The unforeseen consequences of celebrity endorsements

22 Mar 2017 , 10:05am

Celebrity endorsements and sponsorship are a key element of many brands’ marketing strategies. While it’s by no means a new phenomenon, today the practice can be more valuable than ever thanks to a seemingly insatiable appetite for insights into the lives of our idols. While there are a number of issues surrounding the practice – from making it clear individuals have been paid to tweet about a dress or carry a handbag, to what happens when controversy strikes the advocate – considered less frequently is the influence celebrity endorsements have on counterfeiting.

One of the cornerstones for the success of a luxury brand is the desirability of its designs. When a well-known and coveted celebrity is seen with a designer’s products, their desirability increases. The item becomes aspirational and ownership gives the impression of a certain lifestyle. But not everyone can afford that lifestyle. It’s a psychology counterfeiters know all to well and know how to take advantage of. It’s these products they need to replicate – if Kylie Jenner owns it or Taylor Swift tweets about it, there is an incredibly high chance a copy will be more sought after.

What’s more, counterfeiters will often use a celebrity ambassador’s image to attract customers and, ultimately, sell their wares. These can be stolen marketing images or entirely fabricated.

Examples on Taobao 

For example, Zhang Tian Ai is a famous Chinese actress with 9 million followers on Chinese social media site Weibo. Taking advantage of her high profile, one seller on Taobao has used a photo of her with a Louis Vuitton bag alongside a counterfeit version of the same bag. The sale price for this bag is approximately £3.50, and at the time of writing 440 transactions had been made.

In another example, a Taobao seller is offering counterfeit Stuart Weitzman boots by using an image of famous Chinese celebrity Yang Mi, as well as using her name in the listing title. Yang Mi is a famous Chinese actress with approximately 70 million followers on Weibo. All the clothing and accessories she wears usually become very popular and lead to high search volumes across marketplaces and social media. The selling price for the boots in the listing is approximately £15, compared to £470 on Stuart Weitzman’s official UK website. At the time of writing, 862 successful transactions had been made.

Walking a fine line 

Clearly there’s a very fine line between good marketing and playing straight into the hands of counterfeiters.

It’s in everyone’s interests to protect a luxury brand’s identity and, while the goal of marketing teams tends to be to increase sales, they also need to ensure the exclusivity of the brand remains in tact. When their products – real or otherwise – saturate the market, that exclusivity is gone for good. At the same time, Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers are tasked with legally protecting the brand, which is a hugely complex challenge in the fashion industry. Brands live and die by their creative IP and, if it becomes a common commodity, there’s little that can be done to get it back.

Coordinated effort equired 

While there is no quick fix, tackling the problem requires business units to work together. At first glance it may appear that the marketing team and IP department have little overlap, but any disconnect can compound the issue. Both have useful insights into their respective markets, which can determine the success of campaigns. For example, if IP teams are told when a pop star of the moment is signed as an ambassador, they are immediately in a better position to determine strategies for fighting counterfeits. In fact, IP should be involved from the beginning of any marketing or advertising strategy to advise on legal implications, such as around the trademarks registered against different items and the risks associated.

Lawyers are able to put in place strategies for identifying and dealing with possible counterfeits if they are given greater levels of visibility from the start. They are able to monitor for particular key words, images of the product and celebrity posted by accounts linked to known counterfeiters, as well as illegitimate adverts on social media platforms and so on.

As brands have more marketing tools at their disposal, so too do illegal sellers and it’s imperative that teams work together to tackle the issue. After all, it’s in everyone’s interest – the brand, the legal team as well as the ambassador – to protect the reputation they’ve worked hard to achieve.

Dilpreet Kaur leads the brand protection team at INCOPRO