Inventor Michael Boehm's instincts told him the concept he had been shopping to various manufacturers--a portable contact grill that cooks food items faster and more healthfully--had great promise. So why couldn't he find a corporate partner to help take the product to market?
It was 1993, and Boehm had spent a year fruitlessly searching for someone to buy into his idea. Rather than back-burner the grill, he decided what the concept needed--not only to land corporate backing but to resonate with consumers--was some star power.
The rest, as they say, is history. Boehm targeted boxer George Foreman to be the spokesperson for the concept. "I knew he ate two burgers before every fight and that he and his sons were all burger freaks," he says. "To me, he was a perfect fit to represent the product."
After checking out a prototype of the grill, the Foreman camp agreed it was a good match, and the heavyweight signed on to represent the product. Soon thereafter, with Foreman's muscle behind the grill, Boehm found a company, Salton, to take it to market. Now, 14 years after Salton rolled out the George Foreman Grill, it has sold a whopping 100 million units.
The Foreman grill has become a textbook example of how enduringly valuable a high-profile spokesperson can be when that person is carefully selected and wisely deployed in the scheme of a marketing strategy. It's also proof that investing in a "name" pitch person isn't just for large corporations with deep pockets. Having a celebrity spokesperson "can work for small companies, and it can work for large, established brands," says Jay Lenstrom, CEO of the Radiate Group, a Chicago-based network of marketing agencies. What's more, "it can be done on less than a shoestring" budget.
For a small company seeking to get out from under the shadow of larger competitors, having a name pitch person can be an equalizer, according to Estella Ferrera, whose family owns Oggi's Pizza & Brewing Co., a chain of restaurants that for several years has used football star LaDanian Tomlinson, running back for the NFL's San Diego Chargers, as its celebrity face. "It tends to make us look bigger than we really are," says Ferrera, director of sales and marketing for Oggi's, which has 20 restaurants in Southern California and Arizona. "Having L.T. as our spokesperson has made our advertising stand out more and given us more credibility."
When the spokesperson relationship works the way it's intended, "you get instant recognition and tremendous recall for a product," says Lenstrom, whose firm matches clients with celebrity talent from sports and entertainment circles.
A name pitch person can provide a major boost to startups with zero name recognition as well as to more established companies and brands. But not every venture needs--or can afford--one. "I think it's an endeavor worth exploring," says Andrea Sullivan, executive director of client services at Interbrand in New York City. "It's important to go through a fact-based analytical process to determine whether it's the right answer for a business."
Usually the decision to pursue a name spokesperson comes down to money. "Sure, it can pay off," says Janet Rickstrew, CEO of Denver-based Tomboy Tools. "But the price tag can be unrealistic for some companies, especially in the first few years of business." Tomboy Tools has used celebs such as Leslie Segrete of reality home-improvement television fame to tout its line of woman-oriented tools.
Before you reach for the stars, here are some tips for how to go about evaluating your options and finding the right pitch person.
Define expectations, budget and time frame. How long do you want your relationship with the pitch person to last? How much can you spend? How extensively will the person be used? All that should be discussed beforehand, Lenstrom says.
Do your homework. Look at companies, brands and products comparable to yours that have used a pitch person, Boehm suggests. Why were some successful and some not? Sullivan says it may be worthwhile to invest in modeling software that projects how various spokespeople will affect sales.
Be sure values, ethics and personalities jibe. A pitch person should embody the personality of a brand or product, and vise versa. Make an effort to get to know the person you're targeting, Ferrera suggests, so you're comfortable that he or she is the right fit. "You want someone who has the same values your company has." Having a pitch person with strong community inclinations resonates more with consumers today, Sullivan says.
Don't settle for just any celebrity. "It should seem like a natural partnership, not a disingenuous, forced alignment," Sullivan says.
Evaluate with your head, not your heart, Lenstrom advises. You might be a huge NASCAR fan, but that doesn't make your favorite driver the right pitch person for your company.
When shooting for the stars, aim high. If you believe a certain person is ideally suited to speak for your company, it can't hurt to ask about his or her availability.
For businesses whose market is strictly local, think local celebrity. No need to break the bank for a national name when someone in the community, such as the local high school football coach, will suffice.
Look for someone with charisma. "Ask yourself, 'Do they have the characteristics to grab and maintain someone's attention?'" Boehm says.
Find someone willing to go beyond the call of duty because he or she has genuine interest in your product/brand. "If your spokesperson won't make the effort to know your product, your chances of hitting a home run are minimal," Boehm says.
Weigh whether to hire an outside firm to help in the search. As Boehm points out, it's no guarantee of success. "You can pay a firm tens of thousands of dollars to find a spokesperson for you, and the results can be less than desirable."
If you opt for the do-it-yourself route, leverage your contacts during search and outreach. Well-placed family, friends and business associates can get you in the door.
Know the risks--and have an exit strategy. Two words: Michael Phelps. By aligning with a person in the public eye, a business or brand and its spokesperson become inextricably linked. Trouble for the spokesperson generally means trouble for the business or brand. Be sure your company has a contractual "out" for cases like that, Lenstrom says.
Be a creative, flexible deal maker, and you can land a big name on a small budget. Some luminaries are open to doing deals in which they take little or no money upfront but gain a stake in the company they're pitching for, according to Lenstrom. Others, such as Tomlinson, might be flexible with financial terms if the company agrees to support a charitable cause that is near and dear to them.
Once you've landed that pitch person, it's time to put him or her to work. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your investment:
Be aggressive. "We used L.T. in everything we could think of," Ferrera says, from print, radio and TV advertising to place mats, to-go cups and even the restaurant voice mail.
Use them to make a splash at trade shows, national sales meetings and community events. Experiential promotion can provide higher impact at a lower cost, Sullivan says.
Craft the campaign carefully, Ferrera says. "Make sure your brand doesn't get lost. It's easy for a spokesperson's stardom to overpower your message."
Channel the spokesperson's inclinations and passions to mutual benefit. "The spokesperson, if they're good, will have their own ideas and they'll let you know what they're comfortable doing," Boehm says.
Use the spokesperson in social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like provide high-impact, lower-cost promotional avenues. Plus, observes Sullivan, "brands that invite more conversational relationships with consumers are the ones that are most successful today."
Finally, prepare for the public to hold you to a higher marketing standard. Says Sullivan: "Once you go down that road [using a high-profile pitch person], people expect it from you."
That's generally a good thing, because it means you're getting noticed.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.