The Science and Art of Celebrity Branding

David Tan

David Tan

When Carlos Alcaraz won Wimbledon, Rolex immediately bought full page advertisements in major newspapers around the world to congratulate the young man. In Singapore, we see Loh Kean Yew endorsing Grab in bus stop ads and Kim Kardashian lounging languidly in a larger-than-life poster at the store front of Dolce & Gabbana at Ion Orchard.

Advertising a brand through such associations is both an art and a science. Companies need to consider a wide range of factors in order to determine whether or not it is the right fit. A faux pas can result in widespread criticism or ridicule on social media, and may cause greater harm than benefit to the brand.

So when DBS, a Singapore home-grown brand, splashes its logo prominently on the chest of top Indian badminton players such as Lakshya Sen, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty at the BWF World Championships last month, discussions on social media were ignited as to whether an iconic Singaporean brand should be backing foreign sports players over the national team? Thankfully Lakshya Sen did not have to play against local sport idol Loh Kean Yew. Otherwise one would wonder if the players were wearing the wrong jerseys?

The Science of Metrics

Through sponsorships, endorsements and advertising, including on social media, brands attempt to create an association between the products offered and the ideologically desirable traits of a celebrity in order to produce the impression that if one wants to be a certain type of person, then one should buy the particular product. Companies in the United States may use a number of measurement metrics like Q Scores or Celebrity Davie-Brown Index to determine the relative effectiveness of a particular celebrity for commercial endorsement purposes. The higher the Q Score the more highly regarded the person is, and this translates to a higher price that the person is able to command. Q Scores have generally been accepted to be the industry standard for measuring familiarity, likeability and appeal of celebrities, although for social media influencers the number of followers and likes appear to be more important.
Generally, celebrity actors and athletes lead the field of personalities who enjoy a substantive economic value and goodwill in the market. Every celebrity is a marketing potential in an era of consumer capitalism – from character merchandising to paid endorsements to strategic associations (e.g. Michelle Yeoh wearing a Dior gown to the Oscars).
Celebrity endorsements affect consumer purchase decisions in different ways, like enhancing product or brand recall and improving the perception of product or brand quality. Using a celebrity in advertising, product merchandising and other commercial contexts is likely to have a positive effect on consumers’ brand perceptions and purchasing decisions; this is commonly referred to as the ‘positive halo effect’ within branding and marketing research. Celebrities function as shortcuts for brands to give their products distinctive identities.
Consumers might feel that through consuming goods and services that celebrities might favour, and living a lifestyle we see as similar to theirs, they are achieving some degree of upward mobility by joining an elite status community. In the context of sport, fans are likely have an even stronger emotional and social connection to the brands if their favourite athletes are associated with these brands.

This is evident in the multi-million dollar endorsement contracts that globally recognised actors, singers and athletes sign each year with brands as diverse as American Express, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Rolex and Pepsi.

The Art of Selection

Even when the celebrity or a sporting team appears to be a good fit based on the more scientifically derived metrics, brands also need consider cultural norms and community expectations, and therein lies the art of selection.

For instance, brands that align themselves with Roger Federer (the impeccable gentleman of tennis) are signalling different values compared to brands that showcase Novak Djokovic (the gritty and somewhat petulant fighter). A fashion brand that features Oscar-winning actresses in its ad campaign is communicating a different message from one that showcases Kim Kardashian.

Certain brands, albeit aiming to be globally recognised names, are nonetheless expected by the community to support their national heroes first. Credit Suisse back in its heyday tapped on Roger Federer to front its ad campaigns, and KB Kookmin Bank supports the South Korean national badminton team. Other well-known brands such as Rolex or Nike transcend their local origins and are viewed to be of universal appeal. It is almost impossible to find that tipping point when a brand transcends its local connections and community obligations.

In Singapore, one appreciates the fact that home-grown brand Novita features Kit Chan, JJ Lin, Joseph Schooling, Joscelin Yeo and Ang Peng Siong in its branding efforts. It is perhaps a winning formula that showcases its local roots, but will definitely have to find different personalities to connect with different markets in Southeast Asia. DBS has also previously tapped on Chan and Schooling for its local campaigns. Some foreign brands seeking to expand their familiarity and favourability in Singapore are adopting a localisation approach, such as HSBC Life appointing well-known badminton players Terry Hee and Jessica Tan as their brand ambassadors.

The Challenges of Going Global

A more difficult issue that Singaporean brands face is when does one fully embrace its transnational character in its selection of well-known personalities to be associated with? And how does it fit with the brand narrative? It is an even greater challenge when the word “Singapore” appears in the brand name. Hypothetically, a brand like Ya Kun Kaya Toast, that seeks to be a Singaporean brand that traverses geographical boundaries, can more easily partner with Cha Eun-woo for South Korea or Priyanka Chopra for India, as it brings with it its Singaporean culture in its product to these new markets.

For Singapore Airlines, no Singaporean would quibble if Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh or Korean pop group BTS were featured in its campaign, because it fits with the airline’s brand narrative. For DBS, it might have made commercial sense to sponsor a number of top Indian badminton players so as to increase its familiarity with consumers and badminton fans in India. But ultimately it is the Development Bank of Singapore, and questions will be asked when local players do not proudly display the DBS logo on their chest next to the national flag, but their opponents across the net do it. Unfortunately there are no easy answers. The price of winning eyeballs may come at the cost of losing hearts.