Van den Hurk: Celebrity endorsements are not a sure bet for small businesses

John Calipari
John Calipari

Should your small business use a celebrity in your marketing campaigns? And is it really worth it?

Those are really tough questions, but they need to be asked before incorporating a celebrity as a spokesperson for your brand.

Thanks to social media, today's consumer is totally different compared to five years ago. Consumers are informed and time-deprived, making it hard to catch and keep their attention. They are influenced by ads that are relevant to them and provide them with useful information. But they are more likely to be influenced by someone in their social networks than a weak connection such as a celebrity.

So where does that leave celebrities in advertising? There can be a place for them, but it comes down to the fit.

It is essential the celebrity have an affinity for the brand, says Scott Kelley, director of sports marketing at the University of Kentucky. And that link should make the brand stronger.

Paul Miller Auto Group in Lexington thinks it has a good fit in its long-standing relationship with UK Athletics and using coaches as endorsers.

Executive J.P. Miller Jr. likens the relationship to the coaches being seen as leaders, just like the dealership.

"Consumers tend to be more receptive to the product that Coach Cal endorses," Miller said. "We know him, we trust him, we admire him, and my hope is that we all want to drive what he's driving.

"Recent timing has also helped us out with the NCAA national championship and the increased attention on Coach Cal and the University of Kentucky for the awesome job they did in New Orleans."

Marc Girolimetti, a national marketing strategy consultant who has worked with celebrities on campaigns, said it takes time to find that fit.

Sometimes you can tell based on a celebrity's public persona that "I could hang out with him or her." Other times, he says, it takes some due diligence.

Do your homework by digging through interviews. Figure out the celebrity's associations. If it matters, find out whether they've had run-ins with the law. Most importantly, talk to them. In some cases, that's impossible, but he urges that you absolutely insist on a phone call or two.

Girolimetti emphasized the need to do your research because of today's society "where information moves at a million miles an hour via an overreactive and socially connected culture."

"Fair or not, if your brand is associated with a character who has a questionable background that you didn't properly vet, then your brand could endure a major and long-lasting black eye," he said.

Kelley concurred and suggested the contract have a conduct clause in case the celebrity does something out of line with the values of your company and customers.

He also advises against using an overexposed celebrity, because your message could get lost in the clutter.

While the fit between the celebrity and the brand is key, how the marketing campaign is executed is just as important. It still has to be relevant to consumers and be well done creatively. Using a celebrity but doing so in an uninspired way will be less effective and confusing to consumers.

Miller's advice to small businesses looking to use a celebrity is to first make sure your company is treating its customers' right and providing a valuable product.

After all, it's easy to support and endorse a company known for doing the right thing.