The Power of the Shadow Endorser

This approach lends credibility to one brand, while protecting another, like BMW and Mini Cooper.

There is often a business case to stretch a brand into an area that it just does not fit, even when shielded by a subbrand or as an endorser. The answer can be a shadow endorser.

BMW is a shadow endorser of the MINI Cooper. A shadow endorser brand is not connected visibly to the endorsed brand, but most consumers or potential customers know about the link or can be informed about it prior to purchase. It’s in the shadows. The fact that the brands are not visibly linked makes a statement about each brand. It communicates that the organization realizes that the shadow-endorsed brand represents a totally different product and market segment than other offerings connected to the endorser.

A shadow endorser can protect the endorser brand while still providing the reassurance that an endorsement provides. Every buyer of a MINI Cooper knows that it is made by BMW and will have the same quality and innovation standards, even though it’s a cut below the BMW line. But the BMW owner does not connect the two, and thus the emotional and self-expressive benefits connected to the BMW are not in jeopardy.

“The fact that the brands are not visibly linked makes a statement about each brand.”

A shadow endorser strategy can also protect the new offer. Consider Lexus. Most buyers, especially in the early days, knew and were reassured that Toyota makes Lexus because of Toyota’s financial strength and reputation. However, Lexus delivers self-expressive benefits that would be diminished by a visible connection with Toyota. But the connection with Toyota is recessed in memory and accessed only when relevant, not in day-to-day experiences as a buyer or user of the Lexus. With no visible link to Toyota, there is no memory cue about the endorser. You buy and drive a Lexus, period.

A shadow endorser strategy allows complete freedom for the offering brand to be whatever it wants to be. Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant group with dozens of restaurant concepts such as Savanello’s (Italian), Everest (very upscale French), and Mon Ami Gabi (French Bistro) was a shadow endorser for some 25 years after opening their first concept restaurant in 1971. Each restaurant had its own image, personality, style and brand name. The absence of a visible endorsement from Lettuce Entertain You meant that there was no chain connotation, and patrons needed to discover the shadow endorsement themselves through word-of-mouth and PR. Discovering the endorsement and having some intriguing “insider knowledge” only increased its impact.

A shadow endorser can evolve as brand equities change. In particular, it can play a role in providing functional service. In the late 1990s, Lettuce Entertain You became a stronger brand and developed a frequent diner program and even cross-promoted their restaurants to a limited extent. Starwood, long a shadow endorser of its hotels, which include stand-alone brands like Westin, Sheraton, “W” and others, used the Starwood brand as a reservation service and loyalty program. However, Starwood as a provider of auxiliary service in no way inhibited their portfolio brands.

A shadow endorser can also play a key role in B2B marketing. Dockers and Mountain Dew both get more respect from retailers because of their association with Levi-Strauss and Pepsi. The shadow endorsement of Touchstone by Disney helps attract high-potential scripts. The shadow endorsement by Viacom of its properties such as CBS Television, Simon & Schuster, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon affects investors and advertisers.


New offerings can face a huge barrier in establishing a new brand when the use of existing portfolio brands, even as an endorser, represents a risk. The solution could be a shadow endorser that can provide an extra measure of separation between the offering brand and the endorser while providing many advantages.