A common practice in the marketer’s toolkit of persuasive tactics is the celebrity endorsement. Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston selling SmartWater or Matthew McConaughey convincing us that he actually drives a Lincoln, consumers are well aware that if a well-known celebrity is singing the praises of a particular brand, he or she is doing so as part of a well-orchestrated arrangement for which he or she is handsomely paid.
As we have seen, it is not even guaranteed that the paid endorser actually uses the product that he or she is endorsing. For example, a much-publicized collaboration between Blackberry and Alicia Keys, in which she was not only paid as a celebrity spokesperson but was brought on as a creative director, ended after just a year, a year that started out with Keys sending a tweet from an iPhone rather than her “own” brand.
As celebrities become more expensive to lock down and technology opens up more direct communication lines with consumers, a newer phenomenon is quickly taking over the celebrity endorsement: the social media celebrity endorsement, which also creates opportunities for a less traditional type of celebrity.
Far from famous in the conventional sense, a handful of young, hyper-connected social media mavens have amassed followers numbering in the millions on their platform of choice, including Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat and the like.
Aside from being more believable and relatable than celebrity actors, musicians or athletes, regular people gaining fame through video blogging from their basements or posting humorous Vine videos gain tractions on many people’s social media feeds, particularly those of young consumers. These non-celebrity musings on even the most mundane elements of their lives are not only welcomed but sought after by their followers. Even when it is disclosed that statements, posts or endorsements are sponsored — as they ethically should be — followers are open to these messages as long as they are couched in their regular engaging content. Brands are all too happy to be part of the conversation and take advantage of this new platform for reaching out to consumers.
As with celebrity endorsers, however, there is a risk in attaching one’s brand to a dynamic personality with a large audience. Struggling teen retailer Aeropostale has been enthusiastically using social media and social media stars to convince consumers that it is still relevant but recently came under fire for hiring Vine star Nash Grier.
Grier has a history of expressing racist and anti-gay sentiments in his posted tweets and videos. He has over 9 million followers, however, and has apologized for his earlier comments. It is yet to be seen if his apology will be enough, and how it will impact Aeropostale.
While many of these self-made social media celebrities can still be hired as a brand representative for a comparative bargain, the access that they have to millions of young consumers is becoming big business. Some agencies focus on connecting brands with celebrities on social media, but a number of companies are springing up that serve the same purpose for non-famous individuals with large and rabid followings on social media. Companies like Niche and True[X] Media connect social media mavens with brands, have raised millions in venture capital financing and have major corporate clients signed up.
While this “digital talent” does not command traditional advertising or celebrity endorser rates, it is rapidly changing the face of advertising and promotions. Some brands are foregoing traditional ad expenditures in favor of this more organic approach, with good results.
Before long, more and more of our ad messages will be coming straight to our smartphone apps from people we follow and invite into our feed. Thus, the line between advertising and entertainment becomes even more blurred and advertising becomes more persuasive.
Marlene Towns is a professor of marketing in the McDonough School of Business.