Every tech company seems to have a recognizable (perhaps celebrity) spokesperson these days: Ashton Kutcher for Nikon, Justin Long for Apple, the "T-Mobile Girl" for T-Mobile, and so on. We looked at the art and science behind tech spokespeople--how they're chosen, how they affect sales, and why some are famous and some aren't--to find out if they're really the vital marketing tools that tech companies seem to think they are. What we found out is simple: Some tech companies know how to choose and use spokespeople well, while others seem clueless.
Why Hire a Spokesperson?
Consumer technology is all about the product, not the people who use it, right? It's all about faster processors, more reliable networks, and sexy design, not who happens to be holding it.
Because tech gear is generally more expensive than other goods, and often seen as an investment (people usually buy a laptop or a cell phone expecting to use it for at least a couple of years), tech companies have to make sure that their customers are confident in what they're purchasing. And since tech typically flies over the heads of regular nongeeks, merely flashing some pretty microchips or attractive network graphs won't cut it.
This is where the spokesperson comes in: He or she makes the consumer feel comfortable and confident in their purchase, because a real human being is endorsing it. These same spokespeople often step off the screen and make public appearances, further suggesting that they are "real people" and not simply props.
Choosing a Spokesperson
Of course, just because a spokesperson can lend credence to a product doesn't mean that companies can grab anybody--or any celebrity--and create a successful ad campaign. Selection of the right public face is especially important when campaigns involve celebrities, according to Rohin Guha of New York-based Internet marketing firm Blue Phoenix Media.
According to Guha, not all celebrities are created equal--especially when it comes to the consumer technology market. Smart tech companies look for a celebrity spokesperson who has aligned himself or herself with technology or new media, Guha says.
Guha gives the example of pop singer Avril Lavigne, who recently featured a Sony VAIO laptop in one of her music videos.
"The intention is that Lavigne's fans should want to go out and purchase VAIOs for themselves," Guha says, "But Lavigne's personal brand is not exactly synonymous with new media and technology. So that product placement becomes a conspicuous prop instead of a branded directive to customers driving them to purchase new laptops."
Why Ashton Kutcher Moves Cameras
By contrast, Ashton Kutcher for Nikon is an example of a more thought-out campaign. Kutcher's strong presence on Twitter and Quora shows that he's entrenched in the tech world, and so it isn't much of a stretch to imagine him actually using a Nikon point-and-shoot camera, Guha says.
As for hard numbers, Nikon's market-share data suggests that in 2010 it rebounded from a dip between 2008 and 2009. Kutcher signed on in 2008, but it's important to note that a nationwide recession was happening at the time--so it's unclear as to whether Nikon's newfound success was due to Kutcher or changes in the economy.
Intel's recently announced collaboration with rapper Will.i.am, front man of The Black Eyed Peas, is another good example of a tech company's profiting from a believably tech-savvy front man, if you will. Actually, it was Will.i.am who approached Intel about representing the chip maker. The relationship aligns with Guha's philosophy: Johan Jervøe, Intel's vice president of sales and marketing, cites Will.i.am's "insatiable fascination with technology" and "his embracement of disruptive technologies in order to move things forward by leaps and bounds" as the reasons Intel decided to enter the relationship.
Next: The drawbacks of celebrity endorsements, and the benefits of noncelebrity campaigns