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Richard Branson, the face of Bulova Accutron
Richard Branson, the face of Bulova Accutron
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Brand ambassadors: More than face value

Sir Richard Branson epitomises a new breed of brand ambassador for jewellers – one that is more than just a famous face. Ian Cook finds out how endorsement tactics are changing.
Recruiting a high-profile celebrity to provide public testimony for the worth of a consumer product is a longstanding marketing strategy. From Michael Jordan and Nike to the likes of Charlize Theron and Keira Knightley in any number of perfume ads – the recipe appears to be simple: take one consumer brand, add a famous face to offer their endorsement, publicise the union on TV and in print, and voila! You have achieved better brand recognition, a higher level of perceived credibility, and – hopefully – increased sales of your product.

“Brand ambassadors are there in the hope that consumers have a respect for that celebrity, and that respect will become associated with the products,” says Dr Marc Brennan from the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney explains. “It’s about the meaning that’s attached to the celebrity suddenly becoming attached to the product.”

Brennan’s emphasis on meaning cannot be underestimated. Whereas previously the celebrity strategy may have seemed straightforward, now it’s not such an easy formula.

A recent study by Los Angeles-based advertising analytics agency Ace Metrics found that – as far as TV advertising is concerned, at least – using celebrities can actually hurt a brand more than it helps it. On average, ads without celebrities earned higher scores than those with celebrities in the categories of likeability, desire for the product, watchability and the ad’s power to hold a viewer’s attention.

Reasons for the failures of the ads featuring celebrities included confusion about the product being endorsed, a dislike of the celebrity (many stars are polarising opinion), or simply that viewers found the ads to be boring. “No amount of celebrity endorsement can replace a well-crafted message and execution,” says Ace Metrix chief executive Peter Daboll. “It’s the message and how it resonates with consumers that matters.”

Granted, not every brand-endorsed watch and jewellery brand is necessarily investing in the high-cost, high-impact TV campaigns that proliferate in industries like fashion and perfume, but one important fact holds true across the board: consumers are changing, and the mere presence of a celebrity will no longer necessarily yield positive results. “Often, celebrities are used simply for perceived endorsement,” says Andy Wright, general manager of branding consultancy Interbrand Australia. “The desired consumer outtake is, ‘If a celebrity is willing to put their name on a product and it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me.’ Brands need to try harder; simply taking pictures of the ambassador with the brand or product is no longer enough.”

‘Trying harder’ involves thinking harder about the relevance of the ambassador to the brand, and even more vitally – as Daboll tells us – making sure they stick to the message of what the brand is about. If these two factors are missing, as the Ace Metrix study showed, consumers will not respond kindly to the marketing of the brand – regardless of how famous the celebrity may be.

As Melissa Hoyer, style commentator and contributing editor-at-large of Grazia magazine points out, “Where the association is right, and with good branding, people will respond to it more and more. But the connection has to be credible – it’s about integrity.”

The other major hazard that advertising executives and brand managers need to negotiate is, of course, the fallibility of celebrities. Tying a brand to the public image of a celebrity is a high-risk endeavour. “The biggest potential pitfall comes from the fact that celebrities are people,” says Brennan. “Even though they can be very tightly managed, they can – and do – fall from grace. Lindsey Lohan is an example of someone for whom brand value has changed dramatically in just a few years.” This point is reaffirmed by Wright: “Celebrities are so powerful because of their influence and omnipresence – but they’re just as destructive for those same reasons.”

Perhaps the most spectacular example of public image free-fall is Tiger Woods. Complementing the talents that saw him regarded by many as the finest golfer in history, he demonstrated professionalism, single-mindedness and a will to win that were second to none. Combining that with his image as a wholesome, doting family man, Woods was the advertising world’s equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. He was paid product endorsement fees that made him the highest earning sports star on the planet. But following revelations of misdemeanours in his private life, one by one Woods’ sponsors – including Gillette, Accenture, AT&T and Gatorade – dropped him like a stone.

Interestingly, one of the few mega brands to keep faith with the fallen star was watch brand TAG Heuer. There is an argument that Woods’ association with TAG had been a better fit than some of his other tie-ups, which is why it was able to withstand the fall-out from his transgressions. For Tag Heuer chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin, the reasons for keeping Woods on board were clear: know your customer. “Yes we received some letters off angry people because we are siding by Tiger so the question is, were they Tag Heuer users or not? Most were not. Would they ever acquire Tag Heuer? Most not as well,” he said, speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year.

The experience of another luxury Swiss watchmaker, Raymond Weil, provides an alternative example of what can happen when a celebrity makes an error of judgement – again reminding us that they too are human.

In 2005, the brand struck a multi-million dollar deal with actress Charlize Theron to make her the international ambassador for the company, and the star of a big-money advertising campaign. Despite her contract stipulating exclusivity, Theron later caused a stir when she appeared in the catalogue of a leading US watch retailer sporting a diamond-encrusted timepiece by Dior – for whom she is an ambassador for their perfumes. Steven Rom, chief executive of Avstev Group, which distributes Raymond Weil in Australia, believes celebrity ambassadors need to be approached with caution. “After seeing that experience,” Rom says, “I’d sooner see the money put towards charities.”

Katy Perry, the face of Thomas Sabo
Katy Perry, the face of Thomas Sabo

“All our brands are family owned, and generally speaking, we don’t go down the celebrity route,” adds Rom. “In the past, Ricky Ponting was an exception for us. He was supportive of the work we did with children’s cancer charities and he worked with us on those projects. We got mileage out of that agreement, as Ricky was prepared to do all the things we expect a brand ambassador to be supportive of.”

At this year’s BaselWorld watch and jewellery fair, the Avstev group unveiled AFL star Jack Riewoldt as the latest local ambassador for Raymond Weil in Australia – with Rom’s insistence that “there has to be a meaningful connection, and any ambassador has to be prepared to make all the various public appearances and support our charity work”. In Riewoldt, Rom is confident that he has found that meaningful connection, citing the football player’s “passion and enthusiasm [as] exactly the type of culture we strive for at Raymond Weil”.

Taking this meaningful connection one step further, Bulova has also sought to connect with the right man – in this instance honing in on a specific range of watches (as opposed to an entire brand). The man is Sir Richard Branson and the range is Accutron.

Focusing on the history and characteristics of the Accutron timepiece that complement Branson’s famed entrepreneurial qualities and achievements, Bulova president Dennis Perry explains why the man and the watch make a perfect match: “As an entrepreneur, humanitarian and pioneer, Sir Richard reflects the spirit of innovation that is at the heart of the Bulova Accutron brand.”

“We feel Sir Richard Branson could be an individual that would be central to our message of innovation,” Perry added, referring to the Accutron’s place in history as the world’s first fully electronic watch. “As [Branson] continues to pursue avenues of innovation, we too pursue avenues of innovation and we felt that together we could pursue them more gallantly.”

Although brand ambassadors have traditionally been more common in the watch market, the potential of celebrity endorsement has not been lost on the jewellery industry – think Thomas Sabo’s recent signing of pop star Katy Perry and actress Jessica Alba’s link-up with Piaget in America. One interesting example in the jewellery industry that has had much local success is that of WA-based Linneys. Linneys is a retailer rather than brand or manufacturer, yet in a somewhat unorthodox strategy it has worked with brand ambassadors for the past five years.

“We like to be doing things that differentiate us from others within [the retail] sector,” explains Linneys chief executive David Fardon. “We took the lead from what was happening in our sector on an international level and looked to see what we could do within our environment, and with our size organisation.”

Linneys’ first brand ambassadors were actress Melissa George and TV personality Ernie Dingo. More recently, it announced Jessica Marais and Jason Dundas as personalities to represent the Linneys brand. Every collaboration has been carefully considered, with Linneys aiming for each personality to have a credible connection to the brand’s history and values.

“The appeal of Melissa and Ernie,” explains Fardon, “was that they were of Western Australian origin. Being a Western Australian brand, our marketing campaign at the time was predominantly targeted at the Western Australian market, or the people that were coming to visit WA.

“We look for people who are aspirational, and in that regard, Jessica Marais happened to fit the bill beautifully. Though she wasn’t born in WA, she spent a lot of time there when she was growing up. We were looking for someone who would present the brand the way we wanted it to be seen, which meant ‘style’ – but Jessica also brought a really refreshing look.” Australian TV star Marais joined Linneys at a time when the retailer was spreading its wings beyond its home state – in May, she made an appearance at the opening of Linneys’ first store outside Western Australia, in Westfield Sydney.

“When we were looking for our male ambassador, we needed someone with a casual, outdoors feel. That’s how we identified Jason Dundas, because he’s someone with a naturally confident style and he appeals to a fairly broad demographic. He also has that nice link with the tourism sector [as a presenter of the Getaway programme], which fitted our needs as well,” Fardon explains.

Linneys has demonstrated that some value still remains in the brand ambassador model – so long as the connection is a credible one. “The reaction has been very positive; both existing and potential customers definitely identify with – and respond to – the ambassadors. Because of the association, people come in to the stores and say ‘I’ve seen that you’ve worked with this person,’ or ‘I’ve seen so-and-so wearing that particular necklet and I was looking for one of those.’”

And, where many other brands have suffered at the hands of their ambassadors’ personal lives, Linneys – in the case of Jessica Marais – has in fact received added value in another way too. “Quite serendipitously for us, Jessica announced her engagement not long after agreeing to be our ambassador,” says Fardon. “Obviously in the jewellery industry, that’s not a bad thing to be promoting – though I can’t claim that we had anything to do with it!”

Convincing an increasingly disbelieving public that there is credibility in celebrity ambassadorships is only likely to become more of a difficult task. The way many brands are looking to win the battle is by going beyond the realms of a conventional endorsement and instead touting the celebrity as having played a hand in the creation of the very products they advocate. In the jewellery industry, we have seen stars such as Angelina Jolie (Asprey) and Kate Hudson (Chrome Hearts) work with established brands as ‘guest designers.’

“The fashion industry definitely set the precedent there, with handbags, perfumes and shoes,” says Hoyer. “But a brand has to think very carefully, because any celeb who says ‘I am a designer’ faces a much tougher challenge than simply being the actor of the moment who looks fantastic and is just the face of the brand, because the consumer will be that much more sceptical.”

Jessica Marais, the face of Linneys
Jessica Marais, the face of Linneys

Brennan sees this attempt to counter cynicism as an evolution of brand ambassadorships. “Though endorsements are still the dominant approach,” he says, “these other collaborations take it one step further. Much of it is about being seen to lead”.

So far as guest designers go though, perhaps the most credible collaborations are those that avoid the dubious design skills of star names from Hollywood in favour of linking up with renowned creative talent from other industries. In a move that echoes some of the fashion collaborations which have found huge success in markets like the UK, young fashion jewellery retailer Diva has found success by joining forces with Australian fashion designer Alex Perry.

The industry crossover is a prime example of a collaboration that brings with it not merely the high profile of a famous name, but also an enhancement of the reputation of brand, courtesy of the acclaimed skills the guest designer brings with them in addition to their celebrity status. Diva’s canny initiative began in August last year and the first Alex Perry jewellery collection sold out within just two weeks. Since then, the retailer has launched a further two collections with similar success. Diva national marketing manager Amy-Louise Hoare attributed Alex Perry’s appeal to his “very strong brand energy” – his own ‘brand’ may not be directly linked to the jewellery sector, but it is still one that resonates with Diva’s core target market.

Another recent cross-industry collaboration occurred between Skagen Designs and well-respected Japanese designer Hiromichi Konno, who worked together to create a pair of watches for the Skagen Denmark brand. Konno achieved fame for his work as designer with the Danish ‘furniture-as-art’ company Fitz Hansen, and was recognised by Skagen Designs for sharing the brand’s Scandinavian design roots and minimalist sensibilities.

This sort of collaboration, according to Skagen Designs owner Charlotte Jorst, is much more in keeping with the brand’s philosophy than a celebrity ambassadorship. “While endorsements work for other brands, we’ve never felt the need for it,” says Jorst. “We happen to feel that our product is the celebrity. The collaboration with Konno has brought a fresh perspective to our brand, whereas a face on a poster doesn’t do that. We will continue to focus on designer affiliations rather than celebrity endorsements because we want to strengthen our image as a premier design house.”

The celebrity ambassador approach to marketing consumer products has enjoyed a long and illustrious term without serious revision. But in response to the questions being asked about consumers’ fatigue with celebrity endorsements, the move towards big name design collaborations is an interesting and welcome attempt to counter cynicism – particularly in those instances where brands have invited recognised design talent from other industries to create something completely fresh and unique.

However, the other phenomenon to have emerged in recent years that is truly a sign of the times is that of celebrities espousing product endorsements via social media. US-based marketing platform firm – which calls itself the ‘social matchmaker’ – has found a niche working with brands to connect them with the right celebrity ambassadors through digital media. chief executive Arnie Gullov-Singh explains, “[We are] tapping the $50 billion spend on endorsements worldwide as well as the $35 billion spent in digital advertising. If people are the new publishers, then people are also the future of advertising, and celebrities are the new ‘prime time’.” recently compiled a comprehensive ‘Consumer Influence Index’ to identify which celebrities drive the most consumer traffic to advertisers’ websites in America. “We define influence as the ability to get people to visit places on the web,” explains Gullov-Singh. “This simple metric is essential to social media marketing. It’s how brands will decide where to spend their money.”

With a top 10 featuring some surprising names such as Snoop Dogg, all three of the Kardashian sisters and, at number one in the index, US TV personality Lauren Conrad – demonstrates that the celebrity endorsements game is an unpredictable one, and that there is no direct correlation between the size of the celebrity’s star and their pulling power as a brand ambassador. In fact, if anything, it gives a clear indication that well thought out celebrity-brand matchmaking might be more about local than global power.

Perhaps that is the biggest lesson brands can take from the evolution of the brand ambassador model. Simply luring the highest-profile star you can find to provide an endorsement for your product is no longer enough to strengthen your brand. Without a natural association between ambassador and product, consumers are more likely to be left confused and cynical rather than star-struck and invigorated with positive purchase intent. If the face doesn’t fit, consumers won’t wear it.

More reading:

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Bulova picks Branson as brand ambassador

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