Holiday Reads: How to land a celebrity endorsement

January 02, 2014  |  Deborah Aarts for Profit  |  Comments

The spokespeople who’ll deliver the biggest ROI aren’t necessarily on the A-list

The buzzer sounds. The ref scoops up the puck and the players skate to the bench. Hockey Night in Canada cuts to commercial. Then, in front of millions of viewers, up pops the familiar face of Don Cherry. “I know suits and I know dogs and, of course, I know hockey, but I don’t know mortgages,” says Grapes with his trademark bluntness. “But here’s the beauty: My friends at Dominion Lending Centres know, and they’ll get the best rate for you.”

It’s the kind of high-profile association that can turn a run-of-the-mill mortgage company into a name brand, and it has done just that for the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based chain. But Dominion didn’t land the most recognizable man in Canadian hockey as a spokesman by fluke. The company worked for nearly two years just to get a meeting with Cherry. And that came after several rounds of brainstorming about which celebrity would resonate best with the family demographic the firm targets. The process involved reconnaissance work, cold-calling, a tough negotiation and at least one last-minute cross-country flight.

It was worth it: In the three years that the commercials have been airing, Dominion’s business has picked up—in terms of buzz, leads and, yes, sales—more than president Gary Mauris imagined it would. “The difference in customer awareness has been astronomical,” he says. “It’s arguably the best move the company has ever made.”

A celebrity endorsement can elevate the profile of an unknown or struggling company (think Salton, whose appliance sales were floundering until George Foreman attached his name to its countertop grill) and expand the appeal of an established brand (as Nike’s partnership with Michael Jordan did). For entrepreneurs, it’s a prospect as enticing as it is daunting. Securing a high-profile influencer means entering the world of agents, talent managers and endorsement fees—terra incognita for most SMEs. But even small companies can enlist a famous spokesperson. You simply need to know whom to target, how to approach them and how to devise a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Find a fit
Figuring out who would make a good spokesperson starts with some back-to-basics brand work, says Farah Perelmuter, CEO of Toronto-based Speakers’ Spotlight, an agency that connects companies with celebrity endorsers, among other work. What are the brand values? What are the demographics and psychographics of your customers? You want a spokesperson who embodies the same qualities, she says: “If the fit is right, the customer will relate to the celebrity and engage with the brand.”

Antonia Mantonakis, a marketing professor at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business, has studied the efficacy of celebrity endorsements and advises first researching what your customers expect of and associate with your brand (you can hire a market research firm or do your own polling online). Then, identify luminaries who match those values. Mantonakis says the most effective celebrity-brand partnerships are ones in which the star is neither too on-the-nose (Wayne Gretzky selling Easton hockey sticks was predictable) nor too bizarre (Alicia Keys endorsing BlackBerry puzzled most analysts). “Somewhere in the middle is where consumers are intrigued,” she says. “They want to reconcile how this is working—that engages them.”

When you’re brainstorming for prospects that might fit the bill, look beyond the A-list. In some cases, a niche influencer—an industry analyst with a big following, say, or a local TV personality—can carry as much clout as an international superstar. “You don’t need to rely on the David Beckhams of the world,” says Mantonakis.

It’s this line of thinking that led Wilkie, Sask.-based West Central Pelleting to hire Helgie Eymundson and Rob Dunham—two personalities from Wild TV, a cable channel aimed at wilderness enthusiasts—to endorse its Rack ‘Em Up brand of pellets, which hunters use to attract deer. “We’re in a small, tight industry,” says West Central’s general manager, Dean Skinner. “The customer who might be interested in our product really knows who these guys are. As soon as the ads ran, we started to get a lot of phone and email traffic from stores looking to sell it.”

Before you approach your target celebrity, do a bit of digging. Some Google research on a celebrity’s past endorsements and behaviour—especially any scandals that might tarnish your brand—is a step that many star-struck entrepreneurs overlook in their frenzy to secure a spokesperson. Get someone on staff to spend a few hours on influential gossip sites and message boards to look for red flags. Is the celebrity associated with anything that might clash with your brand? (If you produce vegan food, for instance, steer clear of the actor who just signed on to play a hunter in a Hollywood blockbuster.) Has she endorsed a competing product, domestically or abroad? Or has he spoken publicly about your category, your industry or even something your target buyers hold dear?

Find your “in”
Once you have a few names in mind, you need to find a way to connect with them. Given the cloistered nature of celebrity, that can take some doing. Tactics like including your product in a “gifting” suite at an awards show or engaging the celebs via Twitter might get their attention. But before they agree to associate themselves with your brand, you will almost certainly have to deal with their managers or agents.

Agencies like Perelmuter’s can make the introductions in exchange for a cut of the fees. (Another reality check: The deal will cost you money—celebrities almost never endorse for free.) Or you can approach the VIP’s manager, who generally isn’t paid on commission but is tougher to reach. If you have a different “in” with a potential spokesperson, you can attempt to negotiate a deal directly. But while stories circulate of entrepreneurs snagging spokespeople by wowing them at parties, very few endorsements happen without mediation.

Set the terms
So, you and your dream shiller like each other. It’s time to make a deal. Many celebs have standard endorsement fees; others go on a case-by-case basis. Whatever the fee structure, get every detail specified. In what media will the endorsement appear? Will public appearances be involved and, if so, when and where? Will you have exclusivity? What, if any, standards of behaviour do you expect the spokesperson to meet? Keep in mind that it’s rare for a celebrity to do more than what’s explicitly set out in a contract.

Landing a major star will likely require a substantial investment. It’s not uncommon to shell out six figures a year for a celebrity with some renown (and that’s not even factoring in media buys). But there are alternatives. “If you have a great product, you can offer the celebrity a cut of the profits or equity in the company,” suggests Tanya Michell, a Toronto consultant who has brokered endorsements. For instance, when VitaminWater was in its infancy, it paid rapper 50 Cent in equity to endorse its products. The price can be steep. But if you want to bask in fame’s reflected glory, realize that, for celebrities, endorsements are work. Says Michell: “Your brand has to benefit them, too.”

This story originally appeared in Profit

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