The Fine Art of Matching a Celebrity With a Brand

Dave McCaughan From Tokyo

By Published on .

American actor Tommy Lee Jones is the face of Boss. Boss the canned coffee, that is. For the past few months a close-up of his craggy face has been on outdoor signs, subway posters and thousands of vending machines all over Japan. "Ah, yes, just another use of a celebrity endorsement in place of an idea, right?" Wrong.
Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan is exec VP-director of strategic planning at McCann Erickson and a Tokyo-based trendspotter.

Canned coffee is primarily sold in around 3 million vending machines or in convenience stores. The primary drinkers are middle-age men. There is not a lot of difference between the five leading brands in taste or positioning. But Boss has done something special. Boss has that face. Note I said the face. When we asked 100 men, a little more than half recognized that the face was "an American star," less than a quarter knew the name, and fewer still could tell us a couple of Jones' movies. And no one seems to notice any copy. But nearly all recognized the ads and could tell us about them. They could tell us that the face represented ruggedness, depth, character, worldliness and strength. And that these were all characteristics that they liked in a coffee and in themselves. And that is the point.

Millward Brown tells us around 85% of commercials use a celebrity in Japan, the world's highest number. Of course, partly it could be because more than 80% of commercials run for 15 seconds, so you don't have much time. And people are flooded with outdoor signage everywhere.

But there is more to it than that. In the West, we often decry use of celebrities as the absence of an idea. And of course Japanese people know these stars are being paid and may not use the product in real life. After all, the biggest and most highly regarded celebrity in Japan remains Audrey Hepburn, who was being used by at least five different advertisers last time I checked.

What people here do see in the use of celebrities is amplification of the brand characteristics. Sure, there are trends such as the rise of Asian spokespeople in recent years: the male Korean soap star who symbolizes romance and what is missing in a middle-age woman's life; or New York Yankee Hideki Matsui, who represents the global success of a recharging Japan. The amount of research done to decide on the right celebrity and their ability to enhance attributes has become a fine art of brand building.
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