Need a celeb? Be sure to choose an influencer

Digital media, reality TV have created personalities who strike a unique chord with consumers

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In the '60s, it was Marilyn Monroe.

In the '70s, it was Broadway Joe Namath.

In the '80s, it was Michael Jackson.

In the '90s, it was Michael Jordan.

In 2006, it is Catherine Zeta Jones, Tiger Woods and U2.

By definition, a celebrity refers to a widely known person: a social celebrity, a hero of science, a theatrical luminary, a big name in sports; a notable of the concert stage, a personage in the field of philosophy.

But now it's also Dr. Phil, chef Rachael Ray, "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell, home expert Ty Pennington, dermatologist Dr. Wexler and a star on YouTube. As brands and marketing campaigns evolve, the definition of a celebrity has changed too.

Consumers now dictate how, when, where and why they engage with a brand. We now live in a world where consumers speak to each other online and discuss and decide who they like, why they like them and how they choose to interact with them. More than ever, you need tactics that enable you to engage with consumers, tactics that influence.

So what's the definition of an influencer? The dictionary says it is "one who, or that which, influences." Isn't that the ultimate goal of using a celebrity in a campaign-to engender brand preference, loyalty, excitement, trust and influence? Brands and campaigns don't just need traditional celebrities; they need celebrities who are influencers and connectors. In the new-age world of "I'll watch something when I want it" and "I'll choose when and where I'll watch it," you can't force marketing tactics onto consumers.


They used to focus on a "day shoot" for print or TV advertisements and event/hospitality appearances. Then came SMTs (satellite media tours) and "media days" when celebrities were booked on national morning shows, cable news and other media outlets throughout the day. In recent years, campaigns have added name and likeness-use on their websites, using the celebrity database to disseminate information and passing through rights to their business-to-business partners.

But now tactics are changing because of what we know about consumers and how they "consume" celebrities.

We even know if the target audience recognizes a face better than a name (or vice versa). A pointed example: Research from E-Poll shows that many women recognize a photo of Jo Frost (TV's "Supernanny"), but very few know her name. Thus, smart marketers will use her on TV or other vehicles where you can see her face, not on radio.

Through focus groups and research, marketers learn what specific attributes consumers like about celebrities and which ones they don't. This dictates the types of media opportunities a public-relations firm should book and the words a creative director should use in advertising.

immediate ideas

We're also able to monitor feedback (immediately) from our consumers through blogs, chat rooms, MySpace and other online communities. Just do an online search for a TV show or celebrity an hour after a show has ended. It not only will reveal who and what the audience likes and dislikes but also can give the show's producers (and marketers) ideas for the future.

When was the last time you called a handyman from the Yellow Pages? Don't you do that through personal references online (and typically through e-mail or a social group)? It's all about influencers.

Don't get me wrong-traditional celebrities are effective. If a brand needs to break through clutter, increase brand awareness, create attention, differentiate itself in a hospitality environment and/or increase water-cooler chat, a celebrity can be a great solution.

And influencers are not new. Brands have always looked to target the "social lion" in the group. But what is new is that some of these influencers are becoming celebrities too. By getting their own TV shows, writing books, getting national media attention and, most important, getting consumers to talk about them and interact with them, they are now leading the audience. Online communities and other new-media opportunities have opened the door for this to happen.

We have had more calls in the past two months for "real-life experts" that have been guests on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" than for athletes, musicians and actors combined. Brands are becoming more interested in influencers like fitness guru Bob Greene, carpenter Carter Oosterhouse and designer Vera Wang.

The shift came five years ago because of the popularity of the online world, the introduction of reality TV and the cost of A-list celebrities. The cost of celebrities opened the door for others to be considered for campaigns. Reality TV changed people's opinions about who they liked and why. And the online world and social communities increased conversations about this audience.

What's next?

The real-life influencers will remain popular, and we will see more influencers and celebrities being created and developed solely online. Musicians, meanwhile, will continue to look for distribution. As a result, they will remain popular and more willing to participate in corporate programs (by licensing their music or actually appearing in advertising campaigns).

The influencers that will win in the end will be those who come to the table with more assets than just their names and likenesses.

And to be successful, brands must act on these trends, treat the celebrity process as a real marketing discipline, use tactics that engage the consumer and spend the appropriate time to find a real influencer.
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