Want a celeb endorser? 'Minus one, multiply by 20,' expert says

(Bristol-Myers Squibb)

Signing celebrities to market a drug can be like playing with fire, as some companies know well. But there are things drugmakers can do to minimize risk and get the most from their celeb endorsers, marketing experts say.

Before a company even considers using celebs in their direct-to-consumer ads, they need to have a great idea, Howard Courtemanche, CEO of pharma marketing company J. Walter Thompson Health, told an audience at the recent DTC National Conference in Boston. Then, a drugmaker should implement the “minus one, multiply by 20 rule" to see if the celeb is the right fit.

“Will that idea be less, or minus one, without a celebrity? That’s the first gut check," Courtemanche said. "The second check is, if you have a celebrity at hand, are there 20 other celebrities that could do the job just as well? Then you realize that you don’t have the right celebrity," Courtemanche said.

A drugmaker should also get feedback from consumers before they choose a celeb endorser, said Danielle Hartigh, director of consumer marketing at Avanir Pharmaceuticals ($AVNR). How trustworthy, likeable or credible a celeb is perceived by potential patients should weigh heavily in a campaign, Hartigh said.

Once a company gets a celeb on board, it “comes down to the contract and negotiating and what they’re willing to do,” Hartigh said. A star might only sign on for media tours but refuse to participate in sales meetings, for example. But all that should be considered ahead of time, Hartigh said.

“You have to have everything spelled out, everything you could conceivably think of, and negotiated in the contract,” Hartigh said.

Sometimes companies run into problems once a campaign has launched. For a prime example, look no further than Duchesnay’s marketing debacle last summer after celebutante Kim Kardashian endorsed its morning sickness med on Instagram. The Canadian pharma was forced to pull its ads and run a correction after the FDA sent it a scathing warning letter.

To prevent problems with endorsers and cut down on risk, “do your homework,” said Bob Williams, CEO of celebrity marketing firm Burns Entertainment. Companies can look at work that celebs like Kardashian have done with other brands to see whether they’re the right fit based on past experience. “The past can be a pretty good predictor of the future in this particular area of celebrity,” Williams said.

Even though there are celeb marketing horror stories, the good often outweighs the bad. Johnson & Johnson ran a successful campaign for its heart med Xarelto that featured a variety of celebs, including comedian Kevin Nealon and golf legend Arnold Palmer. Last year, actor Danny Glover lent a hand to Avanir’s campaign for Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), a rare neurologic condition that causes sudden outbursts of crying or laughing.

“Most brands do an excellent job working with celebrities. There is a happy ending. Sometimes happier than others,” Williams said.  “When the fit is right and the campaign is tight, it really works, and works well.”

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