Zaxby’s has Doris Roberts, Terry Bradshaw, and Ryan Stiles. Subway has Apolo Anton Ohno, Michael Phelps, and Blake Griffin. Now Starbucks and Lady Gaga are teaming up. The question remains, however, whether star power in a quick serve’s marketing efforts can add up to big sales.

To fully harness the powerful influence of a celebrity, experts say, quick-serve operators must clearly define the role of that celebrity, not just go for the instant name recognition.

For instance, Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs worked with former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick for more than two years in an extensive advertising campaign that incorporated television, radio, print, and point-of-purchase advertising. Justin McCoy, Cousins Subs’ director of marketing, says the company thought Patrick could build some equity with people outside of the company’s normal audience. However, “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.”

This year, Cousins Subs introduced a new ad campaign featuring Christine Specht, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “She embodies the brand and is speaking on behalf of the brand,” McCoy says. “She was the perfect voice to do this.”

That’s not to say that all celebrities can’t work for a brand. Penn Station East Coast Subs, based in Cincinnati, ran a very successful regional campaign with Jeff Saturday, a player for the Indianapolis Colts, over the course of four football seasons. The company continues to work with Cincinnati Reds player Jay Bruce to endorse the brand in a number of ways, including TV, radio, and print advertising. A recent campaign with Bruce promoted the company’s catering menu, and it resulted in a noticeable improvement in catering sales, says Alex Lukondi, director of corporate marketing for Penn Station East Coast Subs.

Operators must determine if a celebrity spokesperson is the right approach for their advertising, McCoy says. He says the key is deciding what you want that celebrity to do for your brand. “Do you want them to be representative of the brand or just be a pitch person?” he says. “Those are two very different things.”

Randy Novak, vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, an Illinois-based advertising agency, says quick serves should consider the following four questions when considering a celebrity spokesperson: Will it drive traffic and sales? What is your company’s target audience, and how would that celebrity relate to that audience? What response would the celebrity’s appearance prompt? Does the celebrity set the right tone for the company promotion?  

Once the decision on whether to use a celebrity is made, Novak says, the next step is finding a celebrity who would work well with the company’s goals. While most quick-serve operators do not have the budget to snag big names like Jennifer Aniston or Justin Bieber, there are many more celebrities on a local and regional level that can be a good fit financially, and also be a good fit with the brand and customer relations.

“There are many instances where a celebrity who is not well known on a national level can have very strong endorsement potential in a specific local market.”

In fact, companies such as E-Poll Market Research in Encino, California, specialize in celebrity evaluation and endorsement potential at the national level for all celebrities and the local level for athletes and sports figures. “There are many instances where a celebrity who is not well known on a national level can have very strong endorsement potential in a specific local market,” says Gerry Philpott, CEO of E-Poll Market Research.

Although sports figures do garner a large following, other local celebrities may include a local news anchor, politician, or radio DJ, Philpott says. Even local heroes like firefighters or winners of well-known contests can make for successful celebrity spokespersons. “On a local basis, you want to find people that consumers relate to,” he says.

Operators who opt to work with a celebrity, Lukondi says, must remember not to get star-struck. “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. “

There are some precautions to working with celebrities, regardless of their scope of influence. Linda Duke, CEO of Duke Marketing in San Rafael, California, offers five reasons to not hire a celebrity spokesperson. First, “some celebrities are polarizing,” she says. “Caution should be taken in creating any brand spokesperson or icon that is polarizing. It might cut through the clutter, but do you want to turn half of your customers off in this tough economic climate?”

Second, Duke says, celebrities are expensive, so operators must consider carefully if the investment is warranted. Third, she says, celebrities can be hard to work with, often because of personality or scheduling issues.

Fourth, “celebrity spokespeople are a marketer’s easy way out,” Duke says. “Finding a celebrity to talk about your brand would be a good tactic if there was no other way to promote your brand.”

And finally, “there are more downsides than upsides to hiring a celebrity,” Duke says. “Expense is only part of the challenge. There could be liability issues, legal issues, and, again, they are fickle, difficult, and don’t always live up to your brand promise.”

As with any advertising campaign, expect to see the initial results of a celebrity ad campaign waver as time goes on, Novak says. “If you see a celebrity aligned with a brand for too long, it becomes a bit tired,” he says. However, in the case of athletes, he says, ad campaigns can seem fresh at the start of a new sport season if the campaign took a break during the off-season.

Throughout the process, continue to evaluate the campaign and its results, the experts say. “Have some clarity in what you want to accomplish,” Novak says. “In the end, this could lead to great exposure for both the celebrity and the brand.”

Marketing & Promotions, Story, Cousins Subs, Penn Station East Coast Subs, Subway, Zaxby's