One year ago, prompted by a criminal investigation involving Subway’s long-time brand ambassador, Jared Fogle, I wrote about the power of celebrity to catapult brand awareness and drive sales.
At the time, through his commercial relationship with Subway, Fogle was “woven into the fabric of the brand”. He had filmed over 300 commercials for the fast food giant and was credited by Subway’s then CMO with being responsible for “one-third to one-half of Subway’s growth” over a 15-year period.
Even before Fogle was formally charged with any offence, Subway severed all ties with its celebrity spokesman. Fogle was subsequently convicted and is now serving time in jail.
When an ambassador becomes a liability – real, potential or perceived – the damage can be irreparable.
History is littered with celebrities whose marketing contracts were rescinded when their image became tarnished or even just called into question.
Once negative information about a brand ambassador becomes public, their relationship with the brand seldom recovers.
Here in Australia, actress and television host Sonia Kruger is the latest celebrity ambassador to have lost her sparkle following religion-based remarks made by Kruger on breakfast television. No longer the “inoffensive nice girl”, Kruger is now a potential liability and the brands she endorses – Target Australia, Porsche Australia, Swisse – are closely monitoring the fallout, if not distancing themselves from her polarising remarks.
Celebrity versus Social Media Brand Ambassadors
The degree of risk, coupled with the severity of the consequences, is prompting a growing number of brands to switch from a single celebrity ambassador to a larger number of social media brand ambassadors. These SMBAs are ‘real’ (as in regular) people who embody the brand, are genuine brand advocates, and who through social media have influence over a certain audience.
Authenticity and involvement are what distinguishes SMBAs from their celebrity counterparts. A celebrity ambassador might be credible but there is often no expectation or even pretense that the personality uses or is passionate about the brand. In most cases, the celebrity is merely providing the brand with access to their face, their voice, their reach.
In contrast, SMBAs tend to already be fiercely loyal and highly involved. They will often be voluntarily performing the role of brand advocate long before any formal arrangement is entered into. Because of this, their endorsement is more akin to word-of-mouth than it is to commercial spokesperson.
Whether they have celebrity or social media influence, brand ambassadors are selected because they reflect a brand’s personality, values, style and appeal.
Yet, to err is human. Both celebrity and social media brand ambassadors represent a risk that must be carefully managed.