Marketing: Sometimes It is the Messenger

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As I have mentioned a bunch of times already, I am following a Coursera/Wharton Intro to Marketing course on the Coursera website. I was taking a peek at some of the discussion boards and found that for once I felt like contributing. I tend to be pretty passive in those kinds of things, but somehow I just wanted to ramble in pretty much the same way I do here.

Someone posed the question as to whether there is value in celebrity endorsements, which got the community engaged in a good discussion on how celebrity endorsements have changed in the ever-shifting, digital landscape. The question went a step further, asking whether consumers would be more likely to trust celeb endorsements OR crowdsourced reviews and information (such as information from Yelp, Trustpilot or even customer reviews on Amazon or something similar).

I have given a lot of thought to celebrity endorsements, and more specifically, celebrity activism and causes. We’ve seen celebs like Angelina Jolie as a humanitarian activist and UNHCR goodwill ambassador and pompous mouthpiece Bono of U2 appoint himself a kind of expert on developing-world debt and debt forgiveness (he is possibly the most visible – even if his fellow countryman Bob Geldof got the ball rolling with his Band Aid and Live Aid initiatives back in the early-to-mid 1980s and continues to work with debt forgiveness today). While undertaking my MA in communications for development, there was a segment focused on celebrity activism and cause marketing – as well as “brand aid”, where brands become actively entwined and aligned with a well-known cause or charity, and market their products in a way that makes the consumer feel good about him/herself for buying it, i.e. “One dollar of every purchase goes toward –insert cause here”. A lot of what we studied and discussed had to do with how much of this successful marketing actually contributed to the efforts of the cause – in many cases, just contributing directly to whatever cause would be considerably more advantageous for the cause, so the benefit in the end was debatable.

Point being – are people influenced by celebrity (or brand) involvement? And has this changed? Does it make a difference if it is cause-related? Does the messenger make that big a difference?

During my exploration of the discussion on the Coursera site, I thought about it and concluded that celebrity endorsements may take different forms than they have in the past. That is, giant ad campaigns for Pepsi, for example, featuring mass market stars might not hit the way they would have in 1983 or 1993. But with the granular-level of user data available to begin segmenting and targeting audiences, “smaller-scale” celeb endorsements that target specific groups become possible. Similarly, with social media, a “minor” or “niche” celebrity can have untold numbers of followers that they influence – and this can have a significant effect (and can be a cheaper, easier reach alternative for companies who still want celebrity connections but in a scaled-back way). The channels being used today (not the traditional ad campaigns, etc.) also allow for less overt “endorsement” and more subtle influence.

A few other students made very valid, important points – the nature of the product is key. A celeb endorsement for something like fashion or cosmetic items allows the consumer to project him/herself into that celeb’s lifestyle (“buying a dream”, even if it’s something simple like a new shirt or a bottle of perfume), so they might buy it based on that projection alone, even on a whim. Almost the same could be said for buying a car. A celeb might endorse/advertise a car brand – which might influence the consumer’s positive or negative perception of that brand – but would not ultimately make most consumers buy a big-ticket item like a car based on the endorsement alone. They will do their homework – research and look at actual product reviews from real consumers. Celeb endorsements in those cases create buzz and the “all eyes on me” syndrome.

A good set of examples, actually, comes from Volvo. They built enormous buzz with their “Epic Split” video featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme – and consumers talked a lot about it when the video of the ad went viral – but consumers were not the target of these ads for Volvo (commercial trucks).

But did it pique their interest in Volvo as a whole? Probably. Similarly, targeting consumers, Volvo tapped footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic for another ad campaign – obviously appealing to an entirely different target group. Would anyone buy a Volvo because Zlatan gives his stamp of approval? Probably not – but his endorsement raises the profile and opens the door to research and crowdsourced reviews. Then with the reach of social media, ad campaigns and consumer reviews get a much extended reach – so even if an ad campaign was intended for only the Swedish market, for example, it would not be long before that campaign is seen worldwide if it has that big an impact.

With all of this in mind – having written mostly that “take” on it, I walked away with the ideas still stirring in my mind. I watched a few episodes of the series Years of Living Dangerously, a Showtime documentary series that follows actors/celebs into various places and stories that paint an alarming picture of climate change/global warming. Interesting enough but what struck me was how the show is a kind of “cause marketing” that employs both celebrities and a kind of “crowdsourced expertise”. A lot of documentaries take this tack, of course, asking experts to qualify and confirm the statements someone is making. But in this case it was a less than subtle move to target a specific group of people. Maybe someone would watch this and take Harrison Ford’s word for it that Indonesia has been deforested at a shocking rate. But someone else – particularly someone with disdain for “liberal celebrities and media” would not be inclined to believe a famous actor’s take on climate change no matter how much science or information s/he cited. This came into play when actor Don Cheadle traveled to Texas to assess drought conditions there that have put people out of work, put farms out of business and devastated industry, landscape and economy. The population/target audience, as Cheadle’s narration explains, cites Biblical causes and “solutions” – the people he meets do not believe in science or in the whole concept of global warming. Then Cheadle meets a scientist who also happens to be an evangelical Christian – she is also a loud voice for the truth and science of climate change. Because of who she is – both a scientist and a devout Christian – she is able to talk to and reach this particular audience and get past their doubts and convince them not only that climate change is real but that scientific belief is not at odds with their religious faith. She is not saying anything different from what Al Gore ran around preaching but the audience would not listen to him.

Cheadle made the point that actually gets to my bottom line: Sometimes it is not the content of the message but who delivers it – and this is why both celebrity endorsements and crowdsourcing have their place.

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