Seeing stars: the positives and pitfalls of brand ambassadors

Endorsements from famous faces can work wonders for brand awareness. Without proper planning and management, however, the reputational risks of a bad match will likely outweigh the benefits. Partner Nick Murrills, left, and legal director Rory Lynch, right, at Gateley Legal discuss how SMEs should approach the brand ambassador relationship and what to do if that relationship goes sour.

From Marilyn Monroe endorsing perfume as the perfect alternative to pyjamas, to Snoop Dogg rapping about takeaways, partnerships with ‘influencers’ such as celebrities or industry experts have been common practice in advertising for decades. With good reason, too. Such partnerships help brands gain exposure of their products or services, unlock new or wider audiences, and even enhance brand credibility through the validation of a well-respected individual.

Furthermore, when approached carefully and strategically, relationships with famous spokespeople can be reputationally beneficial for both parties. Take the long-running Walkers crisps campaign fronted by football pundit Gary Lineker as an example. Spanning more than a quarter of a century, the campaign has seen the creation of more than 150 adverts featuring Lineker as spokesperson and remains one of the UK’s most well-known partnerships. “Our intention was a campaign, not a one-off, but you wouldn’t have thought it would have gone on this long,” commented Martin Glenn, former Walkers marketing boss and FA chief. “It was a big risk for us but it’s the best thing we did.”

The role of brand ambassador is no longer reserved for traditional celebrities, either. Influencer marketing harnessing the curated – and often niche – audience of vloggers, bloggers, Instagrammers, and YouTubers is rapidly developing, having grown to $16.4bn globally last year, according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s State of Influencer Marketing 2022 Benchmark Report. More than 75 per cent of brand marketers surveyed for this report intended to dedicate a budget to influencer marketing, which provides endorsement from someone arguably more relatable – and therefore trustworthy – than a Hollywood megastar. Notably, 68 per cent of marketers were also planning to increase existing spend in influencer marketing activity.

Brand ambassadors also come with risks, however. Without proper planning and management, companies could find themselves tied to an individual who may, ultimately, be a ‘bad fit’ for the brand. Furthermore, the consequences of public scandals with which the individual may be involved could impact a brand’s own reputation by creating long-term associations between the brand and the actions of its ambassador.

Breaking-up with an ambassador also comes with implications for a brand’s reputation and should always be considered as a last resort. As such, partnerships with celebrities or influencers require a comprehensive and strategic approach – one that encompasses finding, onboarding, managing and, if necessary, removing a brand ambassador to harness the benefits and mitigate the risks.

It’s a match

Before searching for suitable ambassadors, brands need to be sure why they want and / or need one. What could a particular influencer, for example, bring to a campaign that nothing else could? As with any marketing spend, businesses must be able to justify how a brand ambassador fits into a strategy and what success should look like.

Once a business has established the ‘why’, they need to justify the ‘who’. Ambassadors should accurately and authentically reflect an element of a brand, such as its specialism, values, or history. Lineker and Walkers, for example, both had strong links to football and called Leicester their hometown. As such, Lineker could claim a sense of shared identity with Walkers that extended beyond a pay cheque.

On the other hand, celebrity for celebrity’s sake can make a brand seem desperate and willing to ride anyone’s coattails for the sake of exposure. Country Life butter owner Dairy Crest, for example, drew a significant amount of criticism for its use of Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) in 2008. Fans of the Sex Pistols frontman accused both company and singer of hypocrisy, leading Lydon to defend his decision in several publications. Although Dairy Crest reported an 85 per cent lift in sales in the wake of the campaign, it is questionable as to whether using an ambassador whose musical career centred around anti-establishment values was reputationally worth the risk in the longer-term.

Checking for history

As well as reviewing the suitability of a potential ambassador for the brand, businesses should also consider the public reputation of that person by conducting thorough due diligence on their digital and media footprint. This should include an analysis of any previous campaigns in which they have appeared, and whether these present a conflict of interest. Celebrities or influencers who have also worked with a competitor are easily spotted by the public and will quickly reduce the credibility of a new campaign.

Businesses should also conduct a thorough review of an individual’s social media accounts. Although it is not always necessary for potential ambassadors to have a clean record – particularly if a brand’s identity centres around being ‘edgy’ or controversial – businesses should still be aware of any red flags, such as potentially offensive remarks. At the least, awareness of such material allows a business to plan for any reputational issues, should they desire to proceed.

For celebrities or influencers with a history of public scandals, however, brands should proceed with caution and, where possible, avoid engagement with such figures altogether. The recent scandal involving rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Adidas has left many to question the rationale behind collaborating with such a controversial figure in the first place, particularly given Ye’s long and public history of unpredictable and inflammatory remarks. 

In the contract

When a celebrity or influencer agrees to partner with a brand, it is often tempting to rush the onboarding process, for fear they will change their mind or be diverted by other commitments. Less established brands may feel particularly pressured into agreeing to terms quickly. Negotiating a contract properly, however, is fundamental to ensuring a campaign’s success and mitigating any risks that a potential ambassador may bring. Regardless of a company’s size, this process should never be rushed.

In addition to contractual details such as pay, schedules, and material required, discussions at this stage should be driven by the campaign’s brief. This should help the ambassador to understand the company and its values, what it wants to achieve through the partnership, and how the ambassador (or their representatives) will be expected to report on success.

The level of creative control provided in a contract will depend on how the campaign will be delivered. If the company is creating content in which the ambassador will appear, they will, for the most part, have ownership of what the ambassador will do or say. Increasingly, however, brands are working with influencers who create their own content mentioning the brand. In this case, a brief is even more essential to ensure that the ambassador is aware of the correct messaging to use. Achieving a successful balance between brand guidelines and the influencer’s authentic voice will require careful consideration and should always be driven by legal advice.

The break-up

Severing ties with an ambassador should always be seen as a last resort. This can be avoided largely by ensuring that the recruitment and onboarding processes are clear, and expectations are well-defined.

Ambassadors, however, are people with lives and careers that are distinct to a company. As such, it is not always possible to predict any issues that may arise in that individual’s personal or professional life.

If a brand has relied significantly on an ambassador to front its story and values, they may find themselves sharing that person’s fall from grace. Any incidents should, therefore, be managed quickly and carefully to mitigate further reputational damage. Knee-jerk reactions should be avoided, however, as they could lead to a company facing claims for damages when terminating a contract based on unproven or unsubstantiated claims.

Once a brand is aware of an issue, it should gather as many facts as possible and prepare a holding statement that communicates this to the public and other stakeholders. Silence is not an option, as Adidas swiftly learned following Ye’s anti-Semitic posts on social media. The company’s silence across all its channels angered, not only its customers, but its employees as well, with one taking to LinkedIn to comment: “Not saying anything is saying everything.” The hashtag #boycottadidas also started trending on social media following the company’s perceived lack of action.

Having a crisis strategy in place is one of the most effective ways to mitigate any reputational risks. In addition to preparing statements once an incident comes to light, a strategy should also explore ways in which further reputational damage can be mitigated once a partnership is terminated. In the wake of an incident, brands may wish to consider how to reassert their values independently of a former ambassador.

Star power

Partnerships with celebrities and influencers will remain a popular means of brand marketing. This landscape is changing, however, with the influx of social media influencers offering the opportunity to tap into niche audiences through a more relatable, authentic, and credible voice. This brings its own challenges, particularly if content creation rests largely in the hands of a brand’s potential ambassador.

Whether opting for a ‘traditional’ celebrity spokesperson, or a popular personality on TikTok, brands need a robust plan and comprehensive legal advice to maximise the benefits of a potential partnership and mitigate the risks of reputational damage.

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