Resist the A-List

Leith Content Strategist George Gunn on a new breed of ‘influencers’ (and why hiring celebrities for advertising can be more trouble than it’s worth).

[Image credit: Omar Chatriwala]

Kendall Jenner’s had a few weeks to forget.

First up was that Pepsi ad. Then the Fyre Festival disaster, where an island paradise hosted a kind of Lord of the Flies experiment for rich Instagram kids (Kendall used her brand to promote the event). And most recently, Vogue India sparked a twitstorm following their decision to put Jenner — a white woman — on the cover of their 10th anniversary edition. Even Piers Morgan’s had enough, describing the Kardashian clan from his Daily Mail soapbox, without a hint of irony, as “publicity-crazed, unctuously self-absorbed, and vacuous wastrels”.

Two things are notable here (four if you include Piers Morgan’s discovery of and lack of self-awareness). First, Kendall Jenner is estimated to have pocketed over $1million from these three calamities. Fyre Festival co-founder, frat bro Billy McFarland, paid her $250,000 for ONE INSTAGRAM POST (since deleted). Second, the embarrassment in each instance was amplified precisely because it was at the expense of the rich and famous. As Arwa Mahdawi explains, schadenfreude is the emotion that defines our times.

Kendall’s hat-trick.

In theory, the advantages of using A-listers to hawk your band or product are obvious. Not least:

  1. Borrowing their fame to raise awareness and attract new consumers.
  2. Influencing purchase (i.e ‘if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me’).
  3. Positioning a brand with a particular audience.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “The Epic Split” ad for Volvo Trucks perfectly communicates skill, deftness and strength. Jack & Jones used Christopher Walken’s inimitable cool to successfully position their clothing. And Nespresso enjoyed a 35.5% sales lift in the UK thanks to George Clooney.

Clooney and Nespresso. Both smooth, rich and tasty.

But big celebrity endorsements aren’t cheap, and brands effectively piggybacking on someone else’s fame can often find themselves with a case of what the American Marketing Association call ‘video vampire’; i.e. the ad will simply gain the celebrity more exposure while the audience forgets who or what the advert was for. In the AMA’s recent study of Super Bowl advertising, three out of four viewers recognised the celebrity, but just one in four could recall the correct brand.

Then there’s the problem of your brand getting dragged into unwanted scandals. H&M, Burberry and Chanel binned Kate Moss after tabloids ran stories of her drug use, Vic Reeves was the long-running voice of Churchill car insurance until he was charged with drink-driving, and Nike dropped Lance Armstrong and Maria Sharapova after their doping episodes.

Interestingly, Nike did stick by Tiger Woods in 2009 as other endorsers got rid, though they did hang him out to dry through a surreal beyond-the-grave inquest featuring the voice of his late father Earl:

Many celebrity endorsements suffer from having no relevance. Ozzy Osbourne and spreadable vegetable oil, anyone??

Meanwhile, devoted super-athlete Ronaldo clearly never eats fast food. You can practically see him preparing to spit it out in the closing frames. The backdrop of a frenzied crowd gesticulating with breaded chicken legs and holding family buckets aloft, while captions such as “SPICY TALENT” flash up as Ronaldo hurdles tackles, just make this KFC ad even weirder:

There is another way though. Behold the power middle.

These individuals don’t have anything like the universal fame of A-listers, but they make up for it through their relevance, expertise, deep connections and clout within particular circles. As social influencer platform Gnack explain, forming ‘longtail’ partnerships with a relevant handful of these ‘micro-influencers’ tends to be far more powerful and cost-effective than dialling up the A-list for a one-off campaign:

[Image credit: Gnack]

When Strathmore water set out to encourage people all over Scotland to become more active, Leith and Stripe got athletes and brand ambassadors Katie Archibald, Ross Murdoch and Samantha Kinghorn to set a series of cycling, swimming and fitness challenges via Facebook. The campaign brought thousands of social engagements and challenge entries all the way from the Highlands and Islands to the Scottish Borders. And here’s how:

  1. Relevance. Within the worlds of Scottish sport, cycling, swimming and para-sports these athletes are highly-regarded and have a strong number of relationships. Household name celebrities will of course have way more fans and followers, but these tend to be a large mishmash rather than concentrated within a certain niche (and often a lot of their social followers are fake or bot accounts).
  2. The proximity effect. Unlike celebrities, the athletes have closer personal relationships with many of their fans and online followers. There’s a “one of us” mentality at play; i.e. being more down-to-earth, we presuppose they share same challenges as us.
  3. Credibility. Endorsements from the ‘power middle’ come across as authentic, personal recommendations rather than being purely transactional in nature. Strathmore’s athletes regularly went above and beyond throughout the campaign. It’s hard to imagine certain celebrities doing more than what’s contractually expected of them.

Adidas have taken this approach even further underground, with the ‘dark social’ launch of ‘Tango Squads’. Hand-picked thanks to their influence and “ITK” (in the know) standing within football circles on social media, content creators are fed exclusive content via private WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger groups by adidas in-house moderators. As Florian Alt (adidas Senior Director of Global Brand Communications) explains:

“It’s about sheer reach, what the hyper — connected kids bring is mass awareness. These are the guys who will push out your stories and content. They give it longevity and authenticity because they are talking in a private message environment. If it comes as a referral from your mate, you’re much more likely to pick it up than if it comes from a brand.”

Yes, hiring big celebrities will get you an enormous amount of visibility. But true influence drives action, not just awareness. If you’re looking to build long-lasting and authentic relationships with exactly the right audience (isn’t that kind of our job?) micro-influencers might just be your way in.