Lance Armstrong. Self admitted drug taker, doper, liar, perjurer and cheat. Tiger Woods, serial philanderer, destroying his (previous) clean cut image. Sir Jimmy Savile OBE: ‘predatory sex offender’ according to Scotland Yard, and paedophile accused of abusing over 300 vulnerable children including mentally handicapped and terminally ill hospital patients.
What all these personalities have in common is that they all held significant commercial and charity endorsements. People like famous people. Marketers like people who people like. Nothing can create a winning product quite as quickly as a strong endorsement from a well-known personality. Take the George Foreman Grill. Or to give it it’s full title, the ‘ George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine’, which has sold over 100 million units as a result of the aging heavyweight world-boxing champion’s popular infomercials. George’s famous signoff line “It’s so good I put my name on it” has entered popular culture. Without his endorsement the grill would have remained just another far less profitable ‘snackwich-maker’. Wouldn’t we all, as marketers, like to share similar success?
Of course when things go wrong for the personality endorsing a product, they do go spectacularly wrong. Tag Heuer, Gatorade, Gillette, Accenture, AT&T, Golf Digest, Buick (General Motors), Titleist, and American Express all rapidly jumped from the Tiger ship at the height of his crisis. Interestingly Nike stuck with him. For the rest, the positive attributes Tiger had previously exhibited and which they had hoped would rub off on their brand suddenly became a huge liability. It’s what I call the ‘congressman effect’: the fact that it always seems to be the congressman who extols family values who then embarrasses himself, caught up in a sexual imbroglio – like the aptly named Anthony Weiner, forced to resign from congress having sent an inappropriate photo of himself to a female Twitter follower while his newly married wife was expecting their first baby.
The spectacular downfall of the likes of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong has not, it seems dampened large brands’ enthusiasm for celebrity endorsements. Nike has just signed Rory McIlroy for a reported $250 million, and produced a rather clever ad with both he and Tiger. Pepsi has just signed Beyonce for $50 million and perhaps surprisingly Chanel No. 5 now features Brad Pitt in its much-parodied $7 million ad.
Not all endorsements are world-class sports and media personalities. The introduction of social media has increased the importance of recommendations from ordinary users of your products and services. The world has become a more transparent place. A place in which consumers are (even) more cynical of what marketers tell them, and more trusting of advice from ‘friends’ even if such ‘friendship’ is of the more superficial Facebook variety. The average Facebooker has 190 ‘friends’ – a far wider influencer set than ten years ago. Sadly, consumers may take more cognisance of a Facebook friend they haven’t physically seen since school than overt product information from an advertiser. So given this context and the reality that most organisations don’t have millions of dollars to spend on celebrity endorsements, what opportunities do endorsements, testimonials and recommendations offer?
Market research based recommendations can be powerful, provided they are credible, relate to a recognised body of respondents and you have verifiable independent evidence of your claims. Of course they need to be stated in a non-technical and impactful way. Examples that come to mind include: “Sensodyne is the No.1 dentist recommended brand for sensitive teeth” and “Panado – The GP’s choice”. Risks include your competitors contesting the independence or validity of the research your recommendation is based on, or perhaps even worse, you losing the support of the market and consequently the endorsement over time. If you operate as a market leader in a more niche market, research of a viable sample by an independent research company could be a relatively cost effective way of building a powerful positioning which would be very difficult for competitors to replicate.
Ever wondered why you see so many serious looking ‘experts’ in white coats in adverts? The current Life Buoy ‘Clini Care 10’ television ad being a great example as a whole auditorium of white-coats applaud their hero – a bar of hand soap. By association viewers associate the product with an endorsement or recommendation by doctors. Without being disingenuous, are there positive associations you can create through imagery for your brand?
Awards also offer opportunities to present evidence from a third party that your product enjoys wide recognition and support. The Sunday Times Top Brands Awards being a fine example. Multiple brands annually leverage their good showing in the various categories of this award in their paid-for adverting, while their PR companies send out a flurry of releases to gain exposure. Advertising agencies are famous for being defined by the awards they win. This is because a service, particularly one as intangible and subjective as advertising gains huge credibility from commendation through awards. Given that there is (to be cynical) virtually a whole industry of ‘awards’ of various stature, there is likely to be one your product or company could leverage to competitive advantage. One caveat: beware tying your brand to an award of obviously dubious credibility. If you have effectively paid for an award, your competitors can too, or more damagingly, point out your award’s lack of credibility.
Recommendations by known experts or organisations, if they can be negotiated for acceptable cost, add significant stature.
Pope Leo XIII famously endorsed ‘Vin Mariani’, a patent medicine containing cocaine, in 1863. Clearly such a recommendation would be rather more difficult today, but Gordon Ramsey’s endorsement of Checkers’ butchery adds huge credibility to a previously undifferentiated offering. BP Ultimate’s “Recommended by the AA” as the only fuel endorsed by the Automobile Association of South Africa distances the product from competitor products, which frankly were delivered through the same pipeline. Are there similar opportunities within your industry or market? Here again, operating within a specialised niche might bring the cost of such a recommendation within budget.
While the term ‘endorsement’ normally applies to support from a celebrity, ‘testimonial’ usually relates to ordinary customers. Testimonials in my mind started running out of steam 20 years ago, (remember those old OMO ads where a women told us all that she “nearly died” with embarrassment from the lack of cleanliness of her bowling dress?) but have revived in the last 10 years as social media has become ubiquitous. Testimonials can be an important part of communal marketing via social media. Its has become the expectation that customers tell other customers about their experience. Amazon explicitly leverages this on their site offering product recommendations exclusively from customers. A powerful variant of this is their product recommendation engine, which automatically cross-sells on the basis that “customers who bought product A, also bought product B”. Instil similar thinking across your social media platforms. Make it easy for happy customers to tell other customers about their (positive) experience. And of course leap on any customer complaints before they too are multiplied.
This article was first published in Your Business Feb 2012.
- Tiger close to new multiyear Nike deal (espn.go.com)
- Using Testimonials And Endorsements to Promote Your Book: A Guide For Self-Publishers (business2community.com)
- Cheerleader Elle Smith Signs On as Spokesperson for Cheerleading Apparel Company Chassé (prweb.com)
- 18 Athletes Who Make More Money Endorsing Products Than Playing Sports (businessinsider.com)
Study tour of Beijing and Shanghai with GIBS MBA students
‘Groupon’ has entered the South African market. For those not familiar with the US based business, its novel business-model offers deeply discounted ‘daily deals’. The wrinkle is that a minimum number of consumers need to sign up for a deal before it locks in. (Hence the name – a combination of ‘group’ and ‘coupon’.) It is one of a raft of apparently unique e-businesses taking the world by storm and it has a claimed business valuation in excess of 25 billion Dollars.
Must be a unique proposition, right? Especially given the generous business valuation. But type “daily deal” into Google, and you will find a raft of South African competitors, including the remarkably similarly named ‘Zappon’ (yes a combination of ‘ZA’ and ‘coupon’). Further down the listings you find a plethora of lookalike sites with identical value propositions. Look further and you will find http://www.groupbuyingsite.com. For as little as one hundred and ninety nine dollars you can buy all you need to set up an identical business. With few exceptions (Google’s search business being one, due to the ubiquity it has developed) most ‘unique’ selling propositions or ‘unique’ value propositions aren’t really very unique. In reality most businesses are in fact in the ‘marketing-of-commodity’s business’.
In spite of the consistently growing bank of ideas protected by patent, in my mind almost all products are rapidly commoditising – primarily because of the growth of secondary-technology providers who supply a great deal of products’ upstream value. Think of car manufacturers. All car brands have access to the same component manufacturers, paint suppliers and technology and plant providers. Consequently there is very little of importance that is truly unique between car brands. “What about services?” do I hear you ask? Well with few exceptions (ad agencies where the original founder is still in the corner office, comes to mind) all service companies have access to the same employee pool. This dulls any real differentiation propriety intellectual property might offer.
Given that it’s marketing 101 to emphasise our company or product’s unique value proposition, what is a marketer to do?
Firstly, we need to remain objective. If our product or brand really has a unique value proposition – well and good. But is it really a physical improvement or innovation which is impossible for competitors to copy or neutralise? Or do we simply believe our own marketing? For the rest we are talking about differentiation by emphasising what I refer to as ‘unique marketing decisions’ or UMD’s.
Be consistent. If we really do have a better mousetrap, we can afford to describe its uniqueness in a number of different ways. If we are differentiating through UMDs, best we keep those decisions consistent. Which is easy until a new marketing director arrives with an inclination for change.
Remember that where differentiation is the result of marketing decisions, rather than any real product attribute, the differentiation only exists in the market’s mind. We need to respect the market and keep very close to their changing needs. We should remain paranoid about competitors, because our ‘unique’ positioning can quickly be usurped. Let’s not forget that Myspace was the world’s largest social networking site until April 2008 – at its peak valued at 12 billion Dollars. It was sold in June 2011 for just 35 million dollars. We all know why – the market swiftly turned to Facebook. Myspace’s apparent differentiators (sufficient to give it a business valuation in the billions of dollars) had evaporated in just over three years.
Which brings us back to Groupon. Only history will tell whether the business is worth the crazy valuations mooted. What I can tell you is that the difference in valuation between Groupon and Howard’s-Daily-Deals.com comes down to the uniqueness of their marketing decisions not the uniqueness of their business model / product. Remind your financial director of this during your next budget negotiation.
Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Hardly rolls off the tongue. Perhaps you know it by its popular name – Ecstasy? What you probably don’t know (or perhaps shouldn’t admit to knowing!) is that ecstasy is commonly branded. So the fundamental question is: why do drug dealers brand their wears?
When you strip all the complexities we add as marketers, it’s a simple principle: the addition of a brand differentiates one good from another and turns it from a commodity (which economists tell us are “fungible” – that is its the same, no matter who produces it) into something for which consumers can develop a preference. So drug-dealers want the unfortunate drug addict to recognise and ask for their particular product. Given that ecstasy is primarily “retailed” in tablet form, this means they literally brand their tablets in the original sense of the word. This is achieved using an imprint on the tablet – often taken from mainstream brands such as well-known car marques. There is a fascinating resource on the web showing over 300 ecstasy brands (and you think you operate in a competitive market!) but decorum dictates that I don’t promote the link. But I can tell you that apart from a brand imprint there is also a range of differentiated colours and shapes. The point is, are our brands really differentiated on attributes which are important to our consumers? Or do we get excited and brief our agencies to promote differentiated attributes, which consumers actually don’t care about? For drug addicts, there is only one important attribute associated with a particular brand of e: the phamalogical effect. Colour of the tablet, while highly differentiating, is not important to the consumer at all. So the fundamental question is: How often do we as marketers emphasis brand attributes which, while highly differentiating, are not really important to consumers at all?
We all know why they are called brands, right? From the old days of branding cattle. But nowadays brands primarily exist in our markets heads’. Sure there are usually clues, such as a “swoosh” (no name needed for you to recognise this particular brand – to the extent that they no longer even need to mention their name in advertising). So here is a fundamental question for you: Do consumers need to be able to see a brand logo and be in a position to physically differentiate between a branded and unbranded product for the brand’s impact to be worth the investment by marketers?
I wear glasses. I also know that Carl Zeiss is a good brand. But given that my optometrist supplies my trendy-marketing-man eyewear, how would I know that the lenses are genuine Carl Zeiss glassware? Because they brand them, that’s how. Right on the lenses “We laser engrave a tiny “Z” into all ZEISS branded lenses before they leave our plants. The Z icon is engraved into the side of the lens closest to the eye.” “The ZEISS quality seal is visible only when you look at the lens, not when you look through it.” http://www.better-vision.zeiss.com So now I can look at my glasses and be reassured they are a brand I can trust. This remains in my head in spite of the fact that I am the only one who knows and under normal circumstances even I can’t see the branding.
What if the consumer can’t even see the branding at all? Take diamonds for instance, unbranded they are a commodity (albeit an expensive one), but branded they are immediately differentiated and can create preference – even if the branding is invisible to the naked eye. The relevant case study is De Beers ‘Forevermark’ branded diamonds: “The symbol is invisible to the naked eye, measuring only 1/20th of a micron deep and can (only) be seen with a special Forevermark viewer.” http://www.diamondworld.net (emphasis by author).
So what is the point? Let’s never forget that fundamentally brands exist in our markets heads. Best we make sure that we differentiate them on attributes which are actually important to the owners of those heads.