The role of celebrities in advertising and external marketing campaigns is familiar to us all. Celebrities are often the faces of brands, representing a certain lifestyle or aspiration that companies hope to convey to their target audiences. Less prominent is the pivotal role celebrities have played in organizations’ internal communication. In this month’s Source of the Month, we look at how the use of celebrities has developed over the last century and how it spread beyond advertising into internal communication from the late 1970s onwards.
This blog post examines the strategies behind the appearance of celebrities and how they have been used to engage and motivate employees. Celebrities began to be mentioned in Boots News in 1977 and were prominent in the Lever Mirror and Lever News, the staff magazines of Unilever, in the 1980s and 1990s. The magazines documents provide invaluable insights into the evolution of celebrity use during this era and how Unilever adapted to the changing landscape of celebrity endorsement and internal communication strategies during these two decades.
Early Uses of Celebrities
The history of using celebrities in advertising campaigns can be traced as far back as 1882 when London socialite and West End actress Lilly Langtry became the face and poster-girl of Lever Brothers’ (later Unilever) Pears Soap. Foreshadowing the somewhat tumultuous history of celebrity endorsement, Langtry was also the first celebrity to be dropped by an endorser due to reports of her lascivious lifestyle in the press, including rumours of an affair with a member of the British royal family! By the interwar period celebrity endorsement had become a common strategy in advertising and marketing. One 1949 article from Unilever’s Progress magazine spoke of what it saw as a revolutionary new style of marketing in a campaign from 1924. Connecting products with aspirational qualities, advertising for Lux Toilet Soap on its introduction to the United States of America aimed to make the product synonymous with the glamour of Hollywood stars.
The Lux Toilet Soap campaign of the 1920s is an early example of associating products with celebrity culture. Lever Brothers positioned Lux Toilet Soap as an affordable yet high-quality product with the allure of Parisian elegance. As Lux Toilet Soap became associated with Hollywood stars, sales soared, doubling within a year.
The campaign’s central theme, connecting the product with the glamour of Hollywood, harnessed the power of celebrities in shaping consumer perceptions and choices in a way that is still familiar to us in the twenty-first century. Yet the strategy, at this stage, is entirely directed at an external audience rather than an internal one. Furthermore, it associated Lux Toilet Soap with Hollywood in a general sense rather than making it synonymous with a specific actor.
Celebrities for Internal Marketing
The use of celebrities takes a different turn from the late 1970s. November’s Source of the Month is an article from the 14 December 1977 issue of Boots News which has faces in baubles of notable actors and comedians of the time: Penelope Keith, Gerald Harper, Glenda Jackson, John Inman, Penelope Keith, and last but not least, Basil Brush. In the article, the celebrities share their thoughts on Christmas. This is the earliest example we have found so far of an organization using famous personalities purely for internal purposes. The article sought to connect with their staff and use for the Christmas period a combination of popular culture to create a sense of community.
Taken from Boots News, 14 December 1977, p. 13. Magazine held by the Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive, WBA/BT/27/39/2/5/82.
In the April 1980 issue of the Lever Mirror, the TV personality Noel Edmonds appeared promoting Persil. This is intriguing, since the Lever Mirror was not aimed at customers but Unilever’s own staff. Neither was the article an explanation of strategy aimed at advertising staff. Rather, Noel Edmond’s appearance was a deliberate move in a new form of communication between management and staff.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of an ‘internal marketing’ approach, an element of which was a greater alignment of internal and external communication. Noel Edmonds was used by Unilever in its advertising to tap into the power of a celebrity to boost sales and create excitement around their products. His appearance in Lever Mirror aimed to promote Unilever’s brand message to an internal audience as well as an external one.
The strategy reflects a recognition that internal communication is more than just the dissemination of information. Communication was now being used as a way of fostering a ‘brand community’ and to turn employees into ‘brand ambassadors’. Employees are crucial internal stakeholders for an organization who, in turn, can influence the way brands are perceived by co-creating value and becoming active brand ambassadors within both internal and external brand communities. Hand-in-hand with this perspective is the treatment of internal communication not as a one-way flow of information but as a tool to engage employees.
The Noel Edmonds article was not an isolated case of using high-profile figures for internal marketing. In September 1980, Unilever capitalised on the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer by featuring commemorative stamps in their Persil Royal Wedding offer pack. In September 1990, Unilever introduced Persil Washing Up Liquid, positioning it as a premium product and choosing the comedian Robbie Coltrane for a television advertising campaign.
Celebrity culture took a slightly different form in the March 1986 edition of the Lever Mirror. The company internal tabloid heralded how one Unilever employee ‘became a celebrity overnight’. The name Peter Moreton is unlikely be instantly familiar today, but this employee from Port Sunlight appeared on the then highly popular TV show Blind Date hosted by Cilla Black!
Beyond Company Magazines
The use of celebrities in internal communication was not limited to the appearance of familiar faces in company magazines. In the Boots archive, there is a staff training video from 1985 introducing the relaunch of the Seventeen product range that was hosted by the television presenter and writer Paula Yates. Delivered in the style of the TV programme ‘The Cube’, it demonstrates the breadth of the ways in which celebrities were being used by British companies at this time. The video provided an interactive and entertaining dimension to internal communication to make it relatable and engaging.
The Boots training event had a strong focus on product information, marketing, and advertising plans, including the ‘Looks Even Better on a Girl’ campaign. It also touched upon the sponsorship of a pop band’s tour, which was associated with Boots’ products. The TV show format and use of celebrity aimed to give the staff a deeper understanding of the company’s brand and products.
The strategic use of celebrities by companies went beyond advertising. It was also a powerful tool in internal communication. While the early use of celebrities focused on external marketing campaigns, there is a clear recognition by companies from the late 1970s of the potential of famous figures in their internal communications. Our research has found them becoming a regular feature in Unilever and Boots staff magazines and in corporate training videos in the 1980s.
The use of celebrities in internal communication aligned internal and external brand messages. It also acknowledged the value of employees as brand ambassadors. By engaging staff with celebrity endorsements, companies sought to create a sense of community, turning their employees into active participants in both internal and external brand promotion. Implicit in this strategy is a growing recognition that internal communication is not just about information dissemination. It is a powerful tool to connect, engage, and motivate employees that has implications externally as well as internally.
Boots News (14 Dec 1977), p. 13.
Progress (Winter 1949), p. 37.
Lever Mirror (April 1980), pp. 4-5.
Lever Mirror (September 1980), p. 1.
Lever Mirror (March 1986), p. 3.
Lever Mirror (September 1990), p. 1.
Heller, Michael, and Michael Rowlinson, ‘Imagined Corporate Communities: Historical Sources and Discourses’, British Journal of Management, 31 (2020), pp. 752-68.
Kim, Young, ‘Enhancing Employee Communication Behaviour for Sensemaking and Sensegiving in Crisis Situations: Strategic Management Approach for Effective Internal Crisis Communication’, Journal of Communication Management, 22 (2018), pp. 451-75.
Schau, Hope Jensen, Albert M. Muñiz Jr, and Eric J. Arnould, ‘How Brand Community Practices Create Value’, Journal of Marketing, 73 (2009), pp. 30-51.