Did Ellen really have an effect?

In March this year we trumpeted the Ellenvisit of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to our shores predicting increased tourism numbers and a successful launch of Australian vitamin brand Swisse in the US. But did it actually happen? In a feature that first appeared in EncoreNic Christensen investigates.

It was late March of this year when Australia caught a dose of what several media outlets took to calling “Ellen fever” – an unusual condition that supposedly saw thousands of people turn out to see American talk show queen Ellen DeGeneres in person, as she filmed segments around the country for her program.

Her brief, delayed visit – which hit a snag after she fell ill hours before she was due to fly to Australia –made headlines both here and in America with scores of column inches dedicated to the trip when it was announced with a similar audience reveal to Oprah Winfrey’s visit in 2010.

But four months on from the DeGeneres visit, what have been the tangible benefits for Australia as well as vitamin company Swisse that, together with Destination NSW and Qantas, footed the bill for the stunt?

George Souris, NSW tourism minister, was the first to quantify the benefits of DeGeneres’ trip declaring earlier this month that Australia had seen a direct increase in US travellers following her visit.

“The Qantas and Destination NSW campaign increased inbound ticket sales from the US to Sydney by 22 per cent,” Souris trumpeted in a media announcement. “The campaign also features online marketing in the US and to date has delivered more than 62m impressions on Qantas websites and almost 220,000 total sales leads for business and services throughout NSW.”

In the same statement, the NSW government said visitors from the US who booked their travel with Qantas via the campaign’s ‘Dance your way Down Under’ website stayed an average of 12 nights.

Such numbers ring true for Mat Baxter, CEO of media agency UM, who says he wasn’t surprised to see actual results so soon after the event.

“I know the tourism bodies were really pleased with the impact,” says Baxter. “It was great for the Australian economy because we saw the number of visitors tangibly increase after her visit and, let’s be honest, there wasn’t much else going on that you could attribute the increase to.”

Of course this is not the first time Australia has used the power of an international celebrity to boost tourism. In 2010 Tourism Australia brought Oprah Winfrey Down Under for a major TV event that generated more than 86,000 news articles globally, with an estimated equivalent advertising value of $368m. Initial media reports after Winfrey’s visit suggested that travel agents were seeing a significant boost in the number of Americans travelling to Australia.

But one year later Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Chris Berg labelled it an “abominable waste of taxpayers’ money” in a piece in the Australian Financial Review and argued there were no discernible increases in US tourist numbers.

Berg says the numbers being touted by tourism bodies can be misleading.

“The thing you need to know when you look at impact estimates is that you can make them show whatever you want,” he told Encore. “Empirically there are a huge number of claims and counterclaims about how individual events affect tourism figures but a reading of the economic literature around these events shows overwhelmingly that they have no real consequence on the economy.”

Destination NSW did not respond to Encore’s request for comment regarding the reported uplift in American visitors and whether the numbers are expected to be sustained.

And while Nick Baker, Tourism Australia’s executive general manager of marketing, would not comment on Destination NSW’s involvement in the Ellen promotion, he says there is little doubt that Oprah’s visit had an impact on visitor numbers to Australia – the biggest impact, in fact, since the 2000 Sydney Olympics – which would come as a relief after the government spent $3.5m to bring her out.

“Oprah had a significant impact and continues to have an impact,” says Baker. “There is no doubt that the advocacy that you get from someone of Oprah’s standing is significant in the marketplace, not just in the US but elsewhere as well.”

Tourism Australia says as of January 2013, US visitor numbers were up 4.6 per cent on the past 12 months.

Putting aside the debate around visitor numbers, media analyst Steve Allen says there are additional benefits in bringing stars like Oprah and Ellen to Australia. “If you can get one of these American stars who has got a really strong following – and both Oprah and Ellen do – and they are basically endorsing your product, they are saying ‘come on down’, it is a very big magnet. It can get favourable advertorial which is worth a lot more than advertising and produces much better results,” he says.

“There is a probably a little bit of convenience around the numbers,” said Paul Brooks, chief investment officer at media agency Mediacom. “But there are two different things here: one is the travel visitor numbers and the other is the show and the marketing around it. Ellen coming out was a tactical visit to help launch the product Swisse in America.”

Indeed it was Australian vitamin company Swisse, which footed much of the bill for the talk host to ‘dance her way Down Under’.

Lauren Armstrong, Swisse’s international business manager, told Encore the strategy of the sponsorship was to create buzz in the US ahead of the brand’s launch.

“Ellen is an ideal brand fit. There was a fantastic alignment between our target market in the US and the Ellen audience. Aside from our broadcast partnership, we were able to generate global publicity from her Australian tour,” she says.

In addition to bringing DeGeneres to Australia, Swisse had a significant media spend around the US talk show featuring spots in ad breaks as well as segments on the program.

When asked to detail the direct benefit Swisse saw from the promotion, Armstrong says retail sales throughout the promotion and campaign period increased by 16 per cent in the US.

“Our retailer Walgreens was very excited by the partnership with Ellen as her show is number one,” she says. “So much great content came from Ellen’s Down Under tour that she ran two super shows with highlights in the season break – this was over and above exposure for Swisse.”

UM’s Baxter is slightly more sceptical about the benefit for the brand. “Did it work for them? I don’t know,” he says. “I’m sure they grew consumer awareness. Did that translate to preference and therefore sales for vitamins and grow the category? I’m not too sure it did.”

Following the stunt, a series of ads featuring Nicole Kidman have aired for the vitamin brand both in Australia and the US but little has been seen of DeGeneres in relation to Swisse since.

Mediacom’s Brooks says there may be other reasons for the lack of focus on Ellen after the event. “It is easy for people who aren’t close enough to the brand, its platform or objectives to have a point of view,” he says. “But it’s important to note that this was a shared campaign – funded not just by Swisse – so they may have been limited in what that could do with Ellen.”

Baxter wonders if the issue might have been budgetary. “They broke the golden rule of sponsorship or partnership which is for every dollar you spend on something spend at least two dollars leveraging it. I don’t think they followed that principle,” he says. “It felt to me like they were faced with a very large bill to get her out here and burnt through most of the money they had available to get her here and realised they had run out of funds to tell people it was happening and do marketing to leverage it.”

Brooks says there are lessons other brands can learn from the trip.

“One of the big things is planning for the unexpected, if we are looking at this from the perspective of any brand wanting to associate itself with a celebrity, platform or show,” he says, pointing to the last-minute delay of DeGeneres’ trip.

But the greater lesson is for marketers. Brooks says: “Any sort of alignment needs to be carefully considered and also the marketing objectives need to be long term rather than short term.”

Encore issue 25This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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