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Your Brand Doesn’t Need a 'Mr. T' Strategy
By: Andrew Davis
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Mr. T is one of the most iconic faces of the 1980s. He was the star of the A-Team, showed-up in the Rocky series, and has done a myriad of commercials over his acting career. His catchphrases reside among the immortal words of other American paragons like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, in spite of Mr. T’s cultural and celebrity prowess, he won’t save your brand.
“American consumers insist that they are not swayed by celebrity endorsements,” reports Adweek on the results of a recent Adweek/Harris Interactive survey. “More than three-quarters [of respondents] answered that it has no impact on their intent to buy.” Furthermore, only 4 percent indicated it would make them more likely to purchase. So, what are brands getting for the millions they spend on “buying” celebrities in hopes they can get consumers to buy? More often than not, nothing more than a wasted advertising budget.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to brand managers. Advertising master David Ogilvy (himself once a cultural icon whose words still serve as teaching tools for young, and old, advertising junkies) wrote in his 1983 book, Ogilvy on Advertising, that celebrities don’t move product. “Viewers guess that the celebrity has been bought,” Ogilvy wrote. “And they are right.” Ogilvy also suggested that celebrities have a way of overpowering the brands they’re advertising, making the celebrity (and, not the brand) the only memorable part of the campaign. Any time that an advertising technique — be it a celebrity, or “humorous” copy — overshadows the brand, it’s not good advertising. It’s even worse when you spend extra thousands, or millions, to secure an endorsement.
Your brand doesn’t need a celebrity. It needs a strategy that’s based on solid branding fundamentals. There have been several famous non-celebrities as “brand figureheads.” For example, Subway’s “Jared,” or “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt.” However, the difference between these individuals and celebrities like Mr. T is that the ad campaigns made Jared famous; Jared didn’t make Subway famous. Their appearances in the campaigns were techniques that enhanced the brand instead of overpowering it. Jared wasn’t a celebrity. He was a product testimonial. Likewise, The Man in a Hathaway Shirt was story appeal.
Would Subway have achieved the same level of success with its “health and nutrition” positioning if they used someone like Justin Bieber? No. Celebrities have access to personal trainers and nutrition consultants. The “testimonial” technique would have been completely lost. And, what would have happened if Ogilvy had decided to use Frank Sinatra instead of Baron George Wrangell for the Hathaway campaign? Would consumers have even paid attention to the shirt? Doubtful.
This is not to say that celebrity endorsements fail 100% of the time. Using a celebrity who is an authority on the industry or product for which he is advertising can be beneficial to a brand. Rory McIlroy testifying to the quality of golf clubs, for example, might be a worthwhile investment. Maybe. At least it will certainly be more worthwhile than Mr. T hawking Snickers.
If your brand is looking to do something with endorsements, try focusing on delivering a solid brand performance to your customers. After all, it’s their endorsement that is the most influential to their friends. Yeah, it’s really cool that for $1 million you can get a celebrity to like your product. And, for $2 million, that celebrity will probably endorse your competitor as well.
Instead of dumping money into expensive advertising campaigns, or buying a head-nod from a celebrity, turn that money back into your business to improve upon things that will really better your brand. Denny’s opted out of advertising in the 2011 Super Bowl, saying they would rather spend that money on programs throughout the year. "It is a very expensive exercise and I don't believe it's necessary for us to continue to put all our eggs in one basket," says Frances Allen, Denny's Chief Marketing Officer, in an interview with AdAge. “We decided to focus our efforts on a broad, multilayer program that we believe better rewards our guests throughout the year, vs. doing a big, onetime push for Super Bowl.”
This lesson is especially apposite for small businesses with limited budgets. Never underestimate the power of smart branding fundamentals that resonate with consumers. There’s more evidence that a solid brand foundation will move product than there is for any endorsement from a celebrity. And, the return on investment is unquestionably higher.


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About the Author
Andrew Davis is a Charleston, SC-based creative services consultant to small businesses and non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here.
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