In today’s world, celebrities hold an enormous amount of sway. A dress worn by Kate Middleton is sold out in a matter of seconds, as happened to the £159 Reiss “Nanette’ dress that she wore for her official engagement picture back in 2011, and anything spruiked by a Kardashian tends to rocket that product to the top of many wishlists. But what about travel? What is the value of celebrity endorsements? Steve Jones investigates.

Whether it was Paul Hogan firing up the barbie for American tourists in the 80s, Steve Liebmann extolling the virtues of river cruising for Avalon Waterways or, more recently, Nicole Kidman enjoying the comforts of first class air travel with Etihad, they all shared one simple objective: to sell more products.

More accurately of course, that responsibility fell to the brands they were advertising. The celebrities themselves, well, it’s fair to say they were probably not quite as worried about the sales trajectory.

The practice of employing household names to sell and represent brands and products has formed part of the marketer’s tool box for decades, at least for those with a reasonable budget.

And there has never been a shortage of celebrities willing to associate themselves with travel brands.

As Australian actor Bryan Brown told an audience in Sydney after being unveiled as the voice of Dave the goose – a migrating bird who prefers to fly Air NZ than make his own way across the Pacific – an offer to extend his remit was not hard to accept.

“Originally I was just going to be the voice of Dave then Air NZ said ‘what about coming over to Los Angeles and you stand at the bar’ [in the TV commercial]. I said yeah, sounds alright”.

It’s nice work if you can get it, as Brown tacitly acknowledged.

Air NZ is just one of several airlines to have paid for celebrity endorsement or recruited brand ambassadors to promote their brands to the masses.

The latest, AirAsia X, has just named singer and X Factor judge Guy Sebastian as its new brand ambassador for Australia.

Lower profile partnerships in travel have seen Avalon Waterways hire Steve Liebmann and latterly Deborah Hutton, Scenic has Catriona Rowntree to spruik its wares and Tripadeal has employed Shelley Craft to convince consumers of its quality. The scale and reach may be different from that of Nicole Kidman promoting Etihad but the approach is identical; they are all harnessing the power of celebrity to engage and appeal to consumers.

Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon said choosing an iconic Australian to be the voice of Dave the goose was an important element of a campaign which aims to lift awareness of the airline’s international network among Australian travellers.

“Everyone will come to know that Bryan is the voice of Dave, and be able to put a face to the voice,” he said. “I think that is really important. To have someone like Bryan involved is pretty cool and it will force Australians to take notice, pay attention and re-appraise their perceptions of Air NZ.

“But you do have to find someone who is consistent with your values and who the public feel attached to.”

Brown, he said, was a “fabulous, thoughtful Australian” who ticks those boxes.

Air NZ’s general manager of global brand and content marketing, Jodi Williams, added that engaging a well-known voice such as Brown added “flavour” to the creative idea.

“It brings the character of Dave to life and the icing on the cake is if the celebrity resonates and has extra cut-through that helps elevate awareness of the campaign,” she said.

Williams warned however that brand ambassadors or celebrity endorsement could come with risk.

“Sometimes you have to be a little careful that the person you work with doesn’t overtake your brand or the job you are trying to do,” she said. “I think we use celebrities in the right way in that we use them to add to the creativity.”

On the global stage, Emirates and Etihad pitted A-list actors against each other, with the former going for Jennifer Aniston – paying her a reported US$5m – while Etihad went with our very own Nicole.

Boutros Boutros, Emirates divisional senior vice president corporate communications, marketing and brand, claimed it had been “overwhelmed” at the “social phenomenon” created by Aniston’s debut TV ads last year.

He suggested the commercials enabled the actress to showcase her “impeccable comedic timing”.

“Jennifer Aniston’s appeal and effortless connection with a global audience makes her the perfect choice for our campaign,” Boutros said. “The humour resonated around the world and the ad was viewed by millions of people, generating thousands of conversations.

“We were overrun with requests to see Jennifer again. She has an enduring, universal appeal that is at once sophisticated but also down to earth – a great match for our brand.”

Etihad’s choice of Kidman was also based on attributes the airline said it shared with the Australian actress. Not only was she the “perfect voice and face for our story”, Etihad chief commercial officer Peter Baumgartner announced at the time, but she “embodies worldly sophistication, intelligence, originality and elegance – values which form the foundations of the Etihad brand”.

Yet there is a school of thought – maybe a growing one in an age where we are all, apparently, seeking “authenticity” – that such high profile glitz and glamour leaves us cold and just a bit weary. Don’t handsomely-rewarded brand ambassadors turn up at trade and consumer events with painted smiles, trot out a few bland niceties about the product, pose for a few snaps and then disappear into the night to somewhere they actually want to be?

Trafalgar has worked with TV personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley and has also announced plans to partner with Patricia Schultz, the American author of best-selling travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

Managing director Matthew Cameron-Smith acknowledged that paying for celebrities to endorse products could be viewed as “cash for comments” if there is little tangible connection between the individual and the product. Both Kennerley and Schultz have that connection, he said.

“There is skepticism around brand ambassadors, and it’s reasonable to have that doubt, because people do wonder whether the celebrity actually uses the product they are representing,” he told travelBulletin. “We did not want that. We wanted people who were connected to travel and could talk from the heart.”

Kennerley and Schultz both fit the bill, he said, and both experienced a Trafalgar guided tour before putting their name to the product. While accepting brand ambassadors are contractually obliged to attend events and mingle with consumers and trade alike, Cameron-Smith said Kennerley exudes genuine passion and interest.

“Kerri-Anne brings an audience with her, she is credible and doesn’t polarise our audience,” he said. “You also need someone who is going to engage with your guests and at our trade and consumer events she stays to the very end talking about holidays and travel. “You need a personality who has some connection to what you do and someone who has similar values.”

Schultz, too, who is due in Australia early next year, epitomises the passion for travel which is shared by Trafalgar, Cameron- Smith said, adding that her predilection for independent travel was of particular value.

“It’s good for our brand if someone like Patricia, who is an intrepid traveller, is happy to work with us and put her name against the brand,” he explained. “I understand ambassadors get paid to say ‘this is a good product’ but she writes about travel, and is a travel photographer so people can see the link and see that she brings credibility.

“Patricia also commands a lot of respect and she would not compromise her own brand and credibility if she did not belie
ve in the Trafalgar product.”

In much the same way that Kennerley is described as a “much loved” figure, so too is TV presenter Catriona Rowntree, the veteran host of Channel Nine’s Getaway, and longtime brand champion for Scenic.

“When our guests meet her at events, women want to go shopping with her and men want to date her or treat her like their daughter,” observed Scenic national marketing manager Liz Glover.

“Catriona is accessible. She’s the Aussie girl next door. She has travelled many times with us and it gives people the confidence to go to the same places. They think ‘if Catriona can go to South America then so can I’.”

Also in a similar vein to Kennerley, Rowntree brings “credibility” with her, Glover added, with her long career with Getaway creating an obvious link with Rowntree’s association with a travel brand. “If people are cynical then they don’t know the integrity she has. But because she is synonymous with travel, and the brand fits, I believe there are fewer cynics to convince,” Glover said. “She takes her mum on Scenic trips and you don’t take your mum if you don’t like the product.” One of the key reasons – probably the key reason for seeking celebrity advocacy – is to generate “cut through”, that most soughtafter objective of marketers who must get their brand voice heard above a cacophony of advertising noise.

Tourism Australia launched its global coastal and aquatic campaign at the start of the year, with Australian Hollywood star Chris Hemsworth adding his voice to the promotional drive. Marketing director Lisa Ronson said the addition of Hemsworth added considerable kudos to the campaign, with the passion for his country lending an “authentic and influential” voice.

“In the increasingly competitive world of destination marketing where it is harder than ever to reach and emotionally engage with consumers, having a recognisable and credible brand ambassador that aligns with your brand personality and values can be very powerful in providing cut through,” she told travelBulletin.

“That is needed to reach our target customers, amplify our messages and ultimately motivate them to travel here.”

But such a relationship with an advocate must go “beyond a financial transaction”, Ronson said, which is why TA carefully picks advocates who have “shared values”.

“We look for people who are genuinely passionate about Australia and keen to share their love of their country with others around the world,” she added. “These advocates we call ‘friends of Australia’… and it has given us many genuine powerful advocates for our country. When they talk about Australia it comes from the heart.”

Hemsworth’s attendance in New York for the campaign launch in January helped generate more than 2000 stories worth $54 million in publicity, Ronson said, while images shared on social media by Hemsworth and his wife during a trip to Uluru, Hayman Island and The Kimberley in June reached an audience of 40 million.

While ‘traditional’ celebrities from the world of TV, film, music and sport – former tennis star Pat Rafter represented Mantra for several years – remain in demand, some brands are increasingly turning to a new wave of celebrity “influencers” from the world of social media. One operator, Contiki, said working with influencers – some of whom have huge audiences and global fan bases – resonates more with its target millennial audience.

Head of marketing Vanessa Stavrou said: “We are looking for content creators, people who have passion and who tell their own stories, so it is less about slapping a celebrity against our brand but more finding a foodie who can tell a story while in Malaysia.

“We love the relevancy we get from partnering with influencers because that’s what keeps us relevant with millennials. But we search for those who have meaning behind what they do.”

Stavrou said research has shown YouTube and Instagrammers have more loyal followers than celebrities, particular among younger demographics.They also crave experiences and transparency, something not always apparent through celebrity endorsement.

“Seeing a celebrity against a brand just isn’t going to cut it,” she said. “They want to engage with the content and see the story behind it.” Asked who Contiki would approach if it had unlimited budget, Stavrou said: “I wouldn’t go for a celebrity. I just don’t think they’re going to buy into it if Beyoncé was the face of Contiki.”

But according to AirAsia X chief executive Benyamin Ismail, who welcomed Guy Sebastian as its local brand ambassador last month, we still look up to, and are influenced by, the rich and famous.

“A high proportion of people still star gaze, and follow them on social media,” he said. “Guy has around 300,000 Instagram followers [and 423,000 twitter followers] and we are very social media driven. When he starts promoting destinations, people will notice and start thinking ‘that would be a nice place to visit’.”

However, cynicism will surface among consumers if they don’t believe the match between personality and brand is right, Ismail added. “I think if we had someone ‘We love the relevancy we get from partnering with influencers because that’s what keeps us relevant with millennials’ considered upmarket representing AirAsia X that could come across as fake,” he said.

guy-seb“When Guy won Australian Idol it showed how dreams can come true and that matches the dream we offer at AirAsia. “We are an airline that gives people the opportunity to fly for the first time. Guy Sebastian fits our culture and we want to grow with him.” AirAsia, like every brand asked the same question, declined to reveal how much the singer is being paid, with Ismail only saying it was “not much” with payment largely in travel “perks” for Sebastian and his family.

Yet for people who question the value of celebrities and claim they don’t fall for the charms a famous face can offer to a brand, maybe the only people they are kidding are themselves.

As Paul Fishlock, founder of advertising agency Behaviour Change Partners, said, no one wants to admit being influenced by a celebrity who is paid a mint to promote a product.

“People don’t consciously say to themselves ‘Nicole Kidman flies Etihad, book me a ticket’,” he said. “If you ask them they will look you in the eye and say ‘it doesn’t affect me. I know they’re being paid to say that’. “But it does affect them. We are hard-wired to trust people we know and like.

“The best endorsements will always be from a close, trusted, actual friend who we will see again after we have taken their recommendation. They will be accountable for their advice.

“But celebrity endorsements from people with whom we have no recourse can be a very effective proxy.” And that, when all is said and done, is why celebrities will never be short of brands to endorse. As long as the price is right, of course.