A strategic perspective on using controversial celebrities as endorsers for luxury fashion brands

Controversial celebrities are not rarities. There are many celebrities that have marketed themselves around consistently rocking the boat. Think Russell Brand or Nicki Minaj. While other celebrities start off with a fairly traditional image but, to everyone’s surprise, suddenly find themselves entangled in a scandal, as Tiger Woods famously did. The literature at hand, generally points to avoiding controversial celebrities when it comes to endorsing brands. However, could controversial celebrities actually lead to positive brand attitudes when they are aligned to the brand’s strategy? The context of our study is the luxury fashion industry where controversy is something generally sought by brands rather than avoided.

Are all controversial celebrity endorsers the same?

The current literature has labeled controversial celebrities under the same umbrella. However, our research makes a distinction between a naturally controversial endorser (one that is consistently controversial – your Russell’s and Nicki’s) and an incidentally controversial endorser (one whose controversial image is brought upon due to an unexpected event, in other words, doing a ‘Tiger Woods’). A naturally controversial endorser may align with a brand that is implementing a ‘reinforcement‘ brand strategy. According to brand strategist Kevin Keller, this is where a brand is strengthening their current position. On the other hand, an incidentally controversial endorser should support a brand positioning strategy of ‘revitalisation,’ that is, a brand that is repositioning itself from somewhat typical to unorthodox. Consistency between the type of celebrity controversy and the brand’s strategy is hypothesised to lead to positive brand attitudes.

What we found – going beyond ‘traditional fit’

Using an experimental approach, we first found support for the above hypothesis – that consistency between the type of celebrity controversy and the brand’s strategy leads to more positive brand attitudes, albeit the result was stronger for the naturally controversial – reinforcement scenario. We also showed that this relationship is not mediated by traditional ‘fit’ but a newly proposed celebrity-positioning match-up. Conventionally, favourable celebrity endorsement evaluation is largely viewed to be a consequence of a strong ‘fit’ between the brand and the celebrity’s attributes. However, when a brand employs a scandalous celebrity, our findings show that ‘traditional fit’ does not capture the full complexity of the relationship between such a celebrity and the brand. However, consumers’ appreciation of the brand using the controversial celebrity in alignment with its strategy was an empirically valid explanation for our results.

Overall, controversial celebrity endorsers are not evils to be avoided at all cost. Managers should not only think of celebrity endorsement as a tactical pursuit but understand the merit in matching a (controversial) celerity to the brand’s strategic direction.

Read the original research article: Carrillat, F.A., O’Rourke, A.-M. & Plourde, C. (2019). Celebrity endorsement in the world of luxury fashion – when controversy can be beneficial. Journal of Marketing Management, https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1634632

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François Carrillat

François Carrillat is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Technology Sydney. He is particularly interested in sponsorships and celebrity endorsements as well as marketing strategy. He is currently an Associate Editor for the Journal of Advertising and the Asia-Pacific Regional Editor for the European Journal of Marketing. His work has appeared in outlets such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Advertising, and the International Journal of Research in Marketing among others.

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Anne-Maree O’Rourke

Dr Anne-Maree O’Rourke is a sessional academic at the Queensland University of Technology and freelance brand consultant, combining 10 years of managerial experience and her PhD studies to advise large organisations on brand strategy and research. Current research interests include brand strategy and communications, celebrity endorsement and loyalty program effectiveness.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.