Industry News | September 23, 2011 | QSR Exclusive Brief

Celebrity Spokespeople: Not Just for the Mega Chains

Most consumers can recall a celebrity-driven fast food marketing campaign, whether it’s Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shooting hoops for McDonald’s or Michael Phelps bringing gold to Subway.

But celebrity spokespeople extend beyond the mega-famous endorsing for the mega-chains.

Take Penn Station East Coast Subs, for example. The Cincinnati-based brand has used regional celebrities such as Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce to support various campaigns.

Alex Lukondi, director of corporate marketing for the company, says both campaigns were a success for Penn Station. Saturday was a spokesman for four years, while Bruce’s participation supporting Penn Station’s catering efforts showed a significant boost in catering sales.

Lukondi says the two celebrities were realistic celebrity options for a brand of Penn Station’s size.

“Stay with the reality of the situation,” he says. “Don’t expect miracles. Keep it within your budget. If it doesn’t fit your overall budget, don’t try to make it fit. “

The decision between a nationally or regionally relevant celebrity is a significant one, says Andy Howard, chief marketing officer for Dallas-based Wingstop. The wings brand counts former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman as its spokesman (Aikman is also on the board of directors for the brand).  

“You do some surveys with the consumer: Did you see the commercial?” he says. “Does the name Troy Aikman mean anything? Certainly our awareness with him is pretty darn high, and higher in Texas than in other markets.”

Howard says an important component of teaming with a celebrity as a spokesperson is constructing a contract that best serves the needs of the brand. He says Wingstop worked diligently with Aikman when the Hall of Famer teamed with the brand in 2003.

“It was very carefully orchestrated, [including] how many days of the year that we got him,” Howard says, noting that those days included TV shoots and meet-and-greet events. “It might be six or seven and sometimes even broken up into half days and quarter days.”

Further, a contract with a celebrity should include an exit clause for the brand, Howard says.

“If the celebrity goes off the deep end, you want to be able to sever that relationship,” he says, specifically noting the position brands were put in when Tiger Woods dealt with public scrutiny.

Celebrity spokespersons aren’t always marketing home runs. At Cousins Subs, a series of advertisements with former ESPN personality Dan Patrick failed to catch on with consumers, says Justin McCoy, director of marketing for the Wisconsin-based brand.

“We were getting a lot of feedback that there was a disconnect between him and customers,” McCoy says. “He was a great pitchman, but didn’t really represent the brand.”

Cousins Subs opted to use brand president Christine Specht in its marketing instead of a celebrity to drive home the authenticity of the brand.

Of course, success with a celebrity spokesperson can be hard to measure. Howard says there’s no foolproof way to do it, but there is at least one big thing to consider.

“Are you getting your money’s worth?” he says. “It’s so hard to say why sales are up; is it because of the spokesman or are stores being run well or is it another marketing campaign? It’s not 100 percent Troy in our marketing.”

Howard, McCoy, and Lukondi were panelists on the “Does A Celebrity Spokesperson Really Drive Sales?” panel at Dine America, the executive leadership conference hosted by Food News Media in Atlanta October 9–11.

By Sam Oches