Nigella bites: In the eye of the celebrity endorsement storm

As a cynical old hack, I’ve long been deeply sceptical about the power of celebrity endorsements.

I’ve also pontificated at length about why so-called ‘influencers’ are just the latest in a long line of snake oil peddlers – and I have pretty much lumped the whole lot together in the ‘NO THANKS’ pile.

That was until I personally got a full-in-the-face blast of the raw selling power that a genuinely famous face can generate with one small flap of their butterfly wings

Small business/big exposure

Allow me to briefly bring you up to speed. One of our clients is a tiny boutique called Maude & Tommy. Specialising in ethical clothing and slow fashion, it has a small bricks and mortar shop in one of York’s labyrinthine old shopping streets, plus a website that ticks over, selling a couple of garments per day.

It’s staffed by three part-time ladies, receipts are written out by hand and orders are wrapped lovingly in brown paper. Keeping online inventory isn’t a problem because the turnover is so steady they can spot an out of stock situation looming from a thousand yards.

We look after social media, product uploads and customer newsletters for this client but when the owner was planning a dream family trip to New Zealand, she asked me to take on a light-touch managerial role in her absence, giving the team someone to turn to if they weren’t sure about anything. Not my normal job but no problem for a special client.

Until, that is, Nigella Lawson wore a dressing gown bought from our shop in her new series – and tweeted about it.

The internet makes everyone look big

It’s a nice dressing gown. Maude & Tommy has stocked them for a couple of years, part of a range by a supplier called One Hundred Stars, featuring prints taken from vintage maps of cities.

Nigella rustled up a few brownies, looking splendidly slinky in the Venice gown – and the world went crazy.

Just as when Delia gave it big for cranberries, prompting a festive shortage in supermarkets the length and breadth of the country, our little website instantly became the hottest address among Britain’s middle classes.

Sales soared 20,000% overnight. The team had never needed to put inventory online – but we woke up the next morning to discover we weren’t only sold out, we were sold out of pretty much every map design, several times over.

All hands on deck

The team are skilled at helping customers to find the perfect outfit – not at processing thousands of internet orders. We didn’t have the space, the stock or the equipment to cope and the business owner was somewhere in the wilds of New Zealand, frantically trying to get mobile signal from a camper van.

Of course, we did what any small business does. We knuckled down and set to work. We enlisted friends and even my teenage son to pitch in. We developed systems, borrowed space and started bulk-buying packing materials. We learned new skills and new ways of communicating.

 A glimpse at the numbers

Only now that the craze has died down a little, have we begun to reflect on what it means for Maude & Tommy.

Brand Nigella is clearly a powerful sales machine. Her net worth is estimated at £11-20 million (it’s a comedown from the £150 million she shared with former husband Charles Saatchi, according to the Telegraph in 2013, but I guess she’s not switching to budget baked beans just yet.)

Her cookware range, Living Kitchen, has been valued at £7 million and more than 3 million copies of her cookbooks grace our shelves. She’s been a regular fixture on our TV screens for almost 30 years, oozing her own charismatic blend of attainable capability and nudge-nudge innuendo.

Understandably, her influence on food sales has been significant. Endorsing goose fat for Christmas cooking led to sales doubling at both Waitrose and Tesco. A recipe using prunes saw Waitrose benefit from a 30% rise in sales, year on year. A Nigella Express dish using Riesling wine also led to a 30% hike in sales across the country.

 So what’s the appeal?

Her charisma and physical attractiveness must play a part but viewers and readers also warm to her relaxed approach to cooking – and her evident enjoyment of eating the results. She projects an enviable lifestyle, even in the wake of painful tabloid revelations surrounding her marriage break up.

Thoroughly middle class and no spring chicken, Nigella is a beautiful beacon in an area with, perhaps, few role models.

Why endorsements work

When celebrity endorsements work, there are basically four elements in play:

1. People are reassured by a familiar face on a product

2. People want to be more like the celebrity

3. The celebrity brings the product to a fresh demographic

4. People are more likely to remember products if their favourite celebrity has endorsed them.

The fit has to be right though: the public can sense a forced fit a mile off. And even if they can’t, a poor match is likely to implode when the celebrity is seen using a rival product or service.

Nigella’s stylist bought the dressing gown from Maude & Tommy because it fitted her clear vision and understanding of Nigella’s style. There was no product placement, no incentives, no cynicism.

When Campaign looked at celebrity endorsement in 2014, their study was prompted by high profile controversy about celebrities failing to use the relevant hashtags stipulated by the Advertising Standards Authority when promoting items.

The ad industry bible discovered that a third (33%) of all users follow celebrities, rising to more than half (54%) of younger female users aged between 16 and 24. That’s a big chunk of potential consumers to influence.

Despite the lack of regulatory hashtags, only 10% said they never found it obvious when a celebrity is selling something. However, 54% said they usually knew, compared to 36% saying they always did. In other words, plenty of grey area to contend with.

More than a quarter (26%) had bought an item promoted by a celebrity in this way. Focus on 16- to 24-year-olds and that figure rises to two-fifths (40%) who have purchased endorsed items, with a little less than one in five (18%) doing so on a regular basis.

What did we learn?

To be clear, Nigella wasn’t selling our gorgeous Venice dressing gown. Her stylist bought and paid for it (although we gave her a small discount) and she was kind enough to tweet about @maudeandtommy when viewers asked about it.

But Nige clearly has some clout when it comes to influencing her fans. An uplift in sales of 20,000% is an incredible bonus for any small business.

I’m still deeply cynical about so-called influencers. I’ve seen good money spent on bloggers and instagrammers for no tangible result on the sales sheet. But clearly, when an endorsement is unforced – a genuine, honest fit – it can give you a truly business-changing boost. Just beware false prophets who demand high fees and deliver very little. For a cool, realistic chat about your marketing goals, drop us a line.