With Brad Pitt paid a reported $7 million to star in a recent – and somewhat incomprehensible – 30 second commercial for Chanel No. 5, there’s little doubt that in the world of advertising, star power continues to command big bucks.

Around the world celebrity endorsements are a tried-and-tested strategy used by companies to boost sales and increase brand recall among consumers. Celebrities have a certain allure that appeals to consumers, giving a perceived connection with a celebrity they admire – and, if all goes well, boosting sales for the company involved.

It’s an area that has attracted some scientific research.

In a 2010 study, for example, the BBC reported that when women were presented with photographs of similarly attractive famous and non-famous women – both wearing the same shoes – researchers found heightened brain activity levels associated with affection when the women looked at the photos of celebrities.

Hence, brands tend to choose celebrities over attractive yet unknown models to represent them and their campaigns.

Quality perception

How you see them might depend on who’s wearing themChanel is one high profile example, investing in endorsements from Hollywood celebrities in the expectation that their star power and immense fan base will increase consumer attention and sales.

Having a well-known figure as the face of a brand helps break through the advertising clutter and grabs consumer attention more effectively, increasing brand awareness and boosting brand quality perception.

It can also allay consumer fears regarding social acceptance in choosing the endorsed product. But do Singaporean celebrities have similar star power?

In the US around 20 per cent of advertisements feature celebrities, while in the rest of the world the average is more than double.

Asia, with its thriving film and television industries, sees its local celebrities facing an equal, if not greater, share in the celebrity endorsement market as compared to Hollywood celebrities. Jackie Chan, Wang Lee Hom and Christy Chung are consistent brand endorsers in Hong Kong, while in India those commanding the biggest draw include Bollywood legends Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor.

Singapore, however, seems to be the exception – at least for its homegrown talent.

Brand recall

bradpitt280Seven million dollars well spent?Singapore has had an active film and television industry for decades and yet its local celebrities face a mysterious lack in star power. And while it is common to hear Singaporeans gush about a Hollywood or Hong Kong celebrity’s latest advertisement, few would do so about the activities of a local star.

So are local celebrities as effective endorsers as their foreign counterparts in raising brand recall and sales?

In a survey conducted by NUS amongst 168 Singaporeans aged 18 to 37, the overwhelming preference was in favour of international stars as endorsers.

The results indicate that Singaporean consumers have a very down-to-earth and pragmatic understanding of celebrity endorsements. More than 6 in 10 Singaporeans are of the view that while celebrity endorsements are likely to lead to higher product prices, it is a necessary evil that brands do given the need to stand out.

Some 70 per cent feel that such endorsements grab consumers’ attention, while almost six in 10 agree that they make advertising more appealing and interesting. However, about the same number also think that such endorsements drive consumers into purchasing items that may be too expensive or that they do not need.

In terms of whether a local or international celebrity is a better endorser, almost half feel that a celebrity endorsement is only successful if the celebrity is an international star.  In addition, one in three Singaporeans think that local celebrities are not effective endorsers.

Human credibility

While the results showed a preference towards international stars, Singaporeans also feel that effective celebrity endorsements should allow people to connect to the star. This raises the issue of ‘humanness’ – how relatable the celebrity is to the masses.

Singaporeans appear to demand this humanness, in order for them to see the endorsement as credible. In the past, the common understanding was that consumers blindly aspired to be like their celebrity of choice.  However, increasingly it seems that credible testimonials are what consumers turn to before making their purchase decisions.

There is a worldwide trend towards pragmatism among consumers, an offshoot of which is that celebrities are only useful to a brand if they are essential and meaningful in the advertisement – when they are vital to the storyline and to the product or brand’s ideals. When brands fail to follow this golden rule, celebrity endorsements become less effective.

In our survey we asked Singaporeans what they thought of two local celebrities – Zoe Tay and Rui En, and a Hong Kong celebrity, Cecilia Cheung – all well-known actresses, to assess whether such pragmatism exists.

The results offer an interesting insight into consumer perceptions. In general, Zoe Tay came up tops – seen to be the friendliest, most caring, most mature, most cheerful and most generous.

However, when we asked how effective each celebrity would be in endorsing specific products, views changed. For shampoo endorsements, Cecilia Cheung was seen as the most credible and effective endorser. She is also regarded as the best endorser for beauty creams, despite Zoe Tay being perceived as the most trustworthy for both shampoos and beauty creams. Only for health tonic was Zoe Tay considered as the most effective celebrity endorser.

Thus, for today’s consumers the relevance of the celebrity to the endorsed product is a key element despite their personal qualities. In our case above, good naturedness by itself does not ring with consumers of beauty products.

The lessons are that increasingly consumers are only influenced by ads that are relevant and provide information – celebrity alone does not sell.

While star power remains influential, with the current generation of more pragmatic consumer, brands should be more mindful of who they select as endorsers.

Simran Gill is an honours year student at NUS Business School