OPINION: Celebrity endorsers pose risk for brands

Two recent stories highlighted the inherent publicity perils for brands that become too closely associated with celebrity endorsers.

First, Jamie Oliver turned on Sainsbury's over its refusal to enter into a public debate about the battery farming of chickens. Then, in a move that could only have only left a mutual taste worse than uncooked chicken, the TV chef grovellingly apologised to the supermarket chain, which pays him £1.2m a year.

A day later newspapers reported that Iceland was dispensing with, or at least scaling down, services from singer-turned-jungle celebrity Kerry Katona. Apparently, it was felt that constant tabloid reporting of the car crash elements of her life - drugs, debts, breakdowns - had become detrimental to brand values.

In both cases, the face had become bigger than the brand, with the media coverage overshadowing rather than enhancing brand values. It was a delicious morsel of irony served up by two food giants, which had unveiled their much-vaunted celebrity signings with all the modesty of a Premier League club parading its new record striker.

The value in signing Oliver and Katona was precisely that they would guarantee acres of editorial coverage. But in the modern world of global celebrity, who was to be the judge of whether the headlines were the right ones? Did anyone ever expect anything different from the obviously troubled Katona, who has always worn her heart on her sleeve?

Cynically, wasn't it precisely her constant battles with personal and emotional problems and the media's obsession with them that made her so attractive to Iceland bosses? Part of the reasoning behind her signing must have been that, aside from paid-for advertising space, she was guaranteed to deliver front-page headlines.

With the ubiquitous Oliver, the problem, albeit entirely different, could hardly have been unforeseen. A passionate and knowledgeable campaigner whose endorsement is eagerly sought by all political parties, he was always likely to stretch the media management powers of any commercial partner.

The trust and loyalty he engenders among consumers is inspired by his outspoken integrity on issues on which he is viewed as both expert and independent. The nightmare for PROs came when they expected him to maintain silence on a Sainsbury's issue that he felt compromised the Oliver brand values.

Celebrity brand ambassadors can drive massive PR benefits, but they are also high risk. Headline-hungry brands should pause to assess the challenge of managing those headlines, so that they amplify rather than denigrate core brand values, before entering the celebrity market.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly an executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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