Tech spokespeople: Choosing the human faces of device makers

From Beyonce to Ashton Kutcher to the 'Verizon Guy,' millions of dollars ride on marketing campaigns of tech companies.

Every tech company seems to have a recognizable (perhaps celebrity) spokesperson these days: Ashton Kutcher for Nikon, Justin Long for Apple, the "T-Mobile Girl" for T-Mobile, and so on. We looked at the art and science behind tech spokespeople--how they're chosen, how they affect sales, and why some are famous and some aren't--to find out if they're really the vital marketing tools that tech companies seem to think they are. What we found out is simple: Some tech companies know how to choose and use spokespeople well, while others seem clueless.

Why Hire a Spokesperson?

Consumer technology is all about the product, not the people who use it, right? It's all about faster processors, more reliable networks, and sexy design, not who happens to be holding it.

Wrong.

Because tech gear is generally more expensive than other goods, and often seen as an investment (people usually buy a laptop or a cell phone expecting to use it for at least a couple of years), tech companies have to make sure that their customers are confident in what they're purchasing. And since tech typically flies over the heads of regular nongeeks, merely flashing some pretty microchips or attractive network graphs won't cut it.

This is where the spokesperson comes in: He or she makes the consumer feel comfortable and confident in their purchase, because a real human being is endorsing it. These same spokespeople often step off the screen and make public appearances, further suggesting that they are "real people" and not simply props.

Choosing a Spokesperson

Of course, just because a spokesperson can lend credence to a product doesn't mean that companies can grab anybody--or any celebrity--and create a successful ad campaign. Selection of the right public face is especially important when campaigns involve celebrities, according to Rohin Guha of New York-based Internet marketing firm Blue Phoenix Media.

According to Guha, not all celebrities are created equal--especially when it comes to the consumer technology market. Smart tech companies look for a celebrity spokesperson who has aligned himself or herself with technology or new media, Guha says.

Guha gives the example of pop singer Avril Lavigne, who recently featured a Sony VAIO laptop in one of her music videos.

"The intention is that Lavigne's fans should want to go out and purchase VAIOs for themselves," Guha says, "But Lavigne's personal brand is not exactly synonymous with new media and technology. So that product placement becomes a conspicuous prop instead of a branded directive to customers driving them to purchase new laptops."

Why Ashton Kutcher Moves Cameras

By contrast, Ashton Kutcher for Nikon is an example of a more thought-out campaign. Kutcher's strong presence on Twitter and Quora shows that he's entrenched in the tech world, and so it isn't much of a stretch to imagine him actually using a Nikon point-and-shoot camera, Guha says.

As for hard numbers, Nikon's market-share data suggests that in 2010 it rebounded from a dip between 2008 and 2009. Kutcher signed on in 2008, but it's important to note that a nationwide recession was happening at the time--so it's unclear as to whether Nikon's newfound success was due to Kutcher or changes in the economy.

Intel's recently announced collaboration with rapper Will.i.am, front man of The Black Eyed Peas, is another good example of a tech company's profiting from a believably tech-savvy front man, if you will. Actually, it was Will.i.am who approached Intel about representing the chip maker. The relationship aligns with Guha's philosophy: Johan Jervøe, Intel's vice president of sales and marketing, cites Will.i.am's "insatiable fascination with technology" and "his embracement of disruptive technologies in order to move things forward by leaps and bounds" as the reasons Intel decided to enter the relationship.

Star Power Doesn't Always Sell

Many tech companies employ celebrities as their spokespeople--aside from Kutcher for Nikon and Will.i.am for Intel, there's also Lady Gaga for Virgin Mobile, John Hodgman and Justin Long for Apple, Beyoncé for Vizio, Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake for Sony, and many more. On the surface, a celebrity spokesperson seems like a surefire win for companies. After all, celebrities come with an enormous following of die-hard fans--devotees who are hanging on to the celebrity's every word, and who are doing their best to emulate the celebrity. Why wouldn't a company want to use such a captive audience to their advantage?

Well, celebrity endorsers are not all they're cracked up to be. Not only are celebrities fallible--recognizably so, since their lives are constantly scrutinized by the media--but celebrity-driven ads actually don't perform any better than noncelebrity ads do.

According to a 2010 study by Ace Metrix, a company that examines the effectiveness of advertisements, celebrity ads are no better--and in some cases are worse--than noncelebrity ads.

Ace Metrix tested 236 nationally televised ads across 16 industries and 110 brands. The company surveyed between 498 and 608 people per ad (chosen at random to ensure a nationally representative sample), and gave each ad an "Ace Score" based on "Persuasion" (desire, relevance, information, likeability, change, and attention) and "Watchability" (high-, medium-, and low-involvement TV viewing conditions).

The results: Celebrity ads failed to produce higher Ace Scores than noncelebrity ads did. In fact, after the analysts controlled for industry norms, celebrity ads rated nine points lower on average than noncelebrity ads did.

Although Ace Metrix did find some high-scoring celebrity ads, they appeared to be exceptions. For example, the most successful celebrity ads featured Oprah Winfrey, and were styled as public service announcements rather than product endorsements. Ace Metrix concludes that those ads' success cannot be attributed solely to Winfrey's celebrity status, and that the ads might have been successful (because of their messages) whether she had been in them or not.

According to survey respondents, the most common reasons for disliking celebrity ads were confusion about the product, perception of the ad as boring, and dislike of the celebrity. All of those issues are important for companies to take into account when they sign up celebrities to endorse their products.

The first two issues likely occur because the company gets lazy--it has already signed a celebrity endorser, and so it expects smooth sailing from there. The last issue, however, is out of a company's hands, and is one of the reasons that signing a celebrity spokesperson can be a huge liability.

Not surprisingly, Ace Metrix found that the celebrity with the most negative impact on ads was Tiger Woods--likely owing to his scandal last year. Such misbehavior by a spokesperson can spell disaster for an ad campaign, and that's probably why Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, and Gillette all ditched Woods and attempted to distance themselves from him when the scandal broke.

Building a Noncelebrity Campaign

Plenty of tech companies prefer to avoid the liabilities of celebrity spokespeople, but still want a recognizable face that consumers can relate to. Enter the "T-Mobile Girl" and the "Verizon Guy."

Building this type of campaign can be difficult, because the company starts with no dedicated fan base. However, at the same time this type of campaign offers a lot more flexibility, because companies are free to do what they wish--they don't have to conform to the image or style of a celebrity to keep the campaign believable.

Relatively unknown model Carly Foulkes replaced celebrity endorser Catherine Zeta-Jones as T-Mobile's spokesperson in 2010. According to Jack McKee, Ace Metrix's vice president of sales and marketing, T-Mobile's "T-Mobile Girl" campaign has been surprisingly successful, considering its nature. McKee says that comparison ads are usually better in terms of communication, but aren't generally as likeable as other types of ads. The "T-Mobile Girl," however, seems to be an exception.

McKee says spokespeople must be relatable, whether they're famous or not. Perhaps being attractive also helps.

According to Rohin Guha, noncelebrity campaigns are where new media can play a significant part. Techniques such as releasing dynamic, interactive content (videos and the like), as well as fostering genuine interaction with customers via social networks, are crucial to building up this type of campaign. Of course, Guha notes, you can't force this type of phenomenon, making it "go viral"--all you can do is gauge your target and leave the rest up to chance.

Does It Work?

Knowing that Ace Metrix has found that celebrity endorsements aren't necessarily better than noncelebrity endorsements, you might be asking: Do endorsements of any kind have an impact on the market?

Guha thinks so: As noted earlier, he believes that endorsements from "real" people are important when consumers are purchasing expensive products that they see as investments. Jervøe agrees, and mentions that Intel makes products--chips--that are a part of people's everyday life. The key for Intel's relationship with Will.i.am is therefore not necessarily direct dollars, but the ability to create an emotional connection, through a "brand ambassador," with its consumers.

In the end, a successful spokesperson can mean different things to different companies.

And even the most successful spokespeople don't live forever. The "Verizon Guy" is a good example of a solid brand ambassador with a simple message ("Verizon's voice network works"). But messages change. After nine years, Verizon is retiring the "Test Man" commercials featuring "Verizon Guy" Paul Marcarelli.

As for the "T-Mobile Girl," well, we hope she finds another gig after AT&T finishes swallowing up T-Mobile sometime next year.

This story, "Tech spokespeople: Choosing the human faces of device makers" was originally published by PCWorld.

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