Brands and Celebrity Endorsement

February 2009

I have a mental list of topics I’d rather like to write about in these monthly columns. However, economic events over the last six months or so have largely ensured that topical issues have taken precedence over those on my ‘now that would be nice to write about some day’ list.

On that list, is celebrity endorsement of brands and, with Bill Oddie this week resigning from BBC Springwatch and with this event hitting all the national media, I have a rare opportunity to combine something off my list with something very topical. Even better though and as some readers will know, I’ve previously worked on the ‘Bill Oddie’s Bird Food Recipes’ brand – owned by Haith’s who I’ve had as a client for a number of years.

So it was an interesting conversation I had with Simon King, Director at Haith’s (not Bill’s sidekick with the camera on Springwatch – just an odd coincidence on the name front), following the news about Bill moving on. “What did I think” Simon asked me and “perhaps it was a good thing in the long term?” My answer to the latter was a definite “yes”, but ahead of fleshing that out let’s be clear on a few things.

Firstly, it’s worth separating out simple endorsement of a brand – e.g. Kerry Katona and Iceland – with a brand the celebrity literally puts their name to (though of course it’s rarely more than that – there’s always a ‘brand owner’). The first is generally about appearing in an advertising campaign and partly with the aim of brand building (also think Myleene Klass and M&S), whereas the latter is clearly a long-term commercial venture – Lloyd Grossman with his sauces on the shelves of most supermarkets, being a good example.

Regardless of which of the above the celebrity falls into though, there’s a well proven factor that must be in place for consumers to buy into the brand: trust of the individual. I’m not too sure of the actual figures for level of consumer trust for Mr. Grossman, but I can’t imagine it’s a problem because his ‘culinary credentials’ were soundly built by his hosting of many series of Masterchef – the man clearly knows what he’s talking about (albeit in a slightly annoying voice). So when Iceland took on Kerry Katona to boost sales of frozen pizzas and peas, they obviously didn’t bank on her turning up on breakfast TV apparently a tad over the drink drive limit…

Going back to Bill, the level of trust consumers have for him is known and previous research shows that he’s the forth most trusted TV personality in the UK. Now that is impressive.

The second main factor needed for celebrity endorsement to work is congruence with the product, service or offer. So no question about Lloyd Grossman with his great sauces or indeed Bill Oddie and bird food (in fact you could pretty much say ‘think of feeding birds and you think of Bill Oddie’). Granted the level of congruence doesn’t have to be so high when it’s a simple endorsement for the benefit of brand building (and tactical short term sales of course), but I’m not sure Ms Katona was the best choice for Iceland. Yes she’s a mum and, as the campaign line goes ‘mums go to Iceland’, but I think I’d have gone for something more of a ‘model mum’. Not too sure who that might be, but I guess it isn’t one who apparently continued to smoke when pregnant.

So with all that out of the way, back to Bill and my discussion with Simon King of Haith’s. We’ve always been under no illusion that BBC’s Springwatch has been good for business – of course it has. But actually that’s more to do with the show than it is Bill himself. Yes he’s been the star of the show to a large extent (though many would dispute that and say Kate Humble has been in recent years), but he isn’t the show. The show is what has helped drive the category up and will continue to do so. Why? Because it partly represents a shift in society which is all to do with people wanting to be closer to nature. This manifests itself in a wide variety of ways, with feeding birds and growing your own veg being just two.

Having watched Springwatch and having been inspired to go out and buy some bird food for the first time, consumers will of course typically go for a brand they trust. If its got Bill’s name on it then that’s pretty much as good as it gets and for the reasons we’ve covered above: Bill is trusted; Bill is synonymous with feeding birds. So that’s still going to happen whether or not Bill’s on that specific show (or indeed ever had been in the first place).

Actually though, I see Bill’s move as an opportunity, as he’s just the person to find new ways to bring a love of wildlife, and in particular feeding garden birds, to even more people.

I’ve also never been quite sure that Bill Oddie is a good brand fit with the BBC (and that’s Bill as a brand not specifically his bird food). David Attenborough is a good brand fit with the BBC, but I’d put Bill with Channel 4. Both are a bit more radical, are a bit less conventional, have a bit more attitude.

Bill Oddie and commercial TV? I rather hope so…

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