Friends of Our Friends
In advertising, you see celebrity endorsement as often as you see Beyoncé, but it can seem desperate or trite when a brand chooses a big-name endorser simply for their big name. What’s refreshing are collaborations with celebrities whose artistic visions or principled stances take priority over a paycheck (at least, seemingly). While such partnerships cast a narrower net of appeal, they allow brands to gain consumers’ trust and access niche audiences. Take a cue from brands who did it right:
Chance the Rapper and Kit Kat (2016)
Endorser’s Appeal: Chance the Rapper earned his fan base with his masterful word-play, buttery singing voice, and his ability to straddle the line between “bad boy” (he recorded his first mixtape during a 10-day high school suspension) and “good boy” (Sunday Candy says it all). What’s more telling is that Chance won’t sign to a major label, although fellow Chicagoan Kanye West and Apple Music have supported him. He’s appealing as a self-made talent who openly rejects established authority, and he was a relevant choice for a fall 2016 endorsement because critical acclaim for his May 2016 mixtape “coloring book” was (and still is) rolling in.
Brand’s Goals: Kit Kat’s brand image is playful and social — after all, it was the first brand to market chocolate as a snack to be shared. The goal with this Halloween ad with Chance is to perpetuate this playful brand voice, reference the marketing efforts of Kit Kat’s past, and stand out in a slew of seasonal candy commercials.
The Result: The ad is effective because it has inside jokes for Chance fans and stays true to Kit Kat’s brand identity. Hidden Easter eggs, such as the signature “3” hat from the “Coloring Book” album cover and the actors shopping with Chance (are they the girlfriend and child he sings about?) show Chance fans that Kit Kat is in on this whole Chance the Rapper thing. The unexpectedness of the “Chance the Wrapper” pun, Chance’s take on the classic Kit Kat jingle, and the family-friendly framing of the commercial helped Kit Kat accomplish its goals. The ad’s overriding message? Labels may be warned not to stop him, but Chance (and his fans) can play with Kit Kat.
Tavi Gevinson and Clinique (2015)
Endorser’s Appeal: Tavi Gevinson has been a role model for teenagers and young women since she was a 12-year-old fashion blogger with gray hair and granny glasses. The now 20-year-old is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine Rookie. The mission statement of Rookie, one that Gevinson personally lives by, is simple: It’s okay to be imperfect.
Brand’s Goals: Clinique’s Face Forward campaign was its first digital-centric campaign, and sought to engage young women with endorsements from fashion bloggers, including Gevinson, and a Tumblr page with calls-to-action. The goal was to win the lifelong brand alliances of young women transitioning into adulthood, communicate casually with them on their own turf (the digital landscape), and set themselves apart from beauty brands that send the message: You’re not good enough.
The Result: The campaign is successful because it reflects Gevinson’s Rookie message — telling young women that their thoughts and ideas deserve the spotlight, and what they choose to put on their skin is gravy. Gevinson’s access to the Rookie audience made her a shrewd choice, as did her standing as a thought leader for young feminists. Moreover, Gevinson is an idealist who would only endorse a brand with ideals that align with her own. As a result, Clinique got more than a celebrity endorser, it got a brand ambassador who will care about Clinique longer than it takes to cash the paycheck. Young women interacting with Face Forward got a conversation with a brand that celebrates their imperfections and insights.
Tim and Eric and Old Spice (2012)
Endorser’s Appeal: Tim and Eric have been mainstays of midnight absurdist comedy since “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! first aired on Adult Swim nearly a decade ago. The menagerie of TV shows, films, and one-offs they’ve created hilariously haunt the dreams of their cult following, as do the commercials they directed for Old Spice around 2012 featuring Terry Crews.
Brand’s Goals: Old Spice’s goal was to target exactly the demographic of Tim and Eric’s Adult Swim audience (males, roughly 18-30 years old). Old Spice’s second goal was to create a campaign with viral potential. Tim and Eric’s Terry Crews commercials also needed to be cohesive with “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ads featuring Isaiah Mustafa, which targeted female partners of young males.
The Result: Tim and Eric’s commercials for Old Spice fit seamlessly into the Tim and Eric canon: they’re densely packed with action, they subvert viewer expectations for their narrative arcs, they use body warping and cringe-inducing sound effects, and they’re subtly satirical. Sticking closely to Tim and Eric’s usual M.O. helps the commercials come across as entertainment rather than advertisement, and the sheer ridiculousness makes them watchable and shareable online. Crews’ squishy-sounding, dancing pecs don’t make everyone laugh, but Old Spice wasn’t trying to make everyone laugh.
Wes Anderson and American Express (2006)
Endorser’s Appeal: Although Wes Anderson is an award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker who regularly casts big-name actors such as Bill Murray and Adrien Brody, his stories about adventuring misfits, outcasts, and outlaws and his distinct aesthetic have earned him indie cred and die-hard fans. Because Anderson’s films are so stylized (primary color schemes, storybook narrations, deadpan characters), he’s seen as an artist with a clear vision driven by personal convictions more so than by the desire to explode buckets of popcorn.
Brand’s Goals: American Express’ “My Life. My Card.” spots, which have also featured Kate Winslet, Robert De Niro, and Tina Fey, were intended to bring a personal touch to the credit card company while enforcing its brand message of exclusivity. When the first spots came out in the early 2000s, AmEx had just allowed banks to issue its cards. The goal was to increase brand awareness in light of this new development and to drive traffic to mylifemycard.com.
The Result: The spot, featuring Anderson and directed by Anderson, is whimsical and satirical because it makes fun of his tropes — so closely that it’s like watching a mini Wes Anderson movie. In the spot, Anderson pays for an explosion that’s not budgeted for in his fake film, emphasizing that he’s a director who writes his own rules and AmEx is the card company that helps him do that. It’s likely that only a portion of the spot’s viewers appreciated Jason Schwartzman’s cameo, but AmEx reaped the benefits of a soft sell to the viewers who did.
Jeff Bridges and Squarespace (2015)
Endorser’s Appeal: Anyone who’s watched “The Big Lebowski” in a beer-soaked dorm room knows that Jeff Bridges ties a film together better than a throw rug. What’s appealing about Bridges, though, is less that he has name recognition and more that he has name recognition and feels passionately about a creative pet project to help you fall asleep. He’s a gonzo artist, musician, and a lovable kook who just happens to have an Oscar on his mantle.
Brand’s Goals: Squarespace wanted to demonstrate that its DIY website builder isn’t limited to use by clothing boutiques and restaurants. It wanted to market the platform to creatives specifically. Squarespace CEO Anthony Casalena said it best: “We wanted to create a campaign to illustrate that any idea, no matter how wild or weird, can be presented beautifully and meaningfully through Squarespace.”
The Result: Sleeping Tapes, or Dreaming with Jeff, accomplishes just that. It’s wild to think of Bridges in the forest at night with a boom mic, gathering the sounds of crickets, and the resulting album of ambient sounds and Bridges’ rambling is just as endearing and crazy. Casalena homed in on the project’s success: “Instead of being built around an ad, our campaign is built around a real project.” Overall, the campaign proves that the night sky’s the limit with Squarespace.
Various Musicians and Yves Saint Laurent (2013-2017)
Endorsers’ Appeal: Of course Marilyn Manson, Ariel Pink, Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, up-and-comer Tobias Jesso Jr., Daft Punk, and Joni Mitchell are all musicians with their own differing sensibilities. However, two common threads made them attractive picks for YSL endorsements. They’ve all been associated with critically praised musical acts, and they’ve all aligned themselves with a countercultural movement during their careers.
Brand’s Goals: For Saint Laurent’s Music Project, the brand dresses and photographs musicians who recall iconic moments in music and invoke Rock ‘n’ Roll nostalgia. YSL dressed the Jaggers for their wedding day in 1971, and these ads featuring black-and-white photos of musicians are meant to reference this bygone, golden age. Using scrappy, rebellious musicians instead of models is also a way for YSL to distance itself from the idea of high fashion as inaccessible or superficial.
The Result: The subtext of the Music Project is that YSL is an active part of a symbiosis among art forms. The music (brought to mind by the images of musicians), the clothes, and the ad photography itself are all in conversation. The Music Project screams out the old adage “art begets art,” distracting from the sell, and the musician endorsers personify what high fashion always wants to be: effortless and just out of reach.
To Sum Up
There are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your niche endorsement doesn’t end up as messy as Spike Jonze in a Gap store (for the record, Slate nailed it when it said that this ad was a success while Gap’s implementation was poor). To start, brands should choose endorsers with a voice that jibes with the brand’s voice. Partnering with an endorser who matches the brand will seem more genuine because the pairing won’t result in a sudden, radical departure from brand norms — you wouldn’t want to cloud your message by trying and failing to reach your fellow kids. In that same vein, brands should always thoroughly research an endorser’s context — not just the size of their following. More specifically, research their relevance (is my potential endorser sparking meaningful conversations now?), their reach (yeah, actually, looking at the size and demographics of their followership is a good thing), and their “return” (will the endorser advocate for my brand past compensation?). Lastly: Make the primary goal of the entire partnership to entertain rather than to simply sell, which can be effortless when a brand joins forces with the right musician, filmmaker, or thought leader. What won’t improve a brand’s image is flashing the target market with random big names lining its trench coat.