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  Celebrity Endorsements Reach for the Stars   Celebrity Endorsements Reach for the Stars  A.K. Cabell  
Celebrity Endorsements Reach for the Stars The best endorsement deals manage to equate the product with the appeal of the celebrity. Examples include, Air Jordan, the sneaker that evolved from a lifetime deal between Michael Jordan and Nike, and Newman’s Own, actor Paul Newman’s brand of organic food products, where the association not only capitalizes on the nostalgia of old-school Hollywood glamour, but also falls in line with Newman’s philanthropic lifestyle (a portion of all sales are donated to charity).

Sometimes a brand owner will engage a person based on expectation of future celebrity status. Perhaps the biggest example of that in recent news comes from the US where a high school student named Lebron James landed an extraordinary US $90 million endorsement deal with Nike for a greatly anticipated future basketball career.

The natural extension of all this pairing is when the brand actually surpasses the celebrity. That is, one is no longer remembered for his original celebrity status, but is instead more readily recognized in association with the brand product or service. A great example of this occurrence? Former boxer and sports analyst George Foreman -- or as you may better know him: pitchman for the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine.

An unlikely icon at this stage of his life, Foreman is not a young pop star slouching through photo ops while juggling MTV awards or Grammys. Nor is he a hot new athlete, signing endorsement deals or landing cameos in Hollywood films.

In fact, George Foreman is not even young anymore. At 54-years-old, he is long past the days of being heavyweight champion of the world, but where he reigns supreme is in the world of celebrity endorsements. As a spokesperson for Meineke and McDonald's, Foreman is better known for his endorsement of the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine than he is as a championship boxer who fought toe to toe with the legendary Muhammad Ali. For the last decade, Foreman has single-handedly catapulted the average household-grilling product to worldwide sales of over US$ 375 million in grills in 2002 alone.

Foreman first introduced the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine in 1994 through a heavy TV campaign of late-night infomercials. Ironically, it was the same grill that retail household and kitchen product design company, Salton Inc., had promoted just a few years before at industry trade shows to a largely uninterested public. Foreman, as the brand’s front man, brought the product to the public’s attention in a way that Salton was unable to do.

“Salton was looking for different spokespeople when the grill was first introduced,” says Gary Ragan, vice president of marketing and product manager for Salton. “We needed a great product, but also a great personality that matched. George is like an everyman sort of guy. He’s not telling you to go on this restrictive diet to eat healthy; he’s just showing you how easy it is to do if you buy the grill.”

In fact, Foreman’s ability as pitchman is so believable he is quoted as saying that people often write to him and send emails, asking him what his favorite meats and recipes are, and if he could actually come to their house and fix their grill. This familiar association is crucial for building a loyal market.

“People want to buy into an image,” says Debbie Allen of Allen and Associates Consulting. “What the George grill is representing is not just a ‘grill,’ it is the personal image it will create for you. People idolize George and admire his physical condition; therefore they want to be like him. People will also believe a sliver of truth when it is what they really want to hear. ‘Get this grill, take away the fat and have a firm fit body like George. It works for him. It will work for me, too.’ ”

Rather than target prime-time television audiences in 30-second spots, Salton allowed the viewer to connect with Foreman over a longer period of time using infomercials. “George immediately liked and used the grill, but he realized that he had to use his sales skills […] to promote it after sales started off slow,” says Ragan. “When it came to advertising, we decided to use a different infomercial approach -- it was a long, 30-minute format, built to sell the product to buy from retail and not TV. We used this same approach with the Breadman, Juiceman, Linda Evans Rejuvenique and a series of other products to sell strictly through infomercial.”

It didn’t take long for Foreman’s face to become the poster-geezer for grilling technique. His name alone led Salton to design a string of other Foreman-endorsed grilling products, including the George Foreman Champ Grill and Bun Warmer (aimed at the college-age market, the Grill and Bun Warmer closely resembles the iMac with its translucent color scheme) and the George Foreman Rotisserie. Foreman soon became the iconic grill master; a late-night infomercial staple and retail-world king, cooking up sizzling sales at department stores and a burning hot image overall for Salton.

In the end, the Foreman-fervor led to Salton’s extremely expensive branding decision to buy the George Foreman name. Led by CEO Leonard Dreimann in 1999, Salton signed Foreman to a five-year mega-deal worth US$ 137.5M for the worldwide rights to his name and likeness. The deal paid off for both parties; it skyrocketed Salton to the top of the household product makers and allowed Foreman to branch off into his own business ventures. Several months ago, Foreman’s own company, George Foreman Foods, announced a line of meat products: George Foreman Steaks. Similar to Paul Newman’s venture, a portion of all sales will go to Foreman’s own charity, the George Foreman Youth and Community Center in Texas.

The endorsement collaboration between Foreman and Salton was an enormous investment, which proved to be worth the risk simply because of the credible and positive image Foreman brought to the brand. As a former heavyweight champion boxer, Foreman is plausibly interested in healthy cooking, and he packs an emotionally effective sales pitch: the honest man-next-door engaging in the honest pastime of grilling. His other qualities -- father, preacher, president and CEO of his own nonprofit youth organization, and Southerner (a quality found to be charming to the American consumer) -- are thought to add to the trust factor for consumers.

While the Foreman-Salton deal is an example of a celebrity endorsement branding marriage on the high road, there have also been endorsement deals that have quickly soured when the celebrity suddenly attracted the wrong kind of publicity.

“The biggest risk is the celebrity himself,” says Dr. Ying Fan, principal lecturer and marketing expert at the University of Lincoln in England. “Celebrity branding is all about the transfer of the value from the person to the product he endorses or stands for. There are two concerns here. The first is how long this could last. Can the person maintain his popularity (i.e., his performance or status ranking)? The lifecycle of celebrity popularity varies a lot. “The second concern is his private life -- personal integrity. If he is implicated in any kind of scandal, that would ruin the brand. Who would want to use Michael Jackson to brand their product?”

In fact, allegations of child molestation deeply affected Michael Jackson’s endorsement opportunities, perhaps the most high profile of which was his deal with Pepsi. Similarly former football champ and rental car spokesperson, O.J. Simpson, lost his lucrative contract with Hertz when he was charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. It is unlikely that Jackson or Simpson could ever command those types of offers again.

Some companies will try to use the bad publicity of a public figure or celebrity to market a product (porn star Jenna Jameson for Pony comes to mind), but this can be a very delicate line to walk and has as much to do with your brand strategy as the celebrity in question. Weight-loss program brand Jenny Craig lost points with the public when it hired an overweight Monica Lewinsky (you remember, former intern, etc., to President Bill Clinton) at reportedly US$ 1 million to lose over 50 pounds -- a deal she did not follow-through with.

Public opinion is often a heavy driver in a decision to drop a spokesperson. Conservative TV political commentator Bill O’Reilly lead a successful write-in campaign to get hip-hop sensation Ludacris dropped from Pepsi’s endorsement roster after publicly announcing that the artist was not the “right” caliber to serve as an image for the mega-soda brand because of his often raunchy lyrics. Signing bad boy Ozzy Osbourne next led to protests of hypocrisy from the hip-hop world, and Pepsi was forced to knock out a compromise. Historically very successful with celebrity endorsements, Pepsi’s occasionally unfortunate choices prove how delicate the whole arrangement between celebrity and brand really is.

While Salton and George Foreman continue to stand at the helm of brand awareness success, their collaboration is no doubt being studied closely by others hoping to achieve a perfect endorsement match. Brand strategists and ad execs struggle to sign celebrities or athletes who might actually use the brand on their “off” days, and not just tote the logo on camera or game days.

This requires marketers to look beyond the celebrity’s public status and understand the actual lifestyle. Foreman became the brand because the connection between the grill and him was plausible. He surpassed his own celebrity status as a boxer to become the believable, guy-next-door, cooking a satisfying healthy meal on a Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine.

“He has a well-chronicled history of enjoying food -- lots of it,” says Rich Kenah, director of marketing for Global Athletics and Marketing, a sports marketing firm in Boston. “So he is credible on the subject…. He’s a guy that always looks like he is having fun. If a heavyweight boxer can have fun cooking with a fat reducing grill, then it’s worth a try.”

That's what a well-managed celebrity endorsement comes down to -- the ability to convey to the target market that the celebrity is benefiting from the brand, and they will too.    



A.K. Cabell is a freelance writer living in the Washington D.C. area. She is currently writing her first novel.

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