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Celebrity Promoter Says the Words and Has Her Say


Star Jones is surrounded by scores of shoes.

Normally, such a sight would not be noteworthy, much less newsworthy, because Ms. Jones, the energetic television personality best known as a co-host of the estrogen-laced ABC gabfest "The View," is almost always surrounded by shoes. At home and at work, she has 550 pairs, she estimates, from "$2.99 flip-flops to $1,500 sandals" festooned with crystals.

In this instance, though, the shoes that Ms. Jones is scrutinizing in an office in Midtown Manhattan are not hers. The shoes are not anyone's - not yet, anyway. They are prototypes of merchandise that the Payless ShoeSource chain plans to sell in the spring in its nearly 5,000 stores.

If Payless executives have their way, the talents of Ms. Jones - a self-described "shoe diva" who since January has been the company's chief of consumer style - will help propel the finished versions into the closets of tens of thousands of women.

The stretching of the traditional relationship of celebrities and the makers of the products they are paid to pitch is part of a nascent trend. Companies are involving the stars they hire in substantive product and advertising decisions to counter intensifying consumer skepticism about the motivations and trustworthiness of celebrity endorsers.

Michael Jordan, who oversees the design and selling of the Jordan line of apparel and footwear sold by Nike, is a prominent example. Actresses like Meredith Baxter and Victoria Principal create skin-care products for home-shopping networks. And Jennifer Lopez had veto power over the design of the bottle for her new fragrance, Glow by J.Lo.

The hope is for such agreements to offset the damage caused by promoters like Britney Spears, who sells Pepsi-Cola but was caught on camera drinking Coca-Cola, and Shaquille O'Neal, who has professed his fast-food fealty to the Burger King, McDonald's and Taco Bell brands. More marketers want to avoid having their celebrity endorsers seen as mercenaries whose interest in the brand ends the moment the checks stop arriving.

"It's not just about putting a celebrity in a spot to borrow his or her fame," said Alan D. Gould, co-chief executive at the Intermedia Advertising Group, a reseach company in New York. "There's a credibility threshold."

Ms. Jones agrees. "It's important to me to tell people I'm not just a face on screen," she said in an interview on a recent afternoon as she examined the prototypes, freely dispensing pans and praise to a phalanx of Payless buyers and executives.

"I wouldn't have affiliated them with me if I weren't serious," she added.

Payless could use the help. The company has had flat sales and lower net income in the increasingly competitive retail climate. But early results from the partnership are encouraging.

Intermedia data indicates outstanding results for Ms. Jones's commercials when viewers are asked if they recall the Payless brand, Mr. Gould said, with scores almost 50 percent higher than achieved by rival retailers.

And after Payless endured declines in what are known as same-store sales - stores open a year or longer, an important barometer of retail health - the tide is starting to turn. Such sales edged up for the last three months by 0.7 percent, the company reported, and most recently, in the four weeks ended Nov. 2, rose 0.9 percent. The estimate for the important fourth quarter calls for a continued improvement, to a percentage increase in the low single digits.

Encouraged, Payless has renewed Ms. Jones's deal, which pays her an estimated annual sum in the low seven figures, for a second year. (The company has another option for 2004.)

But the collaboration is not without risk. Though Ms. Jones talked up Payless on "The View" before the retailer hired her, some customers may perceive her as a New York glamour girl rather than their representative on the Payless style council.

"When people tell Star, `I don't buy it,' she'll pull off her shoes and say, `Here they are,' " said John Haugh, the senior vice president for brand development and chief marketing officer at Payless in Topeka, Kan.

"Getting the celebrity du jour to take our money would not be believable," he added. "We needed someone who at heart could be seen as a Payless kind of person."

Brian Brooker, chief executive and chief creative officer at Payless's agency, Barkley Evergreen & Partners in Kansas City, Mo., concurred.

"Star is the real McCoy, and consumers respond to that honesty," Mr. Brooker said.

"She says, `I can afford expensive shoes, and I own my share of them. But this is how Payless fits into my wardrobe,' " he added. "If she said her closet was stocked solely with Payless shoes, people wouldn't believe it."

Ms. Jones said that when she started working for Payless, she knew she would be asked how real her penchant for the products was.

"The number of pairs of Payless shoes I have is 26 and the number of Jimmy Choos I have is 22," she said. "So actually, I've got more Payless now."

The Payless campaigns with Ms. Jones, which carry the theme "Look smart. Payless," are created with her direct involvement, said Mr. Brooker and Ginny Shiverdecker, chief strategic officer at Barkley Evergreen. The ads emerge from meetings of Ms. Jones and agency copywriters, art directors, creative directors and producers.

Asked what elements of the ads she oversees, Ms. Jones replied: "Every single aspect. Every line that is written, every shot taken of me, every word coming out of my mouth."

"When I hold a shoe, I choose that shoe to hold," she said, then added, laughing, "When I hold a shoe, you better order a lot of them."

Beyond the ads, Ms. Jones visits Payless stores, talking to shoppers ("At a store in Kansas City, I got into this long conversation about boots," she recalled fondly), and tours the corporate headquarters, meeting employees along with executives. Once she even took telephone calls from consumers, and for her visit last month, the workers greeted her with star-shaped cookies they had baked. Then there are the meetings about the merchandise, like the recent one in Manhattan, held in a 16th-floor screening room converted into a shoe showroom at the William Morris Agency, which represents Ms. Jones.

"You're interrupting a woman in the midst of going to heaven," Ms. Jones said as a reporter entered the room. Soon she was all business, evaluating the merchandise as Mr. Haugh and the other Payless executives watched and listened intently.

Ms. Jones approvingly compared one pair of shoes to those she wore to the Emmys: "Not a big, high heel because I needed to be good-looking, but not fall down the stairs."

A boot inspired the observation that "the black shoe boots are the hottest thing all the women in New York are wearing." Ms. Jones added, "I have the ultimate focus group every day with the audience at `The View.' "

She looked at an evening shoe, scheduled to sell at $16.99 a pair, and said with a grin: "I need to have - maybe I don't want to tell this - six pair of these. That's really shameful. In black, silver, gold. . . ."

Evening shoes ought to have high heels, Ms. Jones advised, but not too high because "you stand up at a cocktail party and you want to kill the person who sold you the shoe."

"I'm surprised more people don't go postal on that," she added.

Ms. Jones recommended that another shoe be made in white, then said: "This shoe I can tell you was inspired by an extremely high-end specialty designer. I bought a pair in Monaco and they were $800. These shoes give you that exact same look for - how much are we going to sell them for?" She repeated the figure spoken by a Payless executive: $14.99.

"Trust me, I can put on a $15 pair of shoes with a $1,500 dress and look like a million dollars," Ms. Jones asserted. "It's about putting it together."

"If you're a fashionable person, people expect you to pay a lot of money, but that's stupid," she added. "It's about style and taste. Smart women know you don't have to spend a lot of money to have style."

"I had a baby shower at my house," Ms. Jones said, and at the door she provided her guests - "I have some of the richest girlfriends in New York" - with "our $7.99 Payless red fluffy slippers" to wear during the party.

"They took them home in bags with Michael Kors perfume and Christian Dior eyewear," she added, laughing. "Two of them visited me again and asked, `Can I get another pair of slippers?' "

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. November 25, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.