They say familiarity breeds contempt, but brands that insist on putting celebrities (often the same handful of celebrities) in every other advert clearly don’t subscribe to that belief.
Korean boyband BTS have done so many endorsements in recent years there is even a fan website specifically dedicated to tracking them all. The list of ad campaigns they've worked on is enough to rival even the biggest advertising agencies.
In Hong Kong, popular boyband Mirror have become so ubiquitous that husbands of the band's fans created a Facebook group titled "My wife married Mirror and left my marriage in ruins" and used the group, which has attracted 350,000 followers, to plead with brands to stop using the boyband in ads.
Actors? Singers? Or human billboards for hire? It's hard to tell these days when virtually every billboard, bus, or YouTube pre-roll ad has some celebrity trying to hawk something. Sure, the power of celebrity can get brands noticed, but when does it become enough, already?
Celebrity 'overexposure' results in bad brand recall
According to Kantar’s global ad-testing database, Link, celebrities are three times more likely to feature in ads in Asia than they are in other regions.
"The same faces are usually seen because they work," says Michael Patent, founder of Culture Group. "BTS, Jackson Wang, Blackpink, are proven to drive brand success. Owing to Asia’s lack of domestic sports stars, we’re also likely to see more of the same faces from music and entertainment than you would in western markets.”
Yet while the celebrity endorsement is nothing new and has become a tried and tested, if not overused, formula for getting noticed and bringing in new consumers, is it always worth the hefty price tag? And do brands always get a return on their investment? Especially, as is often the case today, when a star is endorsing a number of brands.
"If someone is the face of a number of competitive brands the largest brand is going to benefit from the smaller brand’s advertising," says Cameron Stark a partner at creative, branding, and design collective Hard Work Club. "Consumers aren’t always going to connect the communication to the right brand if someone is promoting a number of similar products. That’s a big problem that is being ignored here. You are advertising for your larger competition."
Studies have shown that celebrity 'overexposure' results in bad brand recall, with consumers unable to recall brands endorsed by celebrities due to overexposure.
"I do think that brands overestimate the impact of a ‘likeable’ celebrity," says Stark. "If you look at the Super Bowl these days, it's now just a series of celebrity ads. In this case I think brands are being seduced by creative recall vs. true brand attribution. In many cases the celebrity will outshine the brand in this forum with viewers likely unable to connect the creative back to the brand."
Consumers can smell disingenuity from a mile away
When used effectively, celebrities can make a brand immediately relevant to an audience, driving everything from top-of-funnel awareness to bottom of funnel benefits like in-store placement and channel sell-through. But get it wrong, and inauthentic collaborations will be shunned immediately.
"A great example is Beyonce’s Ivy Park line with Adidas," says Patent. "She was never seen with the product, and there was no unique element or feature that caused it to stand out in a crowded retail landscape."
Many, particularly younger demographics, seek authenticity in who they follow and aspire to be like.
"There needs to be a true connection between the celebrity and the product they are endorsing," says Eugenia Yeung, creator & content lead at Reprise Digital, Australia. "And so celebrities who frequently partner with different brands can quickly erode that trust."
And for that reason, being labelled a 'sellout' could be more of an issue than ever.
"In the past an endorsement could mean just a print and TV ad, nowadays it likely comes with the ask for a bunch of reels, posts etc. Take that and multiply it by 15 endorsements and you start to understand why the audience is quick to question authenticity," says Rachel Xu, social creative director, Media.Monks Singapore.
"If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing," adds Xu. "I believe we operate with a currency of trust when it comes to endorsement and it’s something that is finite."
From the brand perspective, it pays to be cautious of celebrities who are already associated with too many other brands.
"It could lead to confusion and conflicting priorities," says Polly Wyn Jones, global knowledge manager, Kantar. "Pre-testing an ad throughout the creative development process is key to understanding how the target audience responds to a celebrity ambassador and flagging any issues early – before any contracts are signed."
A shift from traditional endorsements towards collaborations
From the celebrity perspective, many are wising up to the potential mutual benefits of brand association.
"We may start to see a partnership approach become more common," says Wyn Jones. "Billie Eilish, for example, partnered with Dodge, utilising ads for their vehicles to launch her own new music tracks, leading to an inspired two-way partnership benefiting both celebrity and brand."
And the move away from traditional celebrity endorsements and towards collaborations and co-developed products has led to even greater returns for those who get the model right.
"Celebrities have become more discerning, especially as the model has shifted from pure endorsement to brand collaboration," says Patent. "Authenticity will always be key and when that isn’t the case the feedback is immediate – consumers vote with their keyboards and wallets in real time."
Victoria Fernandez, business director, Virtue APAC, says that in order to engage with consumers of today, brands need to treat celebrities as true partners and collaborators, rather than simply a face or a mouthpiece for the brand.
"Brands tend to approach celebrity endorsements as a play for reach and awareness, as opposed to a deeper partnership to augment credibility and authenticity for their brand. The latter is what drives meaningful engagement with consumers of today," says Fernandez.
"This generation of young people are drawn to brands that move the needle and push boundaries," adds Fernandez. "They advocate brands who don’t simply talk at them, but meet them where they are, engage in their culture, and participate passionately."
Fernandez cites Gucci as a best-in-class example of celebrity endorsement. The leading luxury brand has partnered a suite of celebrities from hot young Hollywood figures like Julia Garner, Harry Styles and Dakota Johnson, to established cultural icons like Serena WIlliams and Diane Keaton, and even extending its reach into unlikely partnerships with Elliot Page and James Corden.
"With each celebrity, Gucci approaches the partnership beyond putting the celebrity in their latest advertising campaign," says Fernandez. "They leverage the partnership to foster a deep engagement with the celebrity and his/her audience in ways that are in sync with the celebrity’s story to ensure they are showing up authentically in culture, while participating passionately to pioneer new cultural narratives."
Celebrity vs influencer: They can and should be used differently
Of course, the explosion in influencer marketing has resulted in a higher volume of promotions overall. These days celebrities have competition to get those lucrative endorsement deals in the form of influencers. But Max Adagio, senior account director at The Goat Agency, points out that both celebrities and influencers can and should be used differently.
"It’s worth noting that a celebrity might be an influencer, but an influencer might not always be a celebrity," says Adagio. "Traditional celebrities are often unattainable, while influencers are more approachable."
Adagio adds that celebrities are fantastic for household penetration and general notoriety. And while their high production ads and placements might not ‘influence’ youths to purchase, they do validate the brand at scale.
"It’s a more traditional ‘spokesperson’ type strategy with celebrities that worked well for brands in the past and continues to work today for those broad awareness and perception goals," says Adagio.
On the other hand, according to Adagio, straight-up influencers are great for targeted, digital performance. "They do have more influencing power because audiences believe they are genuinely recommending a product as a peer, rather than an 'out of reach' celebrity. But both of these avenues can have a home in the same overarching marketing strategy."
Used correctly, celebrities can still be a powerful brand asset
Kantar’s ad testing data shows that use of celebrities in advertising can help with overall engagement with an ad, bringing attention to the brand. But it’s ultimately all about how they are used.
"The right celebrity can still be a truly powerful brand asset, allowing brands to be relevant and timely," says Polly Wyn Jones, global knowledge manager, Kantar. "The celebrity needs to be well known amongst the target audience, be emotionally congruent with the brand and culturally relevant. The celebrity should also convey the values the brand wants to be associated with. The better the celebrity fit, the bigger the impact of a campaign on brand equity and sales.”
Neiwai, the Chinese lingerie and loungewear brand, has recently been lauded for its exceptional use of celebrity endorsement. The brand has devoted more than a decade to crafting a distinct and recognisable image, which was brought to new heights in 2020 through a partnership with superstar spokesperson Faye Wong.
"Faye Wong is known to be extremely selective in brand endorsement, over the years, she has rarely been associated with any advertisement campaigns," says Sammy Xu, head of strategy, Media.Monks China.
"However, the collaboration between the two was met with enthusiasm from both the fans of the brand and the celebrity, as they proved to be a perfect match not only in terms of their image but also their life philosophies. The synergy between Neiwai and Faye Wong has undoubtedly helped the brand cement its place as a standout player in the industry."
There’s no question that celebrity sells. But there is a limit and all evidence suggests that celebrities shouldn't spread themselves too thinly, or try to be everything to every brand.
"Brands are becoming increasingly savvy on success metrics for endorsements so celebrities and influencers who fall into the trap of selling out will also eventually fall short on the ROI they can deliver for brands," says Xu.
And brands need to aim for more than just using a celebrity as a face or mouthpiece if they truly want to engage today's consumers.
"The use of celebrity in trite ways is a big blind spot that some brands still go into with eyes wide open and this should not be happening," adds Xu. "Brands need to expand their perspective of what endorsement means and how it manifests – from the way a celebrity ad is done to how we engage influencers to create content. It is glaringly obvious when creators/influencers are tapped and the content they put out for a brand seems to not sit well with the rest of their feed. Consumers can smell disingenuity from a mile away.”