From Antoine Griezmann to Assa Traoré, the difficult choice of brand ambassadors
The use of celebrities to promote a brand or a product is not new! However, the exposure of celebrities has greatly evolved and has literally exploded with the advent of social networks. With some effectiveness but also with risks that have no comparison. French soccer players Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé recently experienced this first hand, following the late publication of a video dating from 2019 in which the two players mocked Japanese employees of a luxury hotel. Accused of racism, the French internationals had to immediately apologise on social networks.
The video shocked, and rightly so, especially in Japan, where Griezmann is the face of Konami video games. The result? The brand decided to terminate its contract with the star. Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce site, asked for explanations from the club FC Barcelona, to which both players belong and of which it is the official sponsor. Antoine Griezmann, weakened by a disappointing season in Catalonia, could quickly have to pack his bags… The consequences could amount to millions of euros for him.
For brands, using celebrities to promote their image is a double-edged sword: they need to be highly visible and charismatic to create buzz on social networks, but they also need to be irreproachable and express themselves wisely… Their actions and their positions can sometimes have a devastating blowback.
In December 2020, for example, Griezmann, him again, broke his contract with the Chinese brand Huawei following the publication of a report revealing that the Chinese phone brand was suspected of participating in the surveillance of the Muslim Uighur minority by the Chinese authorities. A breach of contract that was highly publicised!
More recently and still in the football world, Coca-Cola and Heineken suffered the costs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba who removed the bottles of the two brands on the table in front of them to hide them from the field of cameras. This also had a global impact and shows the power of these celebrities, adored by millions of followers on social networks.
The ambassadors’ personality can also be so controversial that it backfires on the brand. Last June, for example, Louboutin’s choice to associate its image with Assa Traoré, a famous activist against police brutality and racism, triggered a buzz on social networks after she posted a portrait of herself on Facebook, fist raised and Louboutin pumps on her feet. In the caption of the post, she sent a message to the famous brand: “I warmly thank you for honouring me with your campaign for equality and justice for all, by engaging your prestigious Louboutin brand.” The post provoked negative comments, pointing out both political hijacking from Louboutin and the grotesque of seeing a far-left activist wearing exorbitantly expensive shoes.
Using an ambassador is a very strong communication action that can be very effective for brands. It reduces the distance between the advertiser and the consumer, it humanises the message and, as companies increasingly seek to express their societal convictions, it can associate an activist personality with the image that the brand wishes to promote. But it is also a weapon to be used with caution, both because of the repercussions of possible missteps by the ambassadors and because of the risks incurred by the brand when it associates itself with a personality that is too far off from its image. The commitment thus expressed can then appear too opportunistic and harm the company’s reputation.