthy foods choose sporting legends as allies, fast cars use Formula 1 drivers, cosmetics companies use beautiful actresses and financial services use presenters with a cerebral bent. All very obvious. Unfortunately, the celebrity all too often becomes the focus of the ad, leaving the product on the sidelines. Agencies and clients must remember to put the idea first and the celebrity second, if at all.
In addition, the damage to a brand’s reputation that can arise from a star’s poor behaviour will far outweigh the enhancement gained by the initial endorsement. Combine this with the fact that people quickly forget what product a celebrity is promoting, or are so mesmerised by the sight of them that they never make the link in the first place.
There is simply never a perfect match between product and personality. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe “malfunction” at the Super Bowl damaged not only her reputation but those of the sponsors too, some of which – like AOL – asked for their money back. In that instance, there was just no obvious synergy between nudity and an internet provider. Compare this, however, with Virgin Mobile’s brilliant campaign using the reportedly drug-snorting Kate Moss. Its brand values are all about bucking the establishment and Ms Moss’ inclusion was destined to bolster that image.
But where is the correlation between so many other products and the celebrities that endorse them? While I am sure David Beckham shaving and thus promoting a razor seems credible, the link between Tiger Woods and a financial consulting firm is harder to make, except, as one enlightened commentator suggested: “Perhaps he and the chief executive play golf together.”
Jamie Oliver’s link with Sainsbury’s was reported to be on the rocks until he became a beacon of hope for the reduction in child obesity, and Gary Lineker’s relationship with Walkers crisps has been unaffected by the tabloids’ exposé of his divorce. Both, however, enjoy remarkably secure and enviably large reservoirs of goodwill with the public.
It should not be forgotten that celebrity is short-lived, very fallible and, all too often, the link with the promoted product is very tenuous.
• Charles Vallance is founding partner of Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest