Celebrity sells. TV adverts are full of Gary Linekers, Cheryl Coles and Roger Federers waxing lyrical about crisps, hair dye and chocolates. There’s a reason that big businesses are prepared to spend mega bucks to align their brand with some star appeal. That’s not to say however that celebrity endorsement is limited to those with huge budgets – even businesses in their earliest stages can use celebrity to gain traction.
Without being able to offer large sums, start-ups can instead offer a contra agreement (offering goods or services in return for their endorsement, rather than cash), or even equity or profit share – though these methods can often take a long time and be relatively complicated to arrange. We spoke to some entrepreneurs whose businesses got off the ground with the help of celebrity endorsement, and got their advice.
A celebrity endorsement won’t compensate for a poor product. If you have the budget to pay for celebrity promotion, it will only make a poor proposition more famous. Without that budget, you need to convince the celebrity that your proposition is genuinely worth talking about.
Julie Deane’s business The Cambridge Satchel Company (the NatWest Startups Business of the Year 2011) was founded in 2007. Her traditional leather satchels are frequently seen on the arms of A-list stars. That kind of endorsement, and subsequent PR in magazines, is invaluable. But it’s all down to the appeal of the product, says Julie: “The celebrities contacted us…Sophie Ellis Bextor bought bags back when we were still [making them] in the kitchen.
“Now we are contacted by celebrities or their stylists – last year we even had the managers of Wimbledon players arrive in Cambridge with shopping lists! Occasionally we will contact them directly, but only where there is an obvious fit – like Emma Watson, who played Hermione [in the Harry Potter films], the original inspiration.”
Do your research, says Nick Rines of PR and career development agency MR Communications: “You might think you know a particular personality will be the right interface between brand and target audience, but often such assumptions are proved wrong. There is no off-the-shelf consumer panel research available to help, so a small investment in market research is something that should be undertaken.” It isn’t the case that all publicity is good publicity. Endorsement by someone unsuitable, no matter how famous, will backfire.
And because you need their genuine buy-in, it’s important to find celebrities who are aligned with the proposition. In the case of Daniel Price and Jonny Sitton, whose business My1stYears.com specialises in gift hampers for babies, this means those who have recently had children.
The first celebrity they approached was Dannii Minogue, to whom they sent a hamper after the birth of her son Ethan, when Daniel and Jonny’s business was itself in extreme infancy. This led to her endorsing the business through sheer enthusiasm. “Dannii Minogue was great,” says Daniel. “She loved the gift, talked about it, even uploaded photos.”
Endorsement can also be gained via social media. Many celebrities will tweet about a product or service to their followers – for a price. While this is still likely to cost thousands of pounds, it is more affordable than a traditional advertising campaign. Agencies such as Adly.com specialise in creating Twitter and Facebook campaigns using celebrities.
There are other, cheaper ways though. For example, Theo Paphitis, entrepreneur extraordinaire of Dragons’ Den fame, (pictured above) runs Small Business Sunday (or #SBS) entirely through Twitter. Every week, small businesses are encouraged to tweet him (@TheoPaphitis) describing their business in one tweet (and including the hashtag #SBS) in a set timeframe. Each Sunday, Theo chooses his favourite six and retweets them to his 230,000 followers.
It took Stephen Barton, whose craft business Krasnaya started producing Russian doll kits in 2009, nine months to win the SBS in 2011. “Having Theo’s name associated with the business has helped us enormously,” he explains. Not only did he gain valuable publicity, but the business was also approached to start exporting to the US soon afterwards – something Stephen credits to enhanced credibility, stemming from Theo’s endorsement.
Mel Brooks from MilkChic is also a past winner of SBS: “I won SBS not long after I'd started MilkChic, and it gave me confidence that my idea had genuine potential. Theo's retweet brought my business to a whole new audience and the new Twitter followers I gained from it helped to raise my profile very quickly, which was great.”
Realistically, you’re likely to have to be very proactive to achieve exposure from celebrity endorsement. This means approaching celebrities directly, and the best way to do this is through their agents. Nick Rines says: “To find the agent of the individual you think will fit, try spotlight.com, which carries most of the contact details needed. Agents will be very protective. Do not try and get around them and do not be pushy. You have to sell to the agent. Without their buy-in you will not go very far.”
He adds: “If the personality is from the United States you talk to the manager, not the agent.”
Alexis Smith launched her lingerie business Alexis Smith in 2010, and last year signed Jessica Wright, one of the stars of TV show The Only Way Is Essex, to be the face of the brand. Alexis says:
“I contacted Jessica through her management company, as all celebrities have agents that they work through. I was lucky that Jessica and her manager loved the Alexis Smith brand and could see the connection between Jessica and the brand.”
Daniel and Jonny of My1stYears.com continue to send free gift hampers to high profile celebrities who have recently had children. This isn’t always as simple as it sounds – Daniel recounts having to pretend to be a family friend of David and Samantha Cameron in order to deposit a hamper inside No 10 – but can lead to valuable exposure. After sending a hamper to Beyoncé and Jay Z after the birth of their baby girl, the pair were invited onto The Alan Titchmarsh Show to discuss their products – PR that money just couldn’t buy.
In terms of endorsement, the products impressed Elton John when their hamper, full of personalised goodies, was chosen to be a gift presented to him and partner David Furnish by Heart FM when their son Zachary arrived. The contents included a teddy bear embroidered with ‘Tiny Dancer’, booties with Zachary’s name on them and a blanket which read, ‘How wonderful life is now you're in the world' (pictured below). Elton’s subsequent enthusiastic reaction to the hamper was captured on film and has proved especially valuable to the company.
The lesson? Go the extra mile, and be brave! With some PR savvy you can gain extremely important press coverage for virtually no money – though hiring a PR agency to make the most of your activity, as Jonny and Daniel did, can certainly help.
Once you have a celebrity who has endorsed your product, or agreed to, you need to maximise the impact of the endorsement through appropriate marketing channels. Nick Rines says that: “For personality endorsement, social media has huge potential to generate traction with audiences.”
Conversely, Stephen Barton maximised the impact of winning Twitter competition SBS through more traditional marketing channels, including a press release and an e-newsletter. As a winner, he attended an awards ceremony in which his picture was taken with Theo Paphitis, and he found this brought the business valuable publicity. “We’d been trying to get into the trade magazines for a while. After the press release they were clambering for our details.”
Daniel and Jonny ensure that they let the press know every time they send a gift hamper, thereby usually gaining some coverage, even if the celebrity doesn‘t go on to endorse the product.
If you’re looking to raise awareness of your business and increase sales – who isn’t? – celebrity endorsement can be an important ingredient. It will however take time – if not much money – and thought. Finding the right champion for your brand is key. As Alexis Smith says: “The worst thing…is when brands are trying to link with celebrities just because they are celebrities, and they represent a totally different market to their brand.”