The pull of personality

In Communicate, Marketing, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Guests gather to listen to Paulo Coelho. And the rest of us get heard as well

Originally published in Communicate, January 2008

We wanted people to come to a debate on the power of personal image last month, where we discussed how celebrity status could be harnessed to drive the public toward brands, products, messages and causes.

So we invited Paulo Coelho to speak at it, and the people we invited turned up to listen.

We heard the influential Brazilian writer speak about the Experimental Witch project, a drive to use the collective imagination of his fan base to make a film of his latest novel.

“Together with HP,” Coelho said, “we have developed a movie based on my most recent book, The Witch of Portobello. And it has nothing to do with product.”

HP was Communicate’s partner in the event, and the main reason Coelho agreed to speak at it – besides the international respect for our magazine. He was joined by representatives of HP, Pepsi, Unilever, ad agency Expression, and MBC, who discussed what celebrity endorsements mean, and how they work.

Three main conclusions came from the debate: Any personality who puts their name to a brand has to have credibility; the star will, by and large, benefit in more ways than mere financial gain; and these two elements are dependent on each other.

“Celebrities are very aware of their power,” said Douglas Palau, regional vice president of BBDO, the ad agency behind Pepsi’s feature-length Sea of Stars film, which features regional pop superstars. “They are not just paid spokespeople. …There will be a mutual benefit beyond just a straight payment. It is more about a partnership, mutual respect, really a synergy.”

Consumers, too, are growing more sophisticated and increasingly demanding more of a partnership with their favorite brands, said Rola Tassabehji, corporate communications manager for Unilver, whose Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has famously used “normal” people rather than the famous and the beautiful. Marketers need to keep up with trends, she explained. “Consumers are now looking for something beyond functional benefit [from brands].”

Tom Callaghan, creative director at Expression ad agency, said that – often – celebrities are a lazy last resort for campaigns. “People use celebrities when they don’t have an idea,” he said. “The creatives sit around and they fight and they go out to a bar and they come in and scratch their heads. Then someone says, ‘How about using Sean Connery?’ And everyone nods in relief and goes back to the bar.

“The word I want when I look for a celebrity is authenticity,” he continued. Consumers “should believe that what a personality says comes from his heart and not from his wallet.”

Add to that the idea that a personality should also be a role model. Cyba Audi, the business anchor on MBC’s Al Arabiya news channel, admitted that she has become part of the channel’s brand, but that “it hasn’t gone to my head. Yet.” With such power comes responsibility, she said. “In the Arab world, there is huge importance placed on role models and personalities. … They can pay us back by being role models for the younger generations.”

Role models are what HP is looking for when it picks the personalities who front its campaigns, said Josh Brenkel, vice-president and regional general manager of HP’s personal systems group. “We want to identify with celebrities, but not just any celebrities, celebrities who have a cause.

“We’ve worked with artists who get paid up to $40 million to promote an article like Nike,” he added, “but they’ll work with us for $40,000 to get a contribution to the cause they are supporting.”

Paulo Coelho was quick to point out that he got $45,000 for working with HP. But he also got the chance to tell a Dubai audience about The Experimental Witch project.

And we got a good debate about using personalities to promote products and causes. Rather than a panel of experts in an empty room.


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