In late September, China drafted a new rule to mandate that spokespeople try the products they endorse. This comes after serious questions emerged over the years about the ethics of Chinese celebrity endorsements – Deng Jie, a television actress, touted Sanlu milk powder just before the tainted milk scandal. And while most celebrities claim they’ve used the wares they endorse, Taiwanese actor Jiro Wang couldn’t possibly – he has appeared in ads endorsing Freemore sanitary napkins (Maxi pads).
China’s endorsement fervor is symptomatic of a growingly cynical populace that seems more jaded about endorsements. Especially from celebrities such as Jackie Chan, who, as one writer put it, “… has never met a product he wouldn’t endorse.”
But this raises the question: How can we take brands seriously if they can’t even manage to cultivate a meaningful connection with the celebrities they pay to endorse them?
Celebrities can represent more than just signals to consumers of product value. Havas Media China Digital CEO Vineet Arora explains it this way. “A growing factor for a brand in choosing a celebrity is expertise in the endorsed product area, which can amplify its credibility. This also includes empathy with the product and its benefits.”
In North America, where endorsements can be more subtle and greeted with a bit more skepticism, a new class of celebrity ambassador is taking shape - as actual “employees” of the company, supposedly integrated into an organization’s operations.
Lady Gaga became “creative director” in 2010 for a line of Polaroid products. Intel ‘hired’ will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas as its “Director of Creative Innovation”, a nebulous title that could mean anything. Other celebrity “employees” have included Justin Timberlake for Bud Light Platinum and Gwen Stefani for HP. But whether such celebrities contributed anything of tangible value to the company beyond hype is questionable.
But Ashton Kutcher may have turned endorsements on its head when he decided to collaborate with China’s Lenovo.
Last year, the electronics manufacturer appointed the actor as a “Product Engineer” —certainly the least marketing-sounding job title ever assigned to a celebrity endorser—and definitely the most technical one. Kutcher appears to have taken to his new job of touting Lenovo’s Yoga series of tablets with great relish, hosting several focus groups that compelled one puzzled entrepreneur participant to question whether he’s really a product engineer, or if he’s just acting.
According to Lenovo, Kutcher was heavily involved in the development of the Yoga Tablet 2 Pro, launched in October, a 13-inch tablet with a projector. The feedback given by Kutcher ranged from software suggestions (pre-categorized folders, favourite app folders) to hardware specs (a projector, kickstand etc.). All told, his involvement most likely amounted to a handful of face-to-face meetings and conference calls with the Lenovo R&D team, along with a series of the aforementioned focus group sessions. Not exactly the volume of work you’d realistically imagine from a product engineer, but a whole lot more than you’d expect coming from a regular cast member of Two and a Half Men and a successful startup investor.
Having personally thrown over $100-million into tech startups such as Airbnb, Foursquare, Uber and Spotify at their early stages, Kutcher is a fervent advocate of consumer-facing tech and innovation. In fact, he’s so passionate that he very publicly went to bat for one of his investees in mid-November, defending on Twitter an Uber executive’s remark that they hire people to “dig up dirt” on its critics. He quickly backpedalled on that questionable tweet, and we’re left wondering whether or not this incident has ultimately hurt his brand. But since the general public was mostly unaware of his involvement in startups, this could just as likely have signaled to them that—when it comes to the tech industry—Ashton Kutcher is all in.
“I look for companies that solve problems in intelligent and friction-free ways and break boundaries,” he said in an interview with The New York Times on his investment strategy. He’s even played his inspiration Steve Jobs in the 2013 biofilm about the entrepreneur, marrying his two passions for acting and technology. So it stands to reason that this foray into product endorsement would also be a marriage between acting and innovation, of sorts.
In the public sphere, Kutcher pulls off the role of a product engineer with an appropriate sense of gravity—never winking at the audience or hinting that his position is anything but serious stuff. He fields tech media questions with a surprising depth of understanding and a believable passion in his product, introducing the new Yoga Tablet 2 Pro at its launch event as if it were his own baby. Up till now, Kutcher’s only contributed his own money towards furthering technology innovation—this is his first venture into product development, and it constitutes a logical next step. More importantly, it’s credible to the millions of fans who follow him closely that Kutcher would want to do this.
On a perceived brand-love spectrum, in which 0 represents a celebrity who endorses products for the opposite sex, Ashton Kutcher looks much closer to a 10. But what truly sets this star apart is the active management of his public relationship with Lenovo.
With over 16.5 million followers for his @AplusK Twitter account, Kutcher is a truly savvy marketer of his own personal image. “We were really impressed by how much he was invested in Lenovo, by personally working with us on what works best in his social channels (even Weibo),” said a Lenovo marketing employee. “When we aligned on the idea, he went all out and gave us permission to blast the message on all his channels.”
So could Ashton Kutcher be the new face of celebrity endorsement? We could very well see more follow in his footsteps over the next decade, as the requirements of the digital world seem to demand it.
“This follows a natural progression from a linear brand to consumer communication model- to one that is dynamic, connected and multidimensional,” says Havas Media’s Arora. “To fully leverage your endorsement potential, it’s no longer enough for a celebrity to endorse a brand in a few videos and also have his or her image superimposed on advertisements. Fans are hungry for and have access to the latest news, including off-screen personalities and passion projects. Knowing that a celebrity truly has a personal, emotionally-vested interest in the brand they promote that informs their product choices and interactions, sends a powerful, compelling message.”
It’s still too early to say whether Kutcher’s commitment to his product will have a material impact on sales and consumer perception. But the fact that a Chinese brand such as Lenovo is willing to take celebrity endorsement to this level is a sign that some are beginning to anticipate growing consumer demand for more celebrity accountability in China. Perhaps in the near future, a male actor will introduce a revolutionary new line of tampons he personally had a role in developing.
On second thought, here’s hoping that day never comes.
Herman Cheng is marketing and PR manager for Havas Media in Beijing