The rise of the micro-celebrity: Why brands should tap into this cultural phenomenon

The last century has witnessed a dramatic shift in the cultural definition of the celebrity — once a distant fantasy space, the possibility of becoming a celebrity is now within the grasp of mere mortals.

For a large part of the 20th century, it was not easy for an ordinary person to become a celebrity; the entertainment industry (i.e. media organizations, movie and music production houses etc.) exerted a monopoly in choosing whom to catapult to stardom. The celebrity thus occupied the realm of the extraordinary, remaining a distant dream for most.

The advent of the Internet revolutionized this concept in the early 2000s. For the first time in history, people could bypass the entertainment industry and launch themselves as celebrities through the use of social media: they became micro celebrities.

Who is the micro celebrity?

Twitter is one social media platform used by many to become micro-celebrities

The micro celebrity is self-crafted and self-choreographed; and if well created, gives the average person a taste of fame, gaining an audience outside their circle of friends and acquaintances.

Someone deciding to become a micro celebrity has a host of options at their beck and call, from posting videos on YouTube to Tweeting entertaining updates.

The micro celebrity has certain characteristics that set them apart from mainstream celebrities:

The micro celebrity brand

The micro celebrity builds their own equity just like any brand; they choreograph their own image and take care to ensure that their online presence is in line with this image.

Micro celebrities invest considerable time in managing their profiles, ensuring that their photos, comments and videos are in line with their overall brand image.

Martyn Ashton’s YouTube video ‘Road Bike Party’ has over 11 million views

In addition, micro celebrities carve out unique brand identities for themselves within a niche space. They may earn their fame by blogging about food (Lady Iron Chef in Singapore), giving make-up tips (Michelle Phan), or post videos of themselves performing adventure sports (Martyn Ashton).

A small cult following

In contrast to mainstream celebrities, the micro celebrity has a small, but devoted audience who take a personal interest in their activities.

Xia Xue, Singapore’s controversial top blogger

Most importantly, the audience and micro celebrity engage in an interactive dialogue on social media, fostering the illusion of a personal connection — a much deeper connection than with mainstream celebrities, since micro celebrities respond to each comment personally, free of the stifling cogs from the entertainment industry.

Need not be talented

A micro celebrity can become famous through no talent or effort of his or her own.

For example, Benni Cinkle (the girl in the back seat of Rebecca Black’s Friday video) shot to mini-stardom after fans set up websites promoting her.

Why should brands care, what can brands do?

Through our own research, we have noticed a parallel shift in a seemingly unrelated field — brands have been moving from the realm of aspiration to the realm of authenticity. Today, brands desire an authentic connection with their audience at ground level.

We believe that engaging with micro celebrities can help brands achieve their aim of building an authentic connection with their audience.

Micro celebrity endorsement has several advantages over and above that of traditional celebrity endorsements:

Deeper connect with the audience

On the first level, the very nature of the micro celebrity is that they have a deeply devoted fan base. A brand able to tap into this audience will find it far easier to build a deep rapport with the audience.

Secondly, in contrast to the mainstream celebrity, the micro celebrity is untainted by the established entertainment industry; they do not have a management team, and are thus perceived as more real, relatable and accessible.

This unique aspect of the micro celebrity empowers marketers to establish an untainted unique connection with the audience; the average consumer is becoming savvier and increasingly suspicious of the ‘authenticity’ of mainstream celebrity endorsements.

Ability to carve out brand equity values

When aligning with micro celebrities, brands must take care to choose micro celebrities that reflect the brand’s own core identity. This will serve to clearly market the brand’s core equity values with the target audience; it is far easier to communicate brand values by association with a unique personality than through standard advertisements.

A lucrative initiative

Expanding the brand’s portfolio by endorsing micro celebrities over and above traditional marketing strategies has high payoff potential.

In the first place, securing micro celebrity endorsements costs a brand peanuts compared to regular strategies; large brands routinely spend millions for advertising spots and mainstream celebrity endorsements. In contrast, securing micro celebrity endorsement costs a fraction of the amount; for example, Xia Xue, Singapore’s top blogger with about 50,000 daily readers charges SGD 3,500 for a blog advertorial.

Further, micro celebrity endorsements potentially offer high payoff per dollar spent. In addition to the potential to influence purchasing behavior of the micro celebrity’s brand base, the larger benefit lies in subtly influencing the brand’s image; word of mouth of the brand’s image can ripple outwards from the micro celebrity’s fan base to a wider audience.

This effect is arguably amplified by a combination of two factors: the authenticity communicated through a micro celebrity, and the use of social platforms by an audience that is already highly connected (since by definition, the micro celebrity’s fan base is highly active on social media platforms)

Addressing potential pitfalls

As with all brand communication strategies, there are potential pitfalls engaging micro celebrities that brands would be well advised to take heed of.

We outline a few potential issues here:

Smaller fan base

By definition, micro celebrities have a far smaller fan base than mainstream celebrities (although some micro celebrities have sizeable audiences, such as Michele Pham with 7 million subscribers to her YouTube channel).

However, this should not necessarily deter a brand from investing in micro celebrity endorsements; there is scope for higher quality gained from depth rather than breadth, so to speak. Reinventing brand image on a deeper level with a smaller audience may work out to be a better strategy than mass communication that fails to leave an impression on a wider audience.

Temporary fame

In general, brands may be deterred by the perception that micro celebrities’ fame is of a shorter duration than that of mainstream celebrities.

However, the micro celebrity’s personal connection with the audience could outweigh their short-lived fame; in an increasingly saturated mainstream celebrity culture, mass audiences are no longer able to clearly distinguish between mainstream celebrities. (This saturation is both due to an unprecedented number of mainstream celebrities in public consciousness as well as homogeneity in mainstream celebrity personalities).

Micro celebrity strategy needs to be tailored to individual brands

In addition to needing to carefully choose micro celebrities that enhance a brand’s core values, marketers would be wise to note that this is not a one-size-fits all strategy.

For example, it may be to the detriment of an exclusive brand to use this strategy, as it moves the brand away from the aspirational to the ordinary.

A case study: Red Bull

Red Bull is a fantastic example of a brand successfully leveraging the power of the micro celebrity. The brand has successfully associated itself with a range of micro celebrities to promote its core value: high energy.

Red Bull sponsored Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space

Red Bull is a dominant force on the adventure sports scene, sponsoring around 600 world-class extreme sport athletes from 120 different sports. These athletes are micro celebrities in their own right; most practice niche sports and are known only by ardent fans.

Through this strategy, Red Bull has successfully managed to do three things:

Establish a deeper connect with its core audience: Red Bull goes beyond standard sponsorship to actively build an athlete’s career; for example, the brand built an entire training facility for Shawn White, a snowboarder who went on to win the gold medal in the 2010 Olympics. This strategy enables the brand to resonate with their core audience; the adventure sports junkie.

Build a unique brand equity: Ask anyone what Red Bull stands for, and you’ll probably get answers along the lines of adventure sports, extreme living or high energy. The brand has successfully managed to use micro celebrities to augment their own equity by choosing personalities that embody values they stand for; the most famous example being Felix Baumgartner (who set the world record for the highest parachute jump, breaking the sound barrier in the process)

Build a lucrative brand: As a trademark, the brand is valued at £5 billion (Coca Cola is valued at £ 25bn and Pepsi at £10bn). This is a remarkable achievement for a 25-year-old brand with a comparatively small size of sales. The brand is estimated to spend around 35% of its budget on marketing.

But the real value of engaging micro celebrities lies in a subtler payoff; in the consumer’s mind, Red Bull is seen as the authentic brand next door that does good for the community.

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