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6 brand spokespeople who need to die

6 brand spokespeople who need to die Sean X

You've seen them littering your screens from big to small as smiling sales zombies. And for some reason, no matter how irrelevant we now find them, no matter if you can even remember the brand they shill for, they refuse to die. Behold, the cloyingly annoying persistence of "The Brand Spokesperson." Sometimes celebrity, other times a spirited nobody thrust into shill stardom. For these sucker-fish on a free ride, is it the brand clinging to them, or the spokesperson clinging to the brand? Well, that all depends on whether those who create these campaigns understand marketing, or are merely hucksters themselves, impersonating talent like a 13-year-old belting Katy Perry off-tune into her hairbrush.

6 brand spokesperson who need to die

There are rules to this game of attaching your brand to a personality, and yet somehow no one has written them down to prevent brands from going down the path of saying, "Sure, let's get Kobe Bryant to be a spokesperson for Nutella" or "Let's start a pre-paid debit card with the Kardashians called the 'Kardashian Kard'" or "Holly Madison's marriage to the Travelocity gnome." Honestly, that last one is so disturbing it's actually true. Correction, they are all true. Seriously. What the frak are some of these people thinking, let alone the brand managers at these companies? Anyway, as I said, there are rules to marketing and advertising when attaching your brand to a personality.

Here are six rules that all brands should follow, and the spokespeople that need to go away.

The personality should have a connection to the brand

I get it -- Americans are hopelessly inadequate at English, and the whole I-before-E thing has them doing so many linguistic gymnastics with their tongue that the word "Geico" could easily be pronounced "Gecko." Although Geckos are cute, does that make Geico cute? I don't know, but I have an overwhelming desire to fry up that little green annoyance or serve him to a snake. In its defense, the company has tried ad campaign after ad campaign looking to supplant its little Gecko from cavemen to money motorcycles and "Everyone knows that." Its strategy could be the most brilliant marketing lesson available: You do not have to put everything with your brand on one spokesperson.

Why it worked for the brand: The Gecko is likable, memorable, and most importantly has you think of the brand name. The connection of the character to the brand is strong (if in name only). In addition, as a virtual spokesperson it has complete brand control of its image.

Why it fails now: More difficult to emotionally connect to an animated character, less aspirational than celebrity endorsement.

So please Gecko, get run over by a car, a motorcycle, a boat, or any other vehicle that Geico insures. We love you, but we're just tired of your English accent shenanigans.

Make sure your brand is not better than your spokesperson, or is it the other way around?

I know there are a lot of Kim Kardashian supporters out there. I just happen to not be one of them. What is she famous for again? Oh yeah, being the child of rich parents -- the next-generation Paris Hilton-replacement with curves. She is, however, a brilliant marketer of herself -- in the way Madonna once was, before she became English. Alas, I digress, which is truly difficult when mentioning Kim Kardashian. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Skechers. Huh? I am sure that if Kim had a choice, she wouldn't be caught dead in Skechers. No one would, except if you're in a Midwest trailer park sporting your new pair from the Salvation Army. You know, the place where all fad brands go to die. But there she is, shilling for them, their false health claims, and all.

I know Skechers does a lot of good in the world with its BOBS knockoff of TOMS. But then again, Kim is just a knockoff of Britney as its spokesperson. Wow, when you're holding up Britney Spears as a positive example of success, maybe the brands do deserve each other. Kim, save yourself, I may not love you, but you can do better than Skechers.

Why it worked for the brand: Kim Kardashian has universal sex appeal without any of the baggage of having any talent other than image promotion. And if that's your talent, being a shill for brands works because your brand gets noticed.

Why it fails now: Kim Kardashian completely outshines Skechers. When your spokesperson is viewed as better than your brand, it doesn't elevate your brand, it insults it.

Your endorser should be relevant to your current and future target market

I spent 10 years in Chicago. I actually watched Michael Jordan play basketball in his heyday, which seems like eons ago. So why does Hanes continue to trot him out? There are some things that get better with age, and celebrity spokespeople are not one of them, nor is underwear. So unless you want the only people who wear Hanes to be people over 50, you have to find someone a little more current. Like Mr. Whipple, Orville Redenbacher, the Maytag repairman, and a host of other celebrity spokespeople that have been called out to pasture, it's time for Michael to finally go to the big celebrity deathbed in the sky. If you haven't "Gotten your Hanes on me" by now, it's never going to happen. Maybe in another 30 years I'll use them to pull above my pants. For now, I'm sticking with something that doesn't make me feel like I just gave up caring what people think of me when I take off my pants.

Why it worked for the brand: Some brands love consistency, and sticking with a spokesperson for 25 years is admirable, if it wasn't so pathetic.

Why it fails now: You end up chasing an aging demographic and not the future of those who will wear your product.

Beware when the spokesperson becomes iconic -- you can't shift away from it

You may not actually know her name, but you do know her -- Flo: The Progressive Insurance, super smiley, quirky, annoying, condescending pitch woman. After 50 commercials she's the real life equivalent of the Gecko -- just with better Halloween costumes. How did this happen, America? How and why? I get it, she's everywoman -- that is, if everywoman was your know-it-all-friend you don't want to bring out with you but just shows up anyway. But isn't that the purpose of advertising, to just be in our face and remind us? Let's face it. She's just so annoying, and if you saw her walking down the street on a dark night, you just may run her over, if only to save us all the anguish of yet another rehash of the same shtick. I know, Progressive has tried to pivot away from Flo, but a couple years ago it just gave up and decided to embrace her full bore. It has served the brand well, made it likable -- and it's an insurance company. About as droll and lack-of-personality as you can get. So likable wins a lot of points.

Why it worked for the brand: She's approachable, and has become an icon for Progressive, and her signature hairdo outline is a modern Ché Guevara t-shirt for that "in-the-know crowd." OK, maybe we shouldn't kill Flo. Let's just arm her, and have her kill all of the other spokespeople on this list.

Why it fails now: You can't get away from her. Like the Geico Gecko or the Marlboro Man, the icon becomes the brand, so that as they become less relevant it is harder for your brand to pivot.

Don't just be big in Japan

I hear that Jennifer Aniston is big in Japan. That's good because everywhere else she's now irrelevant. "Friends" was a long, long time ago -- in a galaxy far, far away, about as far away as she'll stay from Angelina. I guess smartwater isn't so smart. But let's face it, it was never smart. Correction, it is smart. It gets people to buy water out of a bottle that we can get free from any tap. Jennifer, oh, how we miss thee being relevant. Honestly, what the heck is Jennifer Aniston doing without smartwater? Obviously, it is not making her one iota smarter. In her defense, that piece of crap product doesn't make anyone smarter. With so many companies vying to fill us up with the most abundance resource on earth, why would it stick with Jennifer other than inertia? Her smartwater social-strategy pregnancy video from years back is done. Now we don't care if she's pregnant or not.

However, if Taylor Swift was marketing smartwater, that would be a different story. She's a player, and you know, "a players gotta play, play, play, play, plaaaaay."

Why it worked for the brand: Jennifer was relevant once, at the time the company probably hired her as a spokesperson, and she has perfected that "just passed gas look" that somehow looks like someone is mysterious.

Why it fails now: Because it's Jennifer Aniston, who we only felt sorry for after getting dumped by Brad, and not someone who is in our modern zeitgeist.

If you're hanging onto their celebrity, do not use their celebrity name

It may seem completely counterintuitive. How could you ignore their name? Because their name is not important -- it is their image and what they represent. They are a meme. Their name is irrelevant the bigger they are. I have to end this piece with a brand that finally took the plunge and phased out Mr. Phaser himself -- William Shatner, The Negotiator. No one really negotiates for their prices on flights or hotels anymore on Priceline, a business model that is dying, and it's a shame. When you would score a great hotel or flight at a great price, everyone loved Priceline. Now it's just another travel booking site.

On Priceline, The Shatner was not himself, he was The Negotiator -- an almost perfect blend of cool that is part camp, part clueless, and part not-knowing-which.

William Shatner has been able to embody the spokesperson in only the way a relatively one-dimensional actor can. Star Trek what? He crosses over and continues to be relevantly irrelevant. In fact, its use of him is brilliant because it is not about him. It is not about Captain Kirk, or T.J. Hooker, or any of his acting roles. It's not about William Shatner. The brand has anthropomorphized (the word choice is correct because, let's face it, he is kind of wooden) him into another character entirely, and that is a lesson to celebrity hucksters. If you are hanging on their celebrity, do not use their celebrity name. If Jay-Z or Kanye West is sponsoring something, and they are acting as themselves, then guess what? No one will remember your product. They remember the celebrity.

You need to use their celebrity to fit them into another character. Then it is intrinsically tied to your brand. Otherwise the celebrity overpowers the brand. Get it?

Why it worked for the brand: It was an innovative campaign and a great way to communicate how Priceline was different than those other sites.

Why it fails now: Because Priceline has the allusion of being able to negotiate price, but now is no longer different.


A spokesperson can help make your brand more approachable, more human, and more worthy of love and connection. But also over time, if not actively managed, they can just become an easy out or crutch for the brand, replacing a good product message, or failing to discover what the true emotional drivers of people are for your brand with which they can connect. Spokespeople are a hack ad technique for lazy brands. There are some brilliant uses of them. Everyone on this list is (well, except Jennifer Aniston), and there are others, like Allstate, who have used them brilliantly, as well. However, most brands are poor imitations of brilliant usage. (Farmers Insurance, anyone?) Worse is that most of you cannot even remember, if you remember the spokesperson at all, what product they shill for. There are rules in this game, so follow mine and you won't end up attaching your brand to a spokesperson without at least thinking about it. Make sure you have a growth plan, and an exit plan, or you could be cleaning a celebrity stench off your brand for years.

Sean X is VP of Consumer Marketering at Skillz.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Cover story mashup image via Shutterstock.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Moe Rubenzahl

2014, November 20

I've had to address the celebrity endorsement battle a couple of times in my career. Each time, it was a CEO ego thing. A celebrity is like naming rights to a stadium -- a grand, highly visible gesture that can get a minor brand big-brand attention. Or, it can waste piles of money.

The danger is doing it with no research and no understanding. With insight, you can make the gamble intelligently, measure results, and adjust quickly. Without, it's just one guy's opinion.

Which, sadly, is exactly what this article is. Based solely on personal preference and zero research, and no real insight, you're declaring which ones "work." As a fellow marketer always says, "based on what?" Without basis, all this is just one guy's opinion.

Commenter: Lori Luechtefeld

2014, November 20

You know the love is mutual, Doug, and we always appreciate the feedback. And you're right -- while we do work closely with writers at every stage, the headlines that hit the newsletter do so with editorial review, input, and approval. Moving forward, we'll maintain more sensitivity in that process. And again, thanks for weighing in.

Commenter: Ken Thewes

2014, November 20

C'mon Sean you can do better than this. Just because you're tired of the spokespeople (or spokeslizard in Geico's case) doesn't mean the brand should get rid of them. I'm sure each brand has lots of quantitative rational for the spokespeople vs. your subjective reasoning. "Why it fails now" should be connected to business results. If and when the brands start declining and losing customers is when the spokesperson should be shown the door.

Commenter: Doug Weaver

2014, November 20

Sean, I hope the choice of headline was an unfortunate one by some harried iMedia Connection staffer. With mass shootings, domestic violence and genocide in the news every single day, casual references about anyone "needing to die" are incredibly distasteful and insensitive. I'm usually a big fan of your writing but I shut down pretty much right away after reading that headline. And iMedia Connection, you know I love you guys too, but you clearly need some grownup supervision when stuff like this starts to happen.