On television, Gap's new pitchwoman caresses a microphone and croons "The Right Time," an old Ray Charles ballad. Dressed in a tank top, beads and white jeans, she radiates a neo-hippie charm.
She is Joss Stone, the 18-year-old soul singer from Devon, England, who has a best-selling CD and three Grammy nominations under her paisley silk belt. Now Gap is about to find out whether her youthful appeal will play to a broader market. It has signed the lissome Ms. Stone to replace its previous "it" girl, Sarah Jessica Parker, whose nine-month stint as the face of the company coincided with a relentless decline in sales.
News that Ms. Stone had supplanted Ms. Parker set fashion industry tongues wagging. At 40, Ms. Parker is old enough to be Ms. Stone's mother: too old, and too closely tied to her high-fashion "Sex and the City" image, some marketing experts said.
In hiring Ms. Parker, the Gap "fell into a real trap, and that trap was that they wanted to be something more than they were," said Robert Passikoff, the president of Brand Keys, a market research company in New York. Enlisting the Manolo-shod Ms. Parker to sell sportswear basics "looked largely like an act of desperation," he said.
Although Gap does not blame Ms. Parker for its business woes, the experience highlights the difficulty many companies face in creating a credible match with a celebrity endorser, one that forges a bond with consumers and pumps up sales. Ubiquitous today - Robert De Niro shills for American Express, James Earl Jones for Verizon, Anna Nicole Smith for TrimSpa - the celebrity endorsement game is one the fashion industry often seems ill equipped to play.
Whereas marketers in other fields might spend weeks or months vetting potential endorsers, using consumer surveys and focus groups, fashion companies commonly rely on a designer's instinct, a strategy that some say does not necessarily work. Versace, for example, uses Madonna in magazine ads this spring in which she makes like a mogul sheathed in the company's exuberantly colorful silks. She was selected after a casual dinner conversation, said Jason Weisenfeld, a public relations consultant who works with the company.
She was dining at Cipriani in London in October with Donatella Versace, the company's designer, and Mario Testino, who had photographed a 1994 Versace campaign featuring Madonna. Reminiscing about what fun they had had, the three decided to repeat the experience. Ms. Versace explained in a statement, "When we feel there is a connection and the synergies work, then we make it happen."
Yet some marketing experts judge the partnership a failure. "The campaign has no sizzle," said Steven Stoute, a record company producer turned marketing executive, whose clients include Hewlett-Packard. "At this point in time who is going to be surprised or inspired by a match between Madonna and Donatella Versace?" (Madonna will be replaced this fall by another familiar face, Demi Moore, according to news reports, which the company did not confirm.)
By contrast, before Mr. Stoute arranged for Gwen Stefani to design and endorse Hewlett-Packard's new Harajuku Lovers digital camera, he sent squads of researchers to malls around the country to ascertain the star's cool factor and study her record sales. "When you're paying that kind of money to get a star you ought to make sure you're getting buzz," he said.
The consensus of fashion marketers is that celebrities are more effective than models now in imprinting a brand in the customer's mind. It is a strategy as old as advertising itself, but it is relatively new to the fashion world. As little as a half-dozen years ago, most A-list entertainers were reluctant to moonlight as fashion models, fearing that they would be seen as selling out or attempting to resuscitate a fading career. Such concerns subsided in the wake of high-profile deals involving hip actresses like Chloe Sevigny, who modeled for H&M; Drew Barrymore, who posed for Prada; and Gwyneth Paltrow, who touted Dior in a handbag ad four years ago.
Today the role of celebrity endorser has lost nearly every shred of stigma. "You can't toss a crumpled piece of paper without some star saying, 'Give me a contract,' " Mr. Passikoff said.
Fashion companies today are so reliant on endorsers that they practice celebrity speed-dating, courting and then discarding stars with increasing rapidity. Two years ago Louis Vuitton hired Jennifer Lopez to promote its status handbags, then replaced her less than a year later with starlets including Diane Kruger and Scarlett Johansson. Now it has ushered them out and enlisted Uma Thurman to appear in ads for its cherry-emblazoned monogram bags.
Reebok hired Jay-Z and 50 Cent to contribute design ideas and glower in ads. It has recently signed the sullen-faced actress Christina Ricci to mug alongside the slogan "I Am What I Am."
Paradoxically the phenomenon is gathering steam in an era when celebrities have never been more tarnished by overexposure.
Before the Web became a wind tunnel of celebrity gossip, before cable channels like VH1 and magazines like In Touch began documenting stars' every hiccup and wheeze, "celebrities seemed special," said Ed Burstell, a New York retail consultant. "Now it's, quick, you're in, you're out, and you are disposable. At the end of the day your presence doesn't mean anything."
Advertisers counter that the stars are not going to wear out their welcome any time soon. Consumers have grown accustomed to, and even expect, a high rate of turnover, which mirrors the way that fashion itself is consumed. "This is the 'Gray is the new navy' industry," said Eric Hirschberg, a managing partner and executive creative director of Deutsch Inc. in New York, whose clients include Tommy Hilfiger. "Currency is everything. It's all about what or who is the next must-have."
The most successful celebrity-brand alliances match a star whose image is an organic fit with that of a brand, experts say. In the consumer's mind the two become all but interchangeable. Uma Thurman is sophisticated yet unpredictable, the same image Louis Vuitton has cultivated; Michelle Pfeiffer is mysterious and quietly elegant, reflecting the spirit of Giorgio Armani designs, one reinforced by the dark glasses she wears in the latest Armani ads.
Now Gap is hoping that Ms. Stone will embody the company's relaxed style in a way that Ms. Parker apparently did not.
In the case of both stars, the company acknowledges, it conducted only minimal market research and, following the practice of the fashion industry, relied most on the tastes of its creative executives.
Asked to find a personality to embody the company's white jeans, a look Gap stores are aggressively promoting for spring, Trey Laird, Gap's creative director, said he started with a song, "The Right Time," a blues standard. Then he chased down a contemporary artist who could endow it with new life. His musical instincts led him to Ms. Stone.
Her freshness and simplicity contrast markedly with Ms. Parker's sophistication, which worked against the Gap in the view of a number of outside marketers. "She is imprinted on everyone's mind as one thing," said Mr. Burstell, the retail consultant, a former general manager of Henri Bendel, "and that's 'designer,' not khaki."
Jeff Jones, the Gap's executive vice president for marketing, replied that Ms. Parker does not bear the blame for the company's lackluster performance of late. "The clothes she wore in the ads sold to an item," he said. "But from a business perspective that momentum didn't halo to more products."
Last September, a month after Gap unveiled the Parker campaign - in which she appeared in television and print ads, as well as in posters in store windows, for a reported $38 million - sales dipped 3 percent at stores open at least a year, compared with the same month a year earlier. They slid 3 percent in December and 9 percent in January, and declined in each of the subsequent months as well.
Mr. Jones faults the chain's product mix, which was too heavily weighted toward fashion items like cigarette jeans and flouncy tops. The company, the largest specialty store chain in the country with $7.24 million in annual sales, hopes to do better with Ms. Stone, whose tender age and breezy informality are expected to resonate with women who live in the company's khakis, gauzy cotton skirts and jeans.
Ms. Stone is a multiplatinum-selling singer whose voice critics have often compared to Aretha Franklin's. In the two years between the release of her first album, "Soul Sessions," and her latest, "Mind, Body & Soul," she has performed for Bill Clinton and President Bush, has traveled almost incessantly and posed for the cover of the April issue of British Vogue.
Just on the cusp of celebrity, she is the kind of left-of-the dial personality Gap has traditionally embraced, a roster that in the past included Will Ferrell, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Lenny Kravitz and Macy Gray, all of whom modeled or sang in the company's ad campaigns. Her style signatures - hippie beads, peasant skirts and bare feet - "communicate individuality in a very casual, cool, soulful sexy way we see as quintessential Gap," Mr. Jones said.
Consumers of course will have the last word. Late Tuesday, Nicola Wilson, 34, a production worker for a clothing company, wandered through the Gap outpost in Times Square. Shown a portrait of Gap's new "face," she responded instantly. "That's Joss Stone," she said. "She's very soulful and vibe-y. I've seen her in the ads." In Ms. Wilson's view Gap's new commercials are an improvement over those that featured Ms. Parker. "These are just younger and hipper, I think."
Ruth La Ferla, The New York Times. May 19, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.