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Make Your Corporate Spokesperson Work for you

The use of a “corporate spokesperson” has proven to be a highly effective technique for delivering marketing messages. As a result, many companies employ celebrities to bring their aura and panache to corporate promotion. While this attention-getting ploy can be very effective, there are some drawbacks to consider in choosing a celebrity spokesperson.

  • Cost High profile celebrities such as Roger Federer can receive in excess of $100,000 for a single sponsorship appearance.
  • Relevance Mismatching the celebrity personality with the corporate product or service personality—as frequently happens—can dilute the impact of the message. Cindy Crawford, for instance, might be a very persuasive cosmetics spokesperson, but would be totally ineffective representing a discount broker.
  • The “Wild Card” Celebrity Factor Once a celebrity is associated with an organization, their negative behavior can have a detrimental public relations impact on the corporation. Ask PepsiCo, who discarded a succession of celebrities that included Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson and Madonna. Or recall the impact O.J. had on Hertz. Somehow, there must be a better way.

Celebrities, however, are not the only viable spokespersons. In fact, there are a variety of different approaches that can achieve the same—or even better—results without the attendant costs and perils. Let’s explore some of these approaches.

Go to the Top. Many corporations have successfully used their leadership to deliver their marketing messages. Individuals such as Colonel Sanders, Frank Perdue and Lee Ioccoa serve as examples of how effective principals can be in creating the image while delivering the message. They lend an unparalleled aura of credibility because there can be little doubt of their sincerity and knowledge about the organization and its products. However, even principal spokespeople can present problems. When someone like Martha Stewart takes a wrong turn, the inability to separate the principal from the organization can create a public relations nightmare.

Be Creative. An effective alternative to an in-house spokesperson is a “spokes-character,” an invented personage that is relevant to the organization and its products and services. This approach has some real advantages that can make it even more effective—e.g., it does not carry a celebrity price tag and the “made up” spokes-character can be endowed with a full range of desirable attributes. Think how memorable Juan Valdez, Mr. Whipple, The Maytag Repairman, Miss Clairol, Uncle Ben, the Hathaway man, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Chief Boyardee and the Man from Glad have been.

Get Animated. A logical extension of the spokes-character approach is the animated corporate icon, which can be extraordinarily effective in delivering memorable marketing messages. Characters such as the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Fruit of the Loom Guys, Speedy Alka Seltzer, Mr. Clean and the California Raisins exemplify the corporate awareness and recognition that a visually unique icon can provide.

Unleash the Beast. In a popular variation of the corporate icon approach, the commercial world borrows the Walt Disney practice of projecting human characteristics onto animals to add interest and entertainment to their messages. A few well-known examples include Charlie the Tuna, Tony the Tiger, Morris the Cat, the Energizer Bunny, Joe Camel, Elsie the Cow and Smokey the Bear.

The fact that virtually everyone is familiar with most of the examples cited confirms the ability of spokespeople—of every sort—to accomplish their communications mission. Creatively conceived and effectively executed, a corporate spokesperson adds another dimension to an organization’s corporate messaging. The result is a higher degree of credibility and reassurance that can take an organization one step further in its quest to effectively deliver its marketing messages.

The Bottom Line

Very few financial services organizations have used a spokesperson to deliver their marketing messages. However, occasionally an example of the successful use of a spokesperson—of one type or another—shines through in the financial services arena. For example, Charles Schwab served as his own corporate spokesman, John Houseman’s aura of authority assured everyone that Smith Barney earned it, and, from the world of fauna, AFLAC chose its duck. The question now is: Why hasn’t this powerful marketing vehicle been more extensively employed in financial services marketing?