Celebrity endorsements are a great marketing tool for many brands – they aid in expanding the brand’s reach and audience, and help to establish a certain cachet by being “approved” by that celebrity. But, what happens when the beloved celebrity makes a mistake? How does this affect your brand and what do you do?
The most recent example of this is currently unfolding with tennis superstar Maria Sharapova. As a professional athlete, Sharapova is consistently drug tested. In the past nothing has come back positive, but in preparation for the Australian Open, everything changed when meldonium, a medication recently banned by the FDA, showed up in her system.
While Sharapova has been taking the heart medication for years – a medication that is commonly prescribed in her native country (Russia) – she was still suspended. What followed next was a breakdown of her branding relationships, including one with her longtime sponsor, Nike. The brand immediately cut ties with Sharapova once news leaked of her suspension.
Another “fall from grace” endorsement is Lance Armstrong. Known for being a superior cyclist and partnering with Nike to sell products associated with his Live Strong Foundation, Armstrong shocked fans when he admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.
He was subsequently banned for life from participating in cycling competitions and was stripped of all of his Tour de France titles. Like Sharapova, his endorsements dried up very quickly, with brands looking to distance themselves as quickly as possible.
Last, we look at Michael Phelps. Phelps had gained much popularity when he won over 20 Olympic medals for his prowess in swimming. Brands wanted to be associated with the young swimmer that was winning the hearts of many Americans. Unfortunately, Phelps ran into a few incidents involving alcohol and drugs, with one in particular costing him an endorsement deal with Kellogg’s. A photo surfaced of Phelps using drug paraphernalia at a party. With the plan of showcasing Phelps as a role model for young children and having him appear on their cereal boxes, the photo led to Kellogg’s severing ties.
When a Celebrity Endorsement Goes Sour: Next Steps for Brands
While celebrity endorsements can be very beneficial for brands, it can also have disastrous results. Like us, celebrities are human and they make mistakes, and when that happens, what does a brand do?
Most often, brands will immediately distance themselves from that celebrity – ending the contract abruptly and making a public statement denouncing that celebrity’s actions and clarifying that they do not support those thoughts or actions.
But, what else can a brand do? And how do they determine if the celebrity they are aligning with is one that will uphold the brand’s image? Here are some things to consider before reacting too soon to an endorsement in crisis:
- Consider the offense. The examples we mentioned above were all athletes who broke the law, or lost trust from fans, by using illegal substances. It is clear why the brands would break ties from those celebrities. While the offense at hand may turn into bad press, there could be some situations where it is worth it for a brand to stick it out.When more than a dozen women came forward admitting to relationships with then-married Tiger Woods, Nike still stood by the famous golfer and to this day carries a Tiger Woods Golf clothing collection.
- Review the relationship. How closely tied to the brand was the celebrity? In the instance of Jared Fogle and Subway, Fogle was closely tied to the brand and only know as the “Subway Guy.” As soon as it hit the news that the FBI was investigated Fogle for child pornography, it wasn’t a surprise that the sandwich brand announced their separation from him within the same day.Endorsement deals can certainly range in size and many fans likely do not know all of the athletes a brand like Nike endorses. Using social media listening will allow you to gain instant feedback on the situation.
- Talk to the celebrity. Many times when a celebrity crisis emerges, a brand is so quick to remove themselves from the situation that even the celebrity is blind-sided. Have an open conversation with your endorsee about that situation at hand so you can work together to craft the right messages to your audience.