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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

The Celebrity Risk
Knowing your brand, endorser, and audience is more important than any scandal.
christopher wolf writes about marketing for restaurants

It’s not just the economy that’s taken a hit in the past several months: Celebrity endorsements are also down for the count, pummeled by the rapid-fire of media revelations about the personal lives of Michael Phelps, Chris Brown, and Alex Rodriguez. This time, however, the shocking news is not so much that these athletes and artists are human, but that the public is holding the sponsor companies like Kellogg’s, Subway, and Wrigley just as responsible as the celebrities themselves

A celebrity endorsement is obviously a mutually beneficial concept: Famous people get a load of money to associate with a particular brand, creating a very powerful halo effect that enhances people’s interest in and perceptions of a brand’s quality and relevance. But does this tactic really work? Mintel Research revealed in 2005 that out of nearly 1,000 consumers, less than 10 percent would buy celebrity-endorsed foods and drinks, even when it was someone they “admire or trust.”

According to the Notable Names Database, McDonald’s has signed at least 41 celebrity endorsement deals over the years. Though associations with squeaky-clean personalities like Mary Lou Retton and Michael Jordan proved great for the company, Kobe Bryant was just one of many celebrities including the Olsen twins, Donald Trump, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, and Britney Spears who gave the Golden Arches cause for disappointment at times.

But reputation fallout for some brands, of course, can be cool “props” for another. Burger King signed with Sean “Diddy” Combs in 2006, despite the musician’s past association with weapons and drugs. Similarly, Paris Hilton’s explicit videotape infamy is probably what gave her the street cred to star in an eye-popping car-washing commercial for Carl’s Jr.

Even White Castle’s brand experienced a relevance revival when it green-lighted the use of its trademark-protected name in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” a movie connecting pot smoking to cravings for the restaurant’s food.

Then there are other times that good or bad reputations are less of an issue than simply a lack of fit. A few years ago, award-winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless, known for his authentic haute-Mexican restaurants in Chicago, endorsed Burger King’s new low-fat chicken sandwich, causing a disapproving uproar in the foodie community (particularly the Slow Food Organization he had previously supported). Similarly, some Food Network fans were puzzled last year to see home cook Rachael Ray, who loves her EVOO, promoting Dunkin’ Donuts products in TV commercials

So what does the future hold? Should operators trade real people for fictional icons like Ronald McDonald and the King? Should lawyers write even more strict clauses in endorsement contracts to protect restaurants from stars with unknown personal lives?

The reality is that, thanks to cell phone cameras and the Internet, the public’s ability to capture and disseminate information about celebrities’ lives will only become more pronounced, making it even harder for popular but potentially imperfect people to avoid scrutiny and controversy. But companies and celebrities have weathered these storms in the past and will likely continue to do so in the future. So to all those restaurants that have yet to sign on a ticking time bomb of their own, but still have the stomach to do so, I offer the following guidelines:

Know Your Brand

Even without the usual scandals and surprises, many endorsements leave the public wondering why a brand and a celebrity joined up in the first place. For example, foodies were bothered by Bayless’ BK endorsement, and the Average Joes who actually eat at Burger King were just plain confused. Better to find a natural brand ambassador who has declared a love for your brand (e.g., Cher for Jack in the Box, Julia Child for McDonald’s fries, Robert Downey, Jr. for Burger King) than to try and introduce the “It” celebrity to your brand to raise its popularity.

Know Your Celebrity

More important than reputation is household penetration. Q scores, created by Marketing Evaluations in the 1960s, are based on a quantitative survey of consumers to measure the familiarity and appeal of celebrities, brands, and companies. Omnicom’s Davie Brown Index debuted a few years ago and measures celebrities by several attributes including: appeal, aspiration, awareness, endorsement, influence, notice, trend-setting appeal, and trust. Guides like these can help companies expand and fine-tune their range of choices beyond a few obvious choices diluted over several categories.

Though associations with squeaky-clean personalities like Mary Lou Retton and Michael Jordan proved great for the company, Kobe Bryant was just one of many celebrities who gave the Golden Arches cause for disappointment.

Know What You’re Doing

Your best bet is to go through your ad agency to seek and negotiate deals on your company’s behalf. You can also contact big talent agencies like William Morris, International Creative Management, or Creative Artists Agency to tap into their massive list of celebrities, for which they collect a equally massive fee. If you insist on DIY, you can check ballpark prices and initiate discussions about most celebrity chefs, actors, and sports personalities via the Web site,

Have a Contingency Plan

You can’t plan for every situation or scandal, but common sense can help you script talking points when reporters call. To wit: When New England Patriots kicker—and Papa Gino’s spokesman—Adam Vinatieri left his team to join the Indianapolis Colts in 2006, Papa Gino’s vice president of marketing was quoted in the Boston Herald saying “Now we’re faced with . . . a fall season that we need to plan for and we need to figure out what to do.”

Given the free-agent attitude and other perils that have dominated professional sports for the past decade, it’s pretty surprising that no one in the agency or the company ever said, “What do we do if he gets injured / leaves the team / gets busted” before the unexpected event occurred.

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.