With marketing budgets feeling the pinch, retailers may be thinking twice about signing celebrities to front their brand. Charlotte Hardie asks when they’re worth it and how they can be put to best use

One minute the Spice Girls are performing in front of a sell-out crowd at Wembley Stadium and the next they’re trotting merrily around Tesco’s aisles in its no-expense-spared Christmas ad campaign. For the right price, even A-listers in the glittering world of celebrity will lend their face to retailers’ marketing drives.

But just as there are success stories, there are also unmitigated disasters. Many will recall John Cleese yelling and stomping around Sainsbury’s for its “Something to shout about” campaign in the late 1990s. Then chief executive Dino Adriano admitted it had failed to drive flagging sales and, to rub salt in the wound, it was also voted the most irritating ad of the year in a Marketing magazine poll.

So, at a time when marketing budgets are tight, just how valuable are celebrities to retailers? And how can they ensure it’s not money down the drain?

You need only look at Morrisons’ ad campaigns to understand the power of celebrity. In a radical departure, it recruited celebrities such as Denise Van Outen, Lulu and Alan Hansen to wax lyrical about its produce. The idea worked. In November, Oriel Securities analyst Jonathan Pritchard said: “It is clear that the ad campaign is driving footfall.” The supermarket had just posted like-for-like sales up 3.7 per cent in the 14 weeks to November 4 – an increase on the first seven weeks of the second half, when like-for-likes rose 3 per cent.

Furthermore, employing celebrities is not always as expensive as some might assume. In fact, Iceland founder Malcolm Walker practically chokes on his coffee when he is asked whether Kerry Katona really earns the rumoured£1 million a year for her Iceland contract. “People just make up a number,” he says. “[The fee’s] not expensive and it’s nothing like the number you just mentioned.” Likewise, House of Fraser chief executive John King won’t comment on how much the department store pays model Yasmin Le Bon to be the face of his brand, but says: “People think it’s more expensive than it is.”

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is thought to earn£1.2 million a year for his Sainsbury’s contract. Veteran retail marketing expert Neil Kennedy says that if you consider that figure in the context of the supermarket’s entire marketing budget – which amounts to tens of millions – as well as the amount it costs to produce an ad alone, even without a celebrity, it works out as a relative bargain.

Nevertheless, the campaign must be executed carefully to ensure it’s worth it. Saatchi & Saatchi director of strategy Richard Huntington says it depends entirely on how celebrities are used. He is highly critical about campaigns in which they simply endorse products. “As a broad overview, the use of them is a get-out clause – lazy and archaic. When the use of celebrity is pegged at that level, it makes my skin crawl,” he says. “The fashion industry is appalling at it. It’s a case of: ‘They’re wearing our clothes – you’ll look that good if you wear them too’.”

Huntington believes the main problem is that the public sees through straightforward brand endorsement. “They know that person is really very rich and doesn’t shop at that store at all,” he says. He points to the use of celebrities such as Missy Elliot and Madonna in the Gap commercials. “Can you really see them shopping in Gap?”

Keep it simple

However, there are examples of straightforward endorsement that prove that, when done well, it works like a dream. An obvious example is Marks & Spencer’s ads featuring its posse of celebrities comprising Twiggy, Erin O’Connor et al. David Roth, former B&Q marketing director and now chief executive of The Store, part of WPP, says: “M&S’s use of celebrity gave surprise and status to the brand. It was unexpected and the choice was brilliant.”

King says Le Bon is working well for House of Fraser, too. He believes that, providing you choose your subject carefully, simple brand endorsement can work. “If you were to use someone who doesn’t match your brand, that’s when people see through it, but when you’ve got someone who embodies the brand and the aspirations of your customers, that’s when it works – it gets people talking,” he explains.

Nevertheless, Huntington believes there are other, more creative ways of using celebrities. One is when they are used as an actor. Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks’ tempestuous mother/daughter relationship in Tesco’s previous campaigns is one example. Huntington says this approach can be effective because it attracts shoppers’ attention while also diluting their celebrity status slightly. However, as Kennedy points out, when the celebrity becomes the star to the extent that the viewer remembers the ad, but not what it is advertising, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Walker recalls when his creative ad agency Tom Reddy first suggested using Katona. “I said: ‘Who’s she?’” he laughs. After reams of magazines were produced with her face on the cover, he recognised the potential. “I thought: ‘Yes, this could be high risk, but she’s such a strong personality and our customers identify with her’.”

Walker says tabloid stories alleging drug-taking antics haven’t harmed the brand, either. “For all the stuff that’s written in the tabloids about Kerry, she’s all right, actually. She’s really genuine, cheerful and she gives 100 per cent. You could say all publicity is good publicity and, yes, an awful lot of the publicity she receives is bad, but it doesn’t do us any harm,” he says.

Another effective use of celebrity is when they act as a communicator. Jamie Oliver’s tie-up with Sainsbury’s is a prime example. Another would be Morrisons’ celebrities, who explain the supermarket’s stance on local produce.

In Jamie Oliver’s case, Huntington says: “It’s not just about the fact he’s popular, it’s about the values he communicates.” Furthermore, Sainsbury’s keeps reinventing Oliver’s message. At the moment, it’s: “Feed your family fora fiver.” Before that, it was: “Try something new today.” It’s practical, informative and timely.

So what should retailers bear in mind when choosing a celebrity? Firstly, they need to ensure their famous face reflects their brand values. When House of Fraser announced it was signing Le Bon earlier this year, it was the first time the department store chain had gone down the celebrity marketing route. King says: “We wanted someone with great fashion credentials to spearhead the development of the brand and we felt her profile suited perfectly. She’s a working mum, she’s personable and she’s got a great reputation in the fashion industry. That adds even more credibility to the portfolio of the brands that we’ve got.”

Relying too heavily on one celebrity can be risky, though. Kennedy says he once put together a Christmas ad for Safeway promoting alcohol. It starred Dennis Waterman, who was arrested for drink-driving while the ads were screening. Using several names – as Asda, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons have done – can be safer. In the same vein, Morrisons store operations director Mark Gunter says the grocer considered Jeremy Clarkson instead of Richard Hammond for its latest ad, but decided to go with the latter. “You never know what Clarkson is going to write [in his newspaper columns]. Richard sets just the right tone.”

Celebrity overkill is another hazard. Celebrities generally have a shelf life. Unless the individual is recognised constantly outside the ads for doing new things, relying on them for too long can mean campaigns become stale. In addition, celebrities are not always easy to work with – not necessarily because of any delusions of grandeur, although that can be an issue, but because of their work schedules. As Roth says: “They tend not to be that flexible in terms of their timing and that makes it difficult. They’re not necessarily in the right place at the right time if you need them quickly.”

The present trading environment is also having a significant bearing on the use of celebrities. Ultimately, consumers are happy to look at celebrities parading around on TV and in magazines, but we all know they’re not doing it for free. Roth believes they have less value now than they did when the average shopper had fewer financial concerns. “Retailers are trying to establish value credentials and that doesn’t work well with the use of celebrities,” he argues. “I would suggest the use of them is in a very different place with the economic climate.”

Famous faces are not an instant recipe for success, either. Roth says: “It works when all the other elements of the marketing mix work in collaboration.” Walker agrees. “For three years, we’ve had double digit like-for-like sales, but it’s a cocktail of ingredients; there might be half a dozen ingredients in a cocktail and if you leave one out, it doesn’t taste quite the same,” he says.

Ultimately, the public’s love of celebrity is as strong as ever and, when done well, tapping into that will help the public love your brand, too. However, the world of celebrity is volatile: it’s all about choosing the right star and using them in the right way.

Celebrity signings past and present

  • Sainsbury’s: John Cleese, Jamie Oliver
  • Morrisons: Lulu, Nick Hancock, Diarmuid Gavin, Alan Hansen, Richard Hammond, Denise Van Outen
  • Asda: Sharon Osbourne, James Nesbitt, Liza Tarbuck, Ian Wright, Victoria Wood, Paul Whitehouse, Julie Walters
  • Littlewoods: Trinny Woodall, Susannah Constantine
  • Iceland: Kerry Katona, Jason Donovan
  • George at Asda: Coleen McLoughlin
  • Tesco: Spice Girls, Prunella Scales, Jane Horrocks, Ronnie Corbett, Alan Titchmarsh, Alan Whicker, Paul Daniels, Frankie Dettori
  • Tesco Direct: Rupert Penry-Jones, Martine McCutcheon, Martin Clunes, Fay Ripley
  • House of Fraser: Yasmin Le Bon
  • DFS: Linda Barker
  • Marks & Spencer: Antonio Banderas, Twiggy, Erin O’Connor, Claire Sweeney, Myleene Klass
  • Homebase: Neil Morrissey, Leslie Ash
  • Gap: (Worldwide) Sarah Jessica Parker, Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, Missy Elliot, Marianne Faithfull, Claire Danes, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Juliette Lewis, Orlando Bloom, Kate Beckinsale, Claudia Schiffer, Mary J Blige