Pass the Mic to the Smitten Customer
By Andrea Bullard
By the time David Beckham agreed to serve as a brand ambassador for Samsung in 2012, the list of products endorsed by the soccer star had already begun to resemble the inventory of a big box store. Between 1999 and 2011, Beckham leant his famous visage to Pepsi soft drinks, Gillette razors, Adidas shoes, Sharpie markers, and Armani underwear, among many others.
Most significantly for Samsung, Beckham’s diverse slate of endorsements had also included Motorola’s AURA phone. That relationship ended when paparazzi exposed Beckham’s true cellular loyalties in a well-publicized incident. He was caught—in the middle of his lucrative contract with Motorola—immersed in an iPhone.
Perhaps Samsung was either unaware or unconcerned about this when it enlisted Beckham to promote its brand in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games: “We’re delighted that David will be supporting our goal to extend the Olympic Games spectator experience to fans throughout the world using our leading smart mobile technology,” it said in a press release.
Though Beckham may have embraced the Galaxy smartphone maker publicly, his private preferences remained unchanged; Beckham was again photographed using an iPhone that same year. When confronted, he stated that he was holding the phone for a friend. Samsung wasn’t convinced—it cut its losses and ended the deal.
Samsung is hardly the only company to experience this particular form of embarrassment. Oprah famously tweeted about how much she loved the Microsoft Surface while using an iPad. During her deal with Yardley Cosmetics, Helena Bonham Carter announced she didn’t wear makeup, and, despite her contract with Raymond Weil, Charlize Theron was spotted at an event wearing a Dior watch. The list goes on.
When companies spotlight famous people in their messaging, they run the risk of undermining their core story, which is about the triumphs of actual customers, not stars who pretend to use their products for a paycheck.
Beyond the obvious examples of paid sponsorship being powerfully undercut by a celebrities true loyalties, brands who want to present a human face have much more powerful advocates: their customers. Leveraging authentic customer experiences not only strengthens a brand’s connection with existing customers, but gives prospective buyers a reason to believe they can find similar delight. The satisfied customer is, quite simply, a more credible spokesperson.
Companies that can afford celebrity endorsements typically have thousands—if not millions—of happy customers. So, why is this tactic exceedingly common for brands? According to Psychology Today, advertisers believe that paid endorsements work because celebrities capture the attention of distracted audiences who transfer their positive feelings for the celebrity to the brand. It’s believed customers will then buy the star-backed products over those of competitors, with the hopes of attaining star-like qualities.
This is a dated assumption. As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill throughout 2020, it exposed that the very nature of celebrity has changed. With celebrities stuck at home just like every other person, their cachet—and ability to influence and define culture—waned significantly. Platforms such as Tik Tok democratize the type of content that captures widespread attention, and in the current environment a clever, amateur video from a customer has as much likelihood of engaging people as a coveted celebrity endorsement. Indeed, the advent of Cameo has verified this trend: celebrity endorsements are now available on demand and inexpensively, a powerful reflection of how much their value has declined.
This is consistent with another change: consumers, especially millennials, value authenticity above status. They connect with the brands who work to reach them on a personal level, while rejecting those that use aggressive marketing tactics to garner attention.
A 2017 survey found that 78 percent of millennials were unaffected by celebrity endorsements when making purchases—or had an outright negative view of them. The survey revealed similar attitudes towards micro-celebrity (also known as influencer) endorsements, with roughly two-thirds of respondents reporting either indifference or mistrust for brands that use this tactic. The influencer customers really want to hear from? Their friends who actually use the brand.
Despite the abundance of research regarding this shift, companies continue to rely on famous spokespeople to bridge the gap between products and everyday customers, spending millions on endorsement deals.
Brands do reap short-term financial benefits when they employ stars in marketing. According to one study, signing a celebrity boosts sales by an average of four percent. But those short-term gains (which are very expensive to acquire) fail to cement the long-term loyalty of younger audiences who view celebrity endorsements as dishonest. “[Millennials] are almost naturally skeptical of advertising,” says writer and marketing expert Matthew Tyson. “They think it’s all spin, so they don’t bother paying attention.”
Though it once also relied on Beckham’s endorsement to sell its markers, Sharpie has smartly adapted to meet this shift in consumer desires.
A 2008 Sharpie commercial showed Beckham signing autographs for awe-struck fans, who then insisted on taking the pen for themselves. Instead of continuing to rely on a single famous signature, Sharpie decided to use its social media to reach its millions of customers on a more personal level, and celebrate the true magic of its product: the self-expression it makes possible for countless people every day. The customer-first strategy worked: within three years, the already ubiquitous Sharpie gained an additional 5 percent market share.
The brand continues to focus on making connections with real customers. In September 2020, the brand shared the work of graphic designer Imma Startorio on its Instagram. Sartorio is not a famous artist; her own Instagram has fewer than 1,000 followers. She created a design using her own Sharpies, and shared her success with the company using hashtags.
What Sharpie gains from sharing the work of people like Sartorio is not only clout, but community. By showcasing real connections, Sharpie gains the trust of customers who view the brand as invested in their experiences, while also presenting itself as an approachable mentor.
That feeling of trust and community is apparent in the abundance of comments Sharpie receives when it reposts user-generated content from customers who feel empowered to make requests for new products. Sharpie always replies, and that responsiveness pays. Sixty-two percent of millennials report staying loyal to those brands who interact with customers on social media.
Generating this kind of engagement with customers isn’t just about sharing their content. A large number of companies miss this opportunity for a depressingly simple reason: they see themselves, and their products, as what is most worthy of attention in their brand. A celebrity endorsement only helps cement this impression—it can leave the impression that the brand sees itself elevated to a certain status above its own customers.
Taking a customer-centered approach to increasing brand awareness suggests that a company favors people over profits, authenticity over status. Effectively achieving this objective first requires the brand to be reflective—and humble—enough to recognize that its customers are the real center of its story. Carefully defining that narrative, and the empowering relationship between company and customer, unlocks a framework that provides structure for users to carry the brand story forward on their own: trusted to use their own words, creativity, and relationships to endorse the product as their own.
Companies who rely on celebrity spokespeople would do well to remember that there’s only one true celebrity in their organization: the smitten customer.
Andrea is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.