When People Become the Brand

Using familiar faces as part of a company’s brand is a tactic as old as advertising. These faces come in many forms. Allstate’s campaigns over the years give us two examples. Dennis Haysbert, the former president from the TV series “24,” is a reassuring voice of calm wisdom and example of a spokesperson. On the flip side, Allstate also has the long-running character Mayhem, played by Dean Winters, instigating an untold number of hideous accidents; Mayhem is an example of a mascot.

These faces have provided recognition, branding identity, and an element of humor to Allstate’s ads. Both actors have been associated with the brand for years, which brings up the broader issue about using people as part of branding and marketing campaigns. Celebrity endorsements, brand ambassadors, spokespeople, and mascots are all different ways a brand can be tied to a certain face—and this can be a liability. What are the risks of using people in marketing, and what happens when a brand and a person become too closely entwined?


The “Vampire Effect”

As defined by marketing experts, the “vampire effect” refers to a celebrity endorsement that overshadows the product or brand being endorsed. The celebrity drains the lifeblood from his or her hapless victim­—the company or product being advertised—so much so that customer’s recall of the brand is significantly reduced. A team of professors in Europe conducted a brand recall study where participants were broken into two groups. Half viewed an ad with Cindy Crawford endorsing a hair coloring product, and half viewed an ad without a celebrity. In the study, brand name recall was significantly lower for the celebrity group participants than for the group who saw an ad with an unknown, but equally attractive, endorser. Celebrity endorsement impacted ad success in two ways: higher cost for the celebrity endorsement and lower product recall from advertisement viewers.

Worst Case Scenarios

For many years, actor Paul Marcarelli was the face for Verizon’s famous “Can you hear me now?” catchphrase. His work for Verizon ended in 2011, but in 2016 he became a well-known face for service provider Sprint. This is one example of a worst-case scenario for celebrity faces: Sprint was able to take Marcarelli’s fame gained from a competitor, and turn it to their own advantage. While a win for Sprint, it turned into an embarrassment for Verizon.

There can much, much worse outcomes than embarrassment, however, when real people turn toxic for brands overnight. Jared Fogle from Subway is the most infamous example. A real-life brand ambassador famous for losing weight on a diet of Subway sandwiches, Jared helped Subway grow for many years. Jared and Subway were working together on a rebranding campaign as late as June 2015. But the relationship went terribly wrong in July 2015 when Jared was investigated for spectacularly ugly crimes involving child porn and sex with minors. This public relations disaster broke when Subway was already suffering from sluggish sales after a decade of growth, and facing competition from newcomers such as Jersey Mike’s.

When Faces Fit the Brand

Flo, with Progressive Insurance since 2008, is another face made famous by a brand, but in an effective way. Played by Stephanie Courtney, Flo has appeared in hundreds of television ads and other content, even direct mail. Why has she worked so well? Flo hits the right mix of humor and relatability.

Flo from Progressive
Source: Progressive Insurance

With a background in comedy, Courtney was encouraged to improvise during the spots, thought of more as episodes than ads. Jeff Charney, CMO of Progressive, spoke about the success in Chief Marketer. “Get the right content in the right context and you’ll make a connection—conversion will come. … We’re crafting a network of content.”

Better Ways to Use People in Branding

Negative examples of using people as brand ambassadors, spokespeople, or mascots abound in marketing, yet the lure of familiar faces still holds power. How can companies avoid pitfalls?

  • Make sure the celebrity is a good fit. Is the celebrity spokesperson (or mascot) an appropriate fit for your brand—or could he or she pose a risk?
  • Avoid the vampire effect. The authors behind the vampire effect study cited earlier note that the effect can be mitigated by a strong, well-designed campaign that doesn’t let a face or name overwhelm what’s being advertised. Use focus groups to test the vampire effect before an ad runs.
  • Consider different kinds of celebrities. Think about bloggers and others who might be well-known within a niche or expertise that matches your brand and your product or services—and who could communicate genuine passion about your brand.
  • Consider different kinds of relationships. Dell Computers has formed a partnership with Adrian Grenier, formerly of the TV series “Entourage,” and the nonprofit he founded, the Lonely Whale Foundation. Grenier is Dell’s first “social good” advocate, working with the technology company on their sustainability initiatives. This is a great example of a new kind of brand ambassadorship focused around not just simply endorsing a product, but enhancing a brand through a social responsibility campaign—and doing real good in the process.

In the end, familiar faces and compelling stories should humanize your brand—not eclipse it. For more strategic communications, marketing, and branding insights, contact us.