Many artists, pop stars, actors, sports figures and other celebrities feel a need to speak out publicly in support of causes important to them. These causes often include the environment, social causes, hunger, or research to find cures for specific diseases. Sometimes the causes are political. Is this really a good idea?
In each case, celebrities have their own reasons for speaking out. Indeed, some celebrities spend a great deal of their time and money organizing in support of a cause. They become more than spokespersons, they are true activists. It can be interesting to examine this phenomenon not only in terms of its effectiveness in furthering the cause, but how it potentially impacts the career of the celebrity.
A celebrity is a brand. People seek to enhance their sense of self-worth through association with brands. This is a psychological reality of which professional marketers are well aware. When an artist or celebrity aligns with a cause, whether social or political, it will always have an effect on the perception of their brand. It would be prudent for celebrities to consider how their support of any particular cause might impact their branding and marketing efforts.
There are many examples of support for charitable causes used in marketing campaigns. There is a term “cause-marketing” that I have seen, used to describe this; I also use the term “charity tie-in” when referring to this activity. When it is a cause that most people can support, such as hunger relief, or helping disaster victims, the resultant enhancement of brand image can be desirable, as is the relief provided. Consumers have a good feeling when they know their purchase can help support a worthy cause. In the end, cause-marketing can be an effective tool to bring in new customers and build brand loyalty.
It is when celebrities become activists for political causes that they may be putting themselves at risk for shunning by customers who do not share their persuasions. There are many glaring examples of this happening, especially in the entertainment field. The Dixie Chicks, a super-popular country music act, nearly lost their careers when they made a singe disparaging comment about then President George W. Bush during the first Gulf War.
The demographic for country music in the USA is largely conservative and republican, and the fans of the Dixie Chicks did not take kindly to the stars’ comments. There was a widespread spontaneous boycott of their music and they were even subjected to numerous death threats. It took the act a decade to recover, and they have never quite returned to their former level of popularity.
Music is often used in political campaigns. During recent presidential election cycles in the US, artists such as (liberal democrat) Bruce Springsteen have had to formally request that the opposing political party cease use of their songs in their rallies. Movie stars, such as Adam Sandler and Clint Eastwood, have donated large sums of money and even appeared in rallies and conventions for the Republican Party. While many fans don’t necessarily care about politics and still patronize the performances, there are others who will choose not to buy the concert ticket or visit the theater because they don’t share the political views of the celebrity in question.
There are two possible ways to view the celebrity as activist. Both views are valid. From the perspective of the celebrity, perhaps it could be seen as a responsibility to use their fame to raise awareness and support for a cause. They care enough to lend their reputation and image to the support of the cause, even if it risks alienating a portion of their demographic. From the perspective of the audience, we go to the concert to be entertained. Why should we care what some musician or sports figure believes or is concerned about?
I think the problems develop when the causes are polarizing in any way. Celebrities aren’t politicians (in most cases), nor should they behave like politicians. In the case of political causes, it might be wiser from a branding perspective to lend quiet support, perhaps donating money anonymously or appearing at private events in support of the cause. The celebrity should always be true to the base of their popularity, and strive to maintain focus on the essence of their brand. Public support of political causes can dilute that focus.
Causes that are not polarizing can be incorporated into the brand identity. In this way, a synergy can be developed between the brand and the cause, translating to enhanced visibility and awareness for both. There are many examples of this seen today in marketing for all kinds of products. The beneficiaries of these efforts tend to be non-polarizing charities related to the environment, hunger, and cures for diseases. Disaster relief is also a prime candidate for this type of uses by celebrity marketers.
Most people, including celebrities of all types, wish to make a positive difference in the world around them. Celebrity brand activism is an effective way for high-visibility individuals to harness the power of their image to align with their target audiences in support of a worthy cause. Done right, it can be very powerful and beneficial. Done wrongly, it can cause irreparable harm to the celebrity brand, and doesn’t necessarily help the cause.
Celebrity branding is a unique opportunity to build brand image for a variety of products and services, including charitable causes. Brand activism must be approached with caution, and be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There are some risks involved. It might be a wise choice for a celebrity not to publicly support causes that tend to polarize their core demographic. While not for everyone, celebrity brand activism works extremely well in many notable cases.
I call it “doing well, while doing good”.
Tom Stein is a professor and music producer at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He is active as a brand consultant for celebrities and works in the artist development field. Professor Stein is the USA Country Manager for the International Institute of Marketing Professionals (IIMP®), an organization providing certification and professional standards to marketers in 192 countries.