By Phil Johnson.
You’ve heard of Danica Patrick, right? She’s the most successful and well-known female racecardriver in the world. Driving the GoDaddy.com car for Stewart-Haas Racing, she’s an international NASCAR celebrity. Besides possessing nerves of steel, hair-trigger reflexes, and proving to be a ferocious competitor while driving at 200 mph, she’s a beautiful and sought after model. Of course she attracts blue chip sponsors like Coke Zero, andhas helped GoDaddy.com break all their sales records. She’s a rare gem in the world of celebrity sponsorships, accessible only to an elite group of brands with extraordinarily well-funded marketing budgets.
Probably fewer of us have heard of Magnus Carlsen, the 22-year-old from Norway, currently ranked the #1 chess player in the world. While not yet a household name, he’s a budding celebrity with sponsorships for a Norwegian law firm, an investment bank, and a newspaper. Combined, these sponsorships earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars, compared to Patrick’s millions. Like Patrick, he’s good looking, charming, and attracts crowds, but his fan base is much smaller and consists of people who want the thrill of “hanging out with the world’s best chess player,” according to a story in the New York Times.
Compared to Danica Patrick’s Coke Zero mass-market appeal, Carlsen is a French burgundy who appeals to a relatively small subset of the general population. You couldn’t imagine two people at farther ends of the celebrity spokesperson spectrum. Just as most brands can only dream of signing someone with Patrick’s stature, it’s equally hard to imagine Carlsen starring in a Nike ad, or selling cars.
But maybe we should expand our imaginations when it comes to what defines a great celebrity spokesperson. Maybe Danica Patrick and Magnus Carlsen have more in common than we see on the surface. Possibly, their similarities, and not their differences, offer marketers some clues about what common denominators define a new breed of celebrity with the potential to excite the public.
What do Patrick and Carlsen have in common? Both connect us to the desire to witness the ultimate experience of what a human being can achieve. If we can’t accomplish these things ourselves, we want to get as close as possible to those who can. It does not matter whether their feats take place on a NASCAR track in Florida, or at a dead-silent chess match in London. We marvel at their genetic gifts to think, perform, and react faster beyond what we can realistically imagine for ourselves.
They also show us how to break through self-imposed barriers about what we believe are our limits. Through people like Patrick and Carlsen, we get a chance to vicariously experience what it’s like to defy the gravity of our own lives. What we might call a fantasy or unrealistic, they dare to believe.
It may not matter that most of us will never drive a professional racecar or win an international chess tournament. More importantly both these people, by example, give us a connection to greatness that we otherwise wouldn’t experience.
As marketers, if we adopt a broader definition of what makes a celebrity spokesperson, we may discover more rising stars like Magnus Carlsen in plain view. That’s an especially good thing for all the brands that can’t afford Danica Patrick. Better to go against the flow and surprise people with the new and unexpected.
Finding these people, however, may require a fresh set of eyes and fresh criteria for defining what makes a worthy spokesperson. (Why shouldn’t Nike sponsor the world’s top-ranked chess player?)
There’s more than one formula for finding the next new breed of celebrity, and we should look beyond mere fame. They must have achieved elite status that puts them in the top echelon of their field, so they inspire and create a sense of awe. Their success should be the result of incredible discipline and dedication. While their accomplishments may be beyond reach for the rest of us, we should be able to relate to the experience. At the same time, they must be accessible and authentic, so that the public can connect with their humanity.
There are champions in every walk of life – beyond sports and entertainment – with the ability to create electricity with consumers. The smart investment is to find those amazing people who do extraordinary things, regardless of their field. What really excites us are the inspiring qualities of champions themselves, wherever they might come from.