Advertisers Live And Die With Superstar Endorsements

When a company drafts a single celebrity to represent a brand, it can backfire -- in the way Tiger Woods' behavior was thought to have potentially affected certain brands. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research examines different ways to secure brand loyalty.

"A widely applied method for improving how people feel about a brand is to pair the brand with positive stimuli," write authors Steven Sweldens (INSEAD), Stijn van Osselaer (Erasmus University), and Chris Janiszewski (University of Florida). "A brand can be advertised using attractive imagery, endorsements by a celebrity, or used in event sponsoring. Invariably, advertisers hope that the favorable feelings generated by the positive stimuli will attach to the brand."

The pairing of a brand with positive stimuli is called evaluative conditioning, and the researchers found that evaluative conditioning can occur in two different ways: direct transfer and indirect transfer.

"In indirect transfer, the positive feelings toward the brand are dependent on creating a link in memory between the brand and a positive stimulus. For example, MasterCard uses the popular NFL player Peyton Manning to advertise its product, creating a link between MasterCard and Peyton Manning," the authors write.

A second form of evaluative conditioning involves the direct transfer of feelings to the brand. In this case, the positive feeling from the stimulus "rubs off" on the brand. For example, Nike sponsors 55 current NBA players, which associates the brand with a wide range of likeable athletes.

"For these fans, the Nike brand becomes more liked as a consequence of the sponsorship of many athletes, not because of the sponsorship of any one athlete," the authors write.

This difference is displayed in Woods' association with Accenture. "If a brand has used Tiger Woods to create an indirect transfer of feelings, then Woods' recent indiscretions are particularly damaging to the brand," the authors write.

"Advertising and product use can be structured to facilitate direct versus indirect affect transfer, which yields more robust brand attitudes than indirect affect transfer," the authors conclude.

Source: Evaluative Conditioning Procedures and the Resilience of Conditioned Brand Attitudes. Journal of Consumer Research and University of Chicago Press Journals

See also: Tiger, LeBron, Beckham - Neuromarketing In Action and Tiger's Brain Is Bigger Than Ours

Please click here to take the Sports Are 80 Percent Mental 2-minute survey!

Tiger, LeBron, Beckham - Neuromarketing In Action

Its not you, its me. That's what the CEOs at three large companies told their superstar athlete spokesmen in the last few months. First, the Buick division of GM ended its $3 million per year relationship with golfer Tiger Woods one year early. Next, the NBA's LeBron James lost his connection with Microsoft less than two years after the mega-marketing deal was announced at the 2007 All-Star game. Finally, Pepsi stopped serving uber soccer marketing star David Beckham.

All three companies issued very polite press releases blaming the struggling economy and wished their sports stars future success. Why did these three deals not work? Was the economy an easy scapegoat or were these endorsements doomed from the beginning?

For years, researchers have tried to develop models to explain consumer behavior and our emotional reactions to celebrity endorsers. Matching the right spokesperson to the right product is the key. The three leading theories for endorsement marketing, Source Credibility, Source Attractiveness and Product Match-up, guide companies in making the right choice.

Credibility combines expertise with trustworthiness. The more an athlete is perceived to know about the product, the more credibility points he earns with the audience (i.e. Tiger and golf clubs).  Attractiveness ties together likeability and familiarity of the athlete. The more a consumer wants to "be like Mike", the more effective the message. Like credibility, a logical marriage of athlete to product makes for an effective match-up. A relationship that seems forced probably won't make sense to us.

Using these models, the Tiger/Buick, LeBron/Microsoft and Beckham/Pepsi match-ups seem illogical in our minds. It may be that our mirror neurons were not firing as the advertisers expected. Located in the prefrontal cortex, these neurons can be activated by observing someone else making an action. When you watch Beckham kick a soccer ball, the same neurons light up as if you were actually kicking the ball. This reaction is the basis of imitation learning theories.

Marketers are now trying to make use of this brain function by observing consumers' brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In his recent book, Buyology, (2008, Broadway Books), Martin Lindstrom begins to apply this neuroscience to why we buy things. According to Lindstrom, Abercrombie and Fitch use this idea in their stores - the "large blow-up posters of half-naked models" make your "mirror neurons fire-up."

That might be a stretch, but Roger Dooley, consultant and author of the blog, Neuromarketing, does see a connection when using athlete endorsers. "This research suggests a basis in neuroscience for the “believe in your product” advice,” he commented. “While the individual hearing the sales pitch may be listening to the words, her brain’s mirror neurons are firing at the same time in reaction to the salesperson’s emotions, demeanor, etc. If there’s a disconnect between the words that are cognitively processed and the emotions that are mirrored, the pitch will probably be less effective. Neuromarketers should take note, too - while ads normally employ professional actors who have the ability to accurately simulate the desired emotions and state of mind, pitches that use celebrity athlete endorsers... may suffer if the viewer finds the emotions don’t match the words."

We can watch Tiger hit a golf ball with his Nike clubs and our brain can imagine (or fantasize) about swinging those same clubs. But, watching Tiger drive a Buick or imagining LeBron working on an Excel spreadsheet breaks the mirror and the connection with our hero. Of course, seeing Beckham dressed as a cowboy, surfer and gladiator while drinking a Pepsi destroyed much of his athletic credibility.

Companies will continue to invest in athletes and their persuasive powers over the masses. Forbes magazine recently named the ten most influential American athletes, as named by respondents to a survey by E-Poll Market Research.  Woods tied with Lance Armstrong for the top spot, with 36% describing them as influential. Twenty-five percent said James was influential. As long as the products they pitch match their athletic profile, our neurons will open our wallets.

Please visit my other articles on