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People power: testimonials, endorsements and recommendations

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?

People power: testimonials, endorsements and recommendations.

This article was first published in
Your Business.

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.


Classic Tractor Brands (Yes Tractors!)


Unboxing: Omega Constellation


Brands. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. (With thanks to British Airways’ ad campaign)

I am told these days’ English homeowners use their Dyson brand vacuum cleaners to ‘Hoover’ their carpets. ‘Dry ice’, ‘petrol’, ‘video tape’, ‘yo yo’, even ‘heroin’ all started out as brand names. Brands set our style, dictating what to wear, and according to my kids, what not to wear. Brands infuse our language, our culture, our lives. Jez Framption the global Chief executive of Interbrand says they are “living business assets”.

Technically, economists tell us that the addition of a brand turns a commodity, which is “fungible” (the same, no matter who produces it) into something for which consumers can develop a preference. Oh, they are far more than that. “A brand is really an emotional connection you have with a product or service. It’s so emotional in fact that you become fairly irrational in the way you try to justify why you’re using it.” Martin Lindstrom[1]. Here follows an ode to such irrationality:

Howard Fox's article in Brands and Branding

This article was first published in the Brands and Branding in South Africa Annual.

I shop, therefore I am.

(Selfridges brand line in collaboration with artist Barbara Kruger.)

Only a rare few don’t subscribe to the cult of brand: Daniel Suelo, 51 left his last $ 30 in a phone booth and has lived the last 12 years without money, largely in a cave in the Moab desert, Utah. Except for a small lapse in 2001 when he received a $ 500 tax refund (on what one has to ask?) and blew it driving a Mercedes 600 sports coupe across America, he has voluntarily lived without brands, or in fact much at all in material possessions.[2] Others have tried – journalist Neil Boorman burnt all his branded possestions and spent a year without branded goods – and of course wrote a book – Bonfire of the Brands. Mr Boorman suffered (apparently) from an affliction called ‘obsessive branding disorder’ which he describes as a combination of compulsive shopping and reliance on brands as status symbols to maintain his self-esteem. His year without brands was intended to purge himself of such obsessions and sounds frankly painful. Given the ubiquity of branded items, which he had sworn off, he had to avoid the high street and take to the backstreets for army surplus and second hand shops. He even had to have the tailor at his drycleaner make some of his clothes to avoid branded garb. Food shopping meant finding local butchers, fishmongers and fresh produce market. Neil never did manage to find an alternative for his branded electronic gadgets and in the end spent the entire year without a TV or DVDs.

The ugly face of brand capitalism

“I really want to do this. To everyone else, it seems like a stupid thing to do. To me, $10,000 is like $1 million. I only live once, and I’m doing it for my son … It’s a small sacrifice to build a better future for my son.” Karolyne Smith, having accepted $15 000 to have the brand ‘’ (an online casino) permanently tattooed across her forehead. She was in good company given that the casino, famous for its stunts went onto shell out $25 000 on William Shatner’s kidney stone a year later. Makes the airhead media opportunity seem positively cheap.

Permanent brand tattoos are less rare than you may think. I believe iconic brands – Harley-Davidson, Playboy, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple are popular. Why? According to BJ Bueno the author of Cult Branding Workbook (2008), it gives one entry into desirable social groups, which share special interests and common values. They also remind customers of the memories, emotions, experiences and positive associations they have with the brand, apparently wrapping up all these complex feelings and memories into a single branded adornment of the body. It also acts as an iconic reminder of what the customer’s see as his own ideals, (which of course match with the brand’s ideals), drawing strength for the image deeply rooted in contemporary cultural mythology.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

“It is no different from the 19th century when parents named their children Ruby or Opal… it reflects their aspirations” Professor Evans, Bellevue University, Nebraska, commenting on parent naming their children Chanel, Armani and other brand names.

While ‘Jacob’ and ‘Emily’ were the most popular names for children in the US in 2002, during the year of study two years earlier,

55 boys were named ‘Chevy’ while seven boys were called ‘Del Monte’ a brand famous for amongst other things tinned vegetables and pet food. 49 boys’ parents were obviously keen photographers given their birth name of ‘Canon’. 300 girls were given the name ‘Armani’ but just six boys were called ‘Timberland’. Perhaps after the traditional cognac and cigars to celebrate the happy occasion, six boys were named ‘Courvoisier’ after the cognac. The youngsters can be relieved that few parents appeared to be particular fans of Cabel Hall Citrus Limited’s grapefruit, orange and tangerine hybrid branded ‘Ugli’.

Naturally many brands are named after people, the most memorable being John Cadbury, Seymour Cray (Cray super computers for the non geeks amongst you), Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, William Colgate and Michael Dell. One can only hope that Ms ‘Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii’, who at the age nine legally ‘divorced’ her parents in New Zealand so that she could change to a more conventional name, finds similar fame, perhaps in P.R.

Buy and burn

‘Buy nothing day’, popularised anarchist pop group Chumbawamba (yes the folk who gave us the better known Tub Thumping / I get knocked down we have all gotten drunk to) is typically ‘celebrated’ on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US and the following Saturday everywhere else. Never heard of it? You aren’t alone. Conspicuous consumption is frankly more popular, particularly amongst, I understand, wives. Thorstein Veblen first described conspicuous consumption in Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Naturally he was married, (to one Ellen Rolfe) in what is described as a ‘hateful marriage’.

Burning designer shoes, ripping up thousand Rand branded shirts or sloshing famous label whisky into the dust – ‘Izikhothane gangs’ take the conspicuous in conspicuous consumption to entirely new heights. Psychologist Simphiwe Sinkoyi says “…their art consists of little more than branded clothing and face-offs with rival crews who compete over who has more money.” [3] Originating in communities on the East Rand, the phenomenon soon spread to Soweto. Often the children of factory or shop workers, the Izikhothane assimilate the power of the brands they destroy by proving they don’t need them, supposedly because they can always afford more. The entire performance is rounded off with a ‘gloating dance’. As outsiders it easy to be critical, especially given the gangs’ dependence on hard working parents to financially support their ‘art’. From a brand point of view however, what greater demonstration of the intrinsic power of brands that the physical manifestation or even future possession of the product becomes inconsequential?

Positively criminal

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine – not much of a brand is it? But ‘Ecstasy’ now that’s much more alluring. You may be surprised to learn that there are in excess of 300 separately recognisable brands of illicitly produced Ecstasy. You can find a comprehensive catalogue of “e” brands here: . Most of the brands borrow established brands such as ‘Apple’, ‘Bacardi Bat’, ’Chanel’ and a plethora of car brands from Ferrari and Honda to Mitsubishi and Mercedes. (Isn’t that illegal?!)  Perhaps the most refreshingly honest brand of these particular pharmaceuticals is ‘Caution’ a green table with a warning triangle containing an exclamation mark.

Not all banned brands are quite as harmful. ‘Marmite’, the dark brown sticky paste made from yeast, much loved by the English on morning toast, was famously banned in Denmark under food safety laws last year. It joined Rice Crispies, Shreddies, Horlicks and Ovaltine all banned for, wait for it – containing added vitamins.

In the same vain of giving the finger to authority, Pepsi famously trumped Coca Cola’s (official) sponsorship of the 1996 Cricket World Cup in India with its “Kaha na war hai” or “Nothing official about it” campaign. Based on research that “official” had negative connotations for the youth market, being ‘unofficial’ became a winner. Closer to home Kulula received short shift from FIFA with is ‘Unofficial National Carrier of the You-Know-What’ campaign.

Brands no longer just reflect of our personalities. Brands shape our behaviour, our culture, our language, our appearance and our position in society. Brands make us who we are.

First published in Brands and Branding in South Africa annual 2012

[2] The man who quit money. Mark Sundeen 2012

[3] The Star 18 July 2012

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