Cruise the aisles of the Natural Products Expo West show floor, and you?ll notice the traffic pattern?s a little different in front of the Newman?s Own booth. Passersby slow as they casually scope out who?s standing in the booth. Could this be the year the famous actor joins his daughter, Nell, to pass out pasta sauce and talk product placement?
Even the most dedicated natural products shopper isn?t immune to the famous names behind the labels. According to The Natural Marketing Institute, the impact celebrities have on people?s decisions to purchase health and wellness products increased a whopping 229 percent from 2001 to 2003.
Harleysville, Pa.-based NMI reports that 47 percent of natural products shoppers surveyed last year say that celebrities influence their purchasing decisions, up from 14 percent in 2001.
?People may say they?re anti-marketing, but in their subconscious they?re still affected to a certain degree by celebrity marketing,? says NMI Executive Vice President Steve French. ?A branded personality cuts through some of the clutter? created in an advertising-driven marketplace.
Celebrities can make products seem more believable or effective, particularly if that celebrity is an expert in his field, French says. Think of natural healing guru Andrew Weil recommending supplements, or the late diet doctor Robert Atkins promoting low-carb energy bars.
Celebrities also appeal to shoppers? emotions, says Kim Driggs, president of Las Vegas-based Avatar Marketing. ?People have good emotions and feelings when they believe [a celebrity endorsement] is credible.? Driggs represents Lamas Beauty International, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of hair and skin care products created by Jackie Onassis? former hairstylist, Peter Lamas. She says the company benefits from endorsements from committed celebs such as actress Alicia Silverstone, a vegan who uses Lamas shampoos because they?re made without animal products.
At Natural Products Expo East 2003, a woman sampling Linda McCartney pasta asked, ?Is Mrs. McCartney here?? In 1991 Linda McCartney launched a vegetarian entr?e line on the strength of her involvement in animal rights—and her status as the wife of Beatle Paul. But her presence at Expo would have represented more than just a marketing miracle; Linda McCartney died in 1998.
Celebrity marketing works in two ways: either a celebrity endorses a product, or the celebrity actually puts his or her name on the product. The endorsement route can be tricky; last year, McDonald?s restaurants and Nutella chocolate spread both fired endorser Kobe Bryant after the basketball player was arrested on charges of sexual assault. A company also runs the risk that the celebrity?s name may be bigger than the product. ?People want to drink Pepsi to be or look like Britney Spears. Her endorsement is more about image than the product,? Carrel says, pointing out that the naturals industry needs ?experts who are much more product-related.?
No natural products company is big enough to pay Britney Spears? endorsement fees—Pepsi paid a rumored $10 million for her services—but landing a lower-tier celebrity is less expensive than you might think.
?You can still find someone for a couple hundred thousand dollars a year. That would buy their likeness and name, publicity appearances, advertising and appearance at seminars,? says Sheldon Baker, partner in Clovis, Calif.-based public relations firm Baker Dillon Group. Baker was the man behind model Kim Alexis? endorsement of CitriMax appetite control supplement, and 1980s TV star Linda Evans? sponsorship of Ostivone, an osteoporosis supplement made by Technical Sourcing International Inc. of Missoula, Mont.
For this kind of cash, the celebrity would have to be the third or fourth banana on a hit TV show, or a star who hasn?t worked in a few years, Baker says. An expert like Andrew Weil is probably worth more than that, he adds.
And what do you get for your $200,000? Baker says in 1993, the year Kim Alexis endorsed CitriMax, Benicia, Calif.-based parent company InterHealth Nutraceuticals? overall sales increased from $1.5 million to $20 million. In 1998, when Linda Evans pitched Ostivone, TSI?s sales increased at least 20 percent, Baker says. ?Celebrities give a product quick recognition [which means] quick sales, more so than a big advertising buy.?
Baker agrees with Carrel that choosing the right type of celebrity to endorse a natural product is key. ?Do they have a story to tell that is related to health—either personally or that of a family member? Can they speak from experience??
Baker says one company that could particularly benefit from the celebrity-expert type of endorsement is General Nutrition Centers. ?They have room for a celebrity—an athlete or an actor, particularly a woman with children. Or maybe somebody like [veteran football star] Jerry Rice, who looks great for his age and is in good health. If they did that, I think sales would just go off the scale.?
Carrel says no companies in the naturals arena have the market presence and brand recognition to attract a big-name celebrity. However, he believes several brands, including Silk soymilk, are poised to make the leap from ?a word-of-mouth subculture? to more mainstream marketing techniques such as celebrity endorsements. But mainstream marketing must have a twist to appeal to natural products shoppers—?marketing that?s not just monetarily driven?—Carrel says. It also needs to be presented in the right way, NMI?s French says, noting that TV ads don?t work as well with natural consumers as do in-store appearances or a celebrity face adorning a package or brochure.
Also effective is a celebrity willing to put his name and face on his own product. But for every successful Paul Newman item, there?s a failure like Bing Crosby ice cream or Frank Sinatra spaghetti sauce. Carrel believes one important aspect to Newman?s success in the naturals arena is that all profits from his products go to charity.
Noncelebrities who put their names and faces on packaging and advertising materials don?t gain much of an edge, Carrel, Baker and Driggs agree. ?I?m not sure if a picture of Burt [on Burt?s Bees personal care products] does anything for anyone,? Baker says. ?If it was Burt Reynolds, I might buy it, but I don?t think the average consumer is going to buy a product [based on a noncelebrity?s face on the packaging]. You buy it because you heard about the company or because you need lip balm.?
Driggs says if an ?M.D. or homeopath?s picture is on the package, the fact that they?re doctors takes me to first base, but the fact that their picture is on the package?the jury?s out.?
Vicky Uhland is a free-lance writer and editor in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 64, 66, 68