A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 4, 2017

Are the Most Valuable Celebrity Endorsements the Ones Brands Don't Pay For?

'Natural affinity' is the term marketers are using to describe social media postings of celebs wearing brands without being paid to do so. The theory is that in a skeptical age, the more natural look will sell better. Until, of course, everyone is doing it. JL

Robert Klara reports in Adweek:

Harvard Business School revealed that celebrity endorsements generate a 4% increase in sales. 85% of consumers admitted that a celebrity endorsement upped their confidence in a brand. Fans of a given celebrity are 50% more likely to buy products that celebrity does. Natural affinity is the evolution of celebrity endorsements because skepticism is so high. (But) populating social feeds with photos of celebs sporting a brand “is going to work for the first; once everyone jumps on, it will no longer be differentiating,”
You probably remember the screaming headlines from last year: a distraught Kylie Jenner took to Snapchat to declare that, try as she might, she just couldn’t get her Cartier Love bracelet off her wrist.
Jenner’s was a protracted trauma. The $5,000 bangle in question, which features tiny and clearly very stubborn gold screws, had been imprisoning the 18-year-old reality star’s wrist for “like, four years,” she complained. Not surprisingly, the plight of the unfortunate Kylie—whose forearm in fact sported six Cartier bracelets totaling, like, $41,000—brought out the wags.
“Kylie Jenner has been enduring a real struggle,” said Cosmopolitan.
“We’ll keep you in our prayers,” offered HuffPo.
Kylie Jenner’s bracelet-that-won’t-come-off crisis of 2016 triggered an avalanche of web searches for the pricey bangle—353,000 in a single month. (By contrast, Tiffany notched only 83,000.)
Data: Spotted; Instagram: kyliejenner
But amid Jenner’s ordeal and the internet storm it created was another part of the story few seemed to notice. It was Cartier’s part of the story: the tale of free advertising. Seemingly overnight, Kylie fans besieged the web and made the Love bracelet the most-searched jewelry item online—353,000 searches in a month, to be exact. Indeed, thanks to Jenner, Cartier even unseated the preeminent Tiffany. Cartier doesn’t release sales figures, so we don’t know how many Love bracelets the storied jewelry brand actually sold in the weeks after the event, but odds are it was more than would have sold otherwise.
The link between a celebrity nod and a brand’s performance is well established. A 2012 study by the Harvard Business School revealed that celebrity endorsements generate a 4 percent increase in sales on average for brands. The 2013 book Contemporary Ideas and Research in Marketing found that 85 percent of consumers admitted that a celebrity endorsement upped their confidence in a brand, and 15 percent said endorsements affected their purchasing decisions. In addition, a study released by NPD last year revealed that fans of a given celebrity are 50 percent more likely to buy and use the products that celebrity does.
Companies, of course, know this stuff already. However, while brands have long paid celebrities to endorse their wares, they’re totally in the dark when it comes to “natural affinity,” which occurs when famous faces just happen to buy, wear or use a brand, not because they’re paid to, but because they just like to.
And that’s where Janet Comenos comes in.
When Kate Middleton chose Alexander McQueen to create her wedding gown in 2011 (credit goes to designer Sarah Burton), the brand saw a 27% sales increase.
Data: Spotted; Photo: Getty Images
Comenos is CEO of a fledgling company called Spotted, a diamond-studded version, you might say, of the usual data-research firm. In a nutshell, Spotted watches all the beautiful people, monitors a list of 10,000 different brands and identifies which of those brands celebrities are most fond of. The result, to hear Comenos tell it, is the first-ever way of verifying which brand names are truly on top of the social heap. (We’ve included four examples in the charts that follow.)
“I started this business on the premise that we’d build the largest social database in the world of all the brands that celebrities use and wear and drive,” Comenos said.
In her view, brands that pay celebrities to endorse their stuff have the marketing equation backwards.
“Brands are drastically increasing their investment in celebrity activations, but 100 percent of these activations are all scripted and staged,” she said.
According to Comenos’ research, consumers, especially younger ones, are increasingly tuning out endorsements that are obviously paid for. Yet despite that, “brands are dedicating their efforts to these contrived forms of advertising,” Comenos said.
What’s a brand supposed to do with Spotted’s findings? For example, say a footwear brand discovers that some young movie star wears its sneakers to the gym. So what?
Comenos explained that Spotted “can help the brand understand how relevant [the discovery] is,” as well as “if they’re on an upswing or a downswing.” Plus, if a brand gets a list of the top celebs who like its products, it might be good to send some free swag to those celebs. Finally, since Spotted clears all rights for paparazzi photos of stars wearing the merch in question, brands can use the images in their social-media marketing and target the stars’ social fans.
The trendy, L.A.-based denim maker was spotted on the hips of so many leading actresses this year that Levi's partnered with it on a vintage line and signed Cindy Crawford for the effort.
Data: Spotted; Photo: Getty Images
Tools that purport to help brands discover their best celebrity fits aren’t new. NPD Group’s BrandLink database, introduced last year, assigns an “endorsement score” to the top names in entertainment, assessing their level of brand-flogging potential. (Rihanna leads the pack, followed by Beyoncé and Ne-Yo.) But Spotted can filter out paid endorsements and zero in on the brands that celebrities opt to use on their own, at least insofar as being spotted with those brands is an indication of genuine affinity.
Spotted’s data relies on a small army of fashion-world freelancers—stylists, editorial assistants, etc.—who take a test to prove their passion. They must be able to identify 30 brands within five minutes just by looking at photographs. Spotted sifts through social media and the stock houses to feed thousands of paparazzi photos to its hawk-eyes each day. The spottings, aggregated and categorized, then give brands an idea of where they stand in the esteem of the rich and famous.
It was, in fact, brands’ own awareness of the importance of Hollywood stars that gave Comenos the idea for the company in the first place.
“Brands were telling me within minutes of a public mention that a celebrity wears something, it sells out,” she said. “Brands will say that item and half a dozen similar items will sell out within five minutes. But brands have no way of capturing all of these instances and integrating this content into their larger marketing mix.”
With Spotted, Comenos added, they do. But is so-called “natural affinity” really all that? Well, yes—for now.
Though its breakout moment came several years ago with the popularity of Sex and the City (the TV show and movies alike), the fabled French shoe designer is still enjoying the limelight the franchise helped create. And though many fans presumed otherwise, those red-soled heels were all paid for. Louboutin doesn’t do freebies.
Data: Spotted; Photo: Getty Images
Allen Adamson, founder of consulting firm BrandSimple and the author of the upcoming Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World, agreed that paid endorsements just don’t have the influence they once did. Everyday consumers, he said, “are more interested in what celebrities are doing when they’re not on the set.” Which makes Spotted’s data a highly attractive prospect. “I think [natural affinity is] the next evolution of celebrity endorsements,” he explained, “because [consumers’] skepticism level is so high.”
That said, Adamson also pointed out that, as is the case with so many marketing trends, the efficacy tends to fade as more and more brands adopt a given tactic. In other words, he said that populating social feeds with photos of celebs sporting a given brand “is going to work really well for the first couple of brands that use it.”
“But once everyone jumps on the bandwagon, it will no longer be differentiating,” he said. “It’s another new mousetrap, but once everyone is using it, it’ll become routine.”
Time will tell, of course. But for now, Spotted’s roster of spottings is an undeniably fresh take on the symbiotic relationship between famous faces and the brands they like to use. Comenos’ work doesn’t just substantiate that celebrity brand choices can have immediate and lasting benefits for brands a brand’s fortune. It can also demonstrate how pinning your brand to a celebrity has its risks.
On Aug. 29, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant dissed Under Armour on the Bill Simmons Podcast in discussing athletic brands’ influence on college basketball recruiting. Claiming that “nobody wants to play” in that brand, he said the “top kids … all play Nike.”
Within a day, media outlets from KCRA to USA Today had disseminated the jab across the web. The following month, Under Armour’s stock slid 3 percent.
Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps for brand it’s just another reminder of how celebrities’ natural affinity—in this case, maybe it’s natural hostility—has changed marketing for good.


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