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Balance Theory and the Power of Celebrity Endorsements

October 27, 2022

Headshot of Kyle Monson - Founding partner at Codeword

Kyle Monson

Founding partner at Codeword

Insider interviewed me yesterday for this piece on the ups and downs of celebrity brand partnerships.

In an age of brand purpose and corporate values, why would a brand shack up with artists, comedians, athletes… the most volatile, scandal-plagued groups of humans on earth?

I get to some of that in the article. For the deeper answer, it’s time for some balance theory!

I’m a big fan of balance theory, and it’s the basis of a lot of the work we do at Codeword. Balance theory is based on the idea that our brains will naturally try to resolve cognitive dissonance. In a tiny nutshell, we like what people we like like. We don’t like what people we like don’t like. We don’t even like what people we don’t like like.

You with me? Here’s a graphic:

Diagram showing relationship between Audience,Brand, and Influencer.
If I don’t like Pepsi, and you’re my best friend and you love Pepsi, my brain wants to resolve that dissonance, either by liking Pepsi more or by liking you less. The triangle of positive/negative relationships between me, you, and Pepsi wants to be balanced, and for dissonance to be resolved.

Diagram showing relationship between customers, and Pepsi and a customers best friend, with emojis
This is the basis of endorsements, from the biggest A-lister to the smallest micro-influencer. I like Brie Larson, Brie Larson likes Nissan, maybe I should like Nissan too. Simple.

Diagram between customers, Brie Larson and Nissan. With emoji.
Though there’s nuance when you look more closely. For instance, when a celebrity endorses a product they obviously don’t use themselves, it erodes trust in both the brand and the celebrity.

On the other hand, the stronger that brand-celebrity relationship is, the more effect it’s likely to have on our brand perception. And when the celebrity is the brand, like Ryan Reynolds and Aviation Gin, or Rihanna and Fenty, the brand has a huge advantage as long as the celebrity maintains a strong relationship with the audience.

This is one of the important foundations of PR too. Audiences trust Wirecutter, Wirecutter says this product is great, so this product is probably great. Sorry journalists, we’re using your audience’s trust to shape perceptions of our client brands.

Diagram showing relationship between customers, The Wirecutter, and an Air Purifier
In the marketing world, changing people’s perceptions tends to be very difficult and very expensive. Seeing an ad with all the product benefits laid out is sometimes effective. If it’s a funny ad, it’s likely to be more effective. If it’s an ad with a celebrity you care about, it’ll be waaaay more effective. And seeing the celebrity use the product in the actual real world can be the most effective. Because: balance theory.

It works, it’s powerful, and it leads brands to write big checks to some of the most volatile people in the world, while hoping they don’t wake up one morning to see their partner in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

That happens all the time, and it’s dangerous because the balance can shift super quickly. Remember the outcry about Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special? For a lot of people, that drove a quick and massive shift in how they viewed the comedian. So when Netflix came to his defense, it was more likely to make them change their perception of Netflix than to change their mind about Dave Chapelle.

Diagram showing relationship between customers, Dave Chappelle, and Netflix
When the face of a brand gets wrapped in a scandal, the brand needs to move fast. We saw this week what happens when they don’t. Promotion and partnership are an essential part of most big brands’ marketing mix, but at the same time, these are giant companies we’re talking about, and often publicly traded. When shit goes south, they can’t move at the speed of public outrage. And it’s even harder when the outrage isn’t about a celebrity endorser, but an actual brand himself.

Diagram showing the relationship between customers, Kanye West, and Adidas.
OK, side note: The other relevant aspect of balance theory is that it’s a great tool for demagogues and cults. If your relationship with Trump is strong enough, he can shape your opinions about anything he wants. Pillows, fast food, immigrants, vaccines, your own family members. You’re living in his world.

Likewise, if you think Ye is God’s gift to the universe, his opinions carry real weight. If you love Ye and Ye hates Jewish people, that’s a powerful motivation to start seeing the world the way he does.

Balance theory can be used in all kinds of ways. If you just learned what it is, you’ll start to see it everywhere. You’re welcome!

Back to the point of the post: what does all this mean for marketers? We need to understand the real benefits of connecting to audiences through the people and platforms and experiences they love, but stay balanced with our balance theory approach, and don’t put all of our marketing hopes and dreams in the hands of one celebrity endorsement.

The point of those partnerships is to build our brand, and reinforce our values with the audience. When the right celeb can do that, great! When the tides turn, move on quickly, so audiences understand the value we place on our values.

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