It takes years to create a trusted brand; one that carries with it quality, safety, assurance, and credibility in the minds of your consumers. Then, in an instant, it’s gone and – in many cases – impossible to get back. There are several reasons this occurs – some controlled (think Coke’s new recipe or Maker’s Mark less potent one), some out of control (think Tylenol). According to David Horsager, author of “The Trust Edge,” a lack of trust is the biggest expense a brand can endure.
One of the hot topics today when it comes to brand trust is the use of a spokesperson and whether this makes good sense for an organization. From Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods (who reportedly lost $110 Million income in two weeks) in the sports world, to Bill Cosby and recently Brian Williams in the “entertainment” industry, to countless others, tying your brand to an individual is a risk you should seriously consider. It has JELL-O shaking in its Nike shoes.
Why is this a risky strategy? Because you’re attaching your brand to an individual…a human being who, in the blink of an eye, or the push of a (camera) widget or tweet, can lose their credibility. And, you can lose your brand trust.
So, who can you trust? Or should you even bother.
In today’s social media world, this risk of tying your brand to a spokesperson is greatly heightened! PSM (pre social media), the use of a spokesperson was fairly predictable and solid. Wilford Brimley, for example, was a great spokesperson for Quaker Oats in the 80’s and 90’s and brilliantly personified the brand. William Shatner has worked out, so far, for Priceline, as have many others. The question remains, is the reward worth the risk? In many cases, the use of a spokesperson is a stretch and really doesn’t support a brand – so why go there anyway. That’s the first question to ask: does the use of a spokesperson actually add relevance and value to your brand strategy or is it merely a device to help your brand gain attention? If it’s the latter, the risk is most likely not worth the reward.
Creating your own character creates control.
Several brands have created their own iconic spokespeople. Charmin and Mr. Whipple are inseparable; the Maytag repairman supported the brand strategy of dependability and durability, and Tony the Tiger made Corn Flakes “grrreat!” More recently, Flo, the Geico gecko, and the Aflac duck, have created a new category of branded characters that have worked extremely well to drive sales while at the same time come with little risk…unless, of course, the duck gets pulled over for a FUI (flying under the influence).
In healthcare branding, the topic of using a spokesperson is often raised. In Chicago, Danica Patrick has emerged as a spokesperson for a newly formed hospital system seeking to build its brand promise on being “health driven.” The organization has spent significant dollars in media and production to register this theme. While I do applaud their approach, let’s just hope Danica doesn’t take a spill or put this brand in reverse for some other reason.
Here are thoughts for healthcare marketers considering whether to use a spokesperson for their brands, including the use of patient testimonials:
- Real patients are real people. Testimonials often bring the richest stories to your marketplace and are proven to be very engaging – but they’re about people. And real people do crazy things. And, unfortunately, real patients succumb to their diseases and illnesses. Before tying your strategy into real patient testimonials, consider this approach for a social media strategy, which is less costly and more nimble than brand commercials.
- Doctors are people, too. You want to feature your superstar cardiovascular surgeon as the “spokesperson” for your brand but then…boom! She shows up on the news in a negative way, or decides to leave your medical staff. If you want to pursue the strategy of physician excellence, think through different creative executions that get the point across and use other media to showcase individuals such as PR, social media, or video. These can have much shorter shelf lives if need be.
- Create a spokesperson. Your brand might not call for the use of a gecko or a duck, but there are other possibilities to be creative with a branded spokesperson that you can “own” and build a long-term communications strategy around.
- Make the use of a spokesperson a special promotion, not a long-standing brand strategy. If the use of a spokesperson supports your strategy and the character of the individual speaks to your marketplace, consider this approach as a short-term promotional effort for your owned or bought media channels. The risks these days of tying into someone or something for too long are just too great.
- Test, test, test. Before paying substantial dollars for a spokesperson and the production of communications materials, test the idea with internal and external customers and stakeholders. If the association and relevance is lacking, it’s probably worth a pass.
Companies such as Coca Cola, Kraft (Jell-O), McNeil Pharmaceuticals (Tylenol), and Nike are of the size where brand disasters can (sometimes) be overcome. Hospitals, on the other hand, can ill afford to subject their consumer with the face of someone who does not build trust or credibility around their brands.