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Nothing Sells Like Celebrity

Early last year, marketing executives at Totes Isotoner, a Cincinnati company that had spent the previous 30 years churning out a reliable lineup of humble umbrellas, crowded around a computer and listened to a teenage singer from Barbados named Rihanna breeze through a tune titled, appropriately, “Umbrella.”

The song, not yet released, had commercial, jingle-ready lyrics and a stick-in-your-head hook: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.” Totes, which hadn’t deployed celebrity endorsements since the former N.F.L. quarterback Dan Marino hawked its gloves more than a decade earlier, was smitten. “Umbrella” became a corporate rallying cry, with the song drifting through Totes’ offices at all hours.

Rihanna and her representatives wanted Totes to do more, however, than merely use her to peddle a product. They wanted Totes to create customized umbrellas featuring sparkly fabrics and glittery charms on the handles — all recommended by the emerging star and her team. Totes also guaranteed the singer a percentage of the sales of the umbrellas.

“Umbrella” went on to become a huge, Grammy-winning hit. And Totes, although it declines to discuss sales data, describes its relationship with Rihanna as “invaluable.” The company, which had never tried such a sweeping design shake-up before, says it now reaches younger shoppers and that traffic on its Web site — which links to Rihanna’s own site — has soared.

“We’ve worked hard to build me and my name up as a brand,” Rihanna says. “We always want to bring an authentic connection to whatever we do. It must be sincere and people have to feel that.”

But where the star ends and the product and pitch begin has grown less and less discernible in the era of the human billboard.

These days, it’s nearly impossible to surf the Internet, open a newspaper or magazine, or watch television without seeing a celebrity selling something, whether it’s umbrellas, soda, cars, phones, medications, cosmetics, jewelry, clothing or even mutual funds.

Nicole Kidman sashays in ads for Chanel No. 5 perfume. Eva Longoria, the bombshellette star of “Desperate Housewives,” sells L’Oréal Paris hair color. Jessica Simpson struts for a hair extension company, HairUWear, and the acne skin-care line Proactiv Solution. And Jamie Lee Curtis spoons up Dannon Activia yogurt while promoting environmentally friendly Honda cars.

Using celebrities for promotion is hardly new. Film stars in the 1940s posed for cigarette companies, and Bob Hope pitched American Express in the late 1950s. Joe Namath slipped into Hanes pantyhose in the 1970s, and Bill Cosby jiggled for Jell-O for three decades. Sports icons like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods elevated the practice, often scoring more in endorsement and licensing dollars than from their actual sports earnings.

But over the last decade, corporate brands have increasingly turned to Hollywood celebrities and musicians to sell their products. Stars showed up in nearly 14 percent of ads last year, according to Millward Brown, a marketing research agency. While that number has more than doubled in the past decade, it is off from a peak of 19 percent in 2004. (Hey, it could be more extreme: Celebrities appear in 24 percent of the ads in India and 45 percent in Taiwan.)

Starlets and aging rockers are likely to continue popping up in ads for a very simple reason: Celebrity sells. If consumers believe that a certain star or singer might actually use the product sales can take off.

“The reality is people want a piece of something they can’t be,” says Eli Portnoy, a branding strategist. “They live vicariously through the products and services that those celebrities are tied to. Years from now, our descendants may look at us and say, ‘God, these were the most gullible people who ever lived.’ “

Newer forces are also propping up the celebrity-endorsement boom. Companies, trying to align themselves ever closer to A-list stars (as well as B-listers, C-listers and reality TV pseudocelebrities) and their quicksilver fame are constantly seeking new ways to merge the already-blurry lines between the commercial and entertainment worlds.

Television programmers and music producers are particularly eager to play along as joint marketing deals offer artists new ways to reach audiences while also defraying their own marketing costs. Celebrities have also grown much more sophisticated about the structure and payouts of endorsement deals.

Last fall, the rapper-impresario Sean Combs created a 50-50 joint venture with Diageo, the spirits giant, for Mr. Combs to be the brand manager of the Ciroc vodka line. Mr. Combs says he made the profit-sharing deal only after refusing to work solely as a pitchman.

“My brand is rocket fuel. It would take this brand 10 years to get to where I can take it in one year,” he says. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to do just endorsements. I want ownership.”

In the few short years since she exploded onto the music scene, Rihanna, now 20, has been involved in about a dozen endorsement and licensing deals. Behind the scenes, her representatives say they vet every offer for two key criteria: how does it support the brand known as Rihanna, and will it help sell more albums?

Rihanna’s commercial for a lip gloss, CoverGirl Wetslicks Fruit Spritzers, opens with outtakes from her steamy “Umbrella” video, then morphs into a close-up of her wearing the lip gloss before ending with a shot of her album cover — leaving viewers possibly confused whether they just saw an ad for a lip gloss or an album. (Totes, for its part, says it cares not a whit about CoverGirl also capitalizing on “Umbrella.” The more the merrier, its executives say, because ubiquity benefits everybody in brandland.)

To be sure, marrying a brand to a celebrity has its perils. Just last month, Christian Dior yanked ads from China featuring the actress Sharon Stone after she suggested that the earthquakes that killed tens of thousands of people in China were karmic retribution for the country’s policies toward Tibet.

Yet no less an expert than the comedian Ellen DeGeneres enthusiastically embraces the endorsement whirlwind.

“It’s flattering that companies think of you and they want to work with you,” she says, adding that she is working with American Express because she liked earlier ads the company did with Jerry Seinfeld. The AmEx ads routinely appear first during her talk show.

Although she says she would consider other endorsement deals, she’s not actively looking. Besides, she says, quality counts.

“I would not feel good if I had made a deal and was making money for something that I’m not proud of and don’t have any control over,” she says. “Now watch, cut to next week and I’m endorsing five different things. Look, bread! Isn’t it great? And what goes well with bread? Mayonnaise!”

Beyonce is hot. Red hot. The numbers prove it.

On the Davie Brown Index, an independent online rating system that was started two years ago to track the marketing power of celebrities, the singing sensation scores 81.31 on a 100-point scale.

The index bases its score on eight metrics, including influence and trendsetting abilities, and is used by corporate marketers to pinpoint desirable boldface names. With that score, Beyoncé is 27th among the more than 1,800 celebrities that the D.B.I. tracks. (The top five are Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Michael Jordan, Morgan Freeman and George Clooney. The presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are 9th and 25th, respectively.)

One Davie Brown category in which most celebrities appear vulnerable is trust. Celebrities are recognizable and appealing, but are often viewed with skepticism. “Trust always seems to be the lowest score among celebrities,” observes Matt Fleming, a Davie Brown account director who helps brands evaluate celebrity talent.

SO if some consumers don’t really trust celebrities, why do they still run out to buy their perfumes or fashions? The answer, some analysts say, has its roots in two seismic shifts in the cultural landscape that began in the late 1990s.

First has been the emergence of Web sites and magazines that chronicle the mundane, daily activities of stars on a 24/7 basis. A voracious public eager to peek at Hollywood celebrities shopping for shoes and buying coffee wanted, in turn, to buy those shoes and drink that coffee themselves.

The other new force has been the explosive growth and mainstreaming of urban hip-hop music and marketing moves by artists like Mr. Combs, Shawn Carter (better known as Jay-Z) and Jennifer Lopez to slap their personal brands on clothing lines, fragrances and other goods. After hip-hop impresarios narrowed the divide between popular music and blatant hucksterism, other popular musicians followed suit.

“Hip-hop completely opened the eyes of other music genres as to how to relate to corporations and not be seen as sellouts,” says Steve Stoute, an ad executive who has matched such celebrities and brands as Justin Timberlake and McDonald’s, Gwen Stefani and Hewlett-Packard, and Jay-Z with Reebok.

The lucre that pours in from successful endorsements, meanwhile, has convinced celebrities that it’s wise to be much more open to such deals than they once were.

“Seven years ago, the belief among celebrities was that perfume was something you did at the end of a career,” says Bernd Beetz, the chief executive of Coty. “Now it’s different and seen as a key step in the start of a career.”

In 2002, Coty released Glow by JLo, in a successful rollout; global sales peaked at $78 million worldwide in 2003 before falling to $41.4 million last year, according to Euromonitor International, which tracks sales of consumer goods.

Glow by JLo is credited with ushering in a wave of celebrity fragrances. Britney Spears, Tim McGraw, Céline Dion, Halle Berry and even the “Grey’s Anatomy” star Patrick Dempsey have either created fragrance lines or are about to do so.

And they want you to know that they really like the products. Really.

“I wear my cologne all of the time,” says Mr. Dempsey, whose fragrance will be introduced by Avon Products in November. “This is a whole different experience and a real education for me, and it has been something that I’ve been involved with every step of the way.”

With consumers facing so many choices these days, an emotional connection with a certain celebrity may make the difference between whether a shopper’s hand stops over one product or moves on to the competition.

“As consumers, we see over 3,156 images a day. We’re just not conscious of them,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the consumer research firm NPD Group. “Our subconscious records maybe 150, and only 30 or so reach our conscious behavior. If I have a celebrity as part of that message, I just accelerated the potential for my product to reach the conscious of the consumer.”

Even savvy, skeptical consumers who understand that stars are paid to support a product may still rely on an endorsement and buy the brand anyway, says Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University.

“We’ve used our cognitive capacity to build a sophisticated informational and technological environment,” he says. But overloaded with information and stimulation, shoppers’ brains revert to a more primitive, raw association of celebrity and product, Mr. Cialdini explains.

Because a celebrity link may entice consumers, brands continue to use stars as the public face of a corporate entity (Avon hired Reese Witherspoon to be its “global ambassador”); as emissaries for new products (the luxury goods company Tod’s is using Gwyneth Paltrow to introduce a new handbag); or as fresh faces to reinvigorate an aging product (Ms. Kidman for Chanel No. 5).

After Chanel signed Ms. Kidman in 2003 to a high-end campaign, which included a mini-movie commercial shot by the film director Baz Luhrmann, global sales of Chanel’s classic perfume have jumped 30 percent, according to Euromonitor. Likewise, sales in Nike’s golf division jumped smartly after the company hired Tiger Woods as a spokesman. (Nike declined to offer specific sales data.)

Such results aren’t lost on other companies.

“Our primary goal is to tell our clients how beautifully this product is made, and to have a person like Gwyneth wear it is the perfect way to create the magic touch,” says Claudio Castiglioni, general manager of Tod’s.

Mr. Stoute says companies need help forming alliances with performers in order to reach fast-growing young Hispanic and urban markets.

“You get corporations and artists in the same room, and the conversation doesn’t align,” Mr. Stoute says. “It’s like Mars and Jupiter.”

The bigger risk for corporations, however, is spending tons of money on a celebrity and a glitzy campaign and not getting results.

Angelina Jolie doesn’t do many endorsement deals, but she did agree to one for the upscale clothier St. John Knits. Analysts say she wasn’t the right fit for St. John, which had hoped that she would revamp its conservative image. The company declined to comment on the ads.

Besides trying to carefully match a brand with a celebrity, some corporations say they also value exclusivity.

“We can’t stop them from signing other endorsements,” says Geralyn R. Breig, Avon’s global brand president, who was involved in bringing on Ms. Witherspoon last year. “But we didn’t want our spokesperson to be someone who was deal-happy.”

Jeff Straughn rocks back and forth in his office chair, chugging coffee as he describes the challenge he faced three years ago when he left a Madison Avenue ad agency to join the Island Def Jam record label with a new mandate: carve out branding deals with corporations that will raise the visibility of Island Def Jam artists.

Among his first assignments: a young vocalist who had been signed to the label by Jay-Z, then Def Jam’s chief executive, and whose first album was about to be released: Rihanna.

“Here was a girl that no one was quite sure how to pronounce her name and quite a few people didn’t know where Barbados was,” he says. “But we knew we had a pop superstar here.”

What better way to drum up interest in Rihanna among teenagers than a shopping mall tour? As luck would have it, the Secret brand of Procter & Gamble was looking to introduce a new body spray and wanted to align the campaign with an emerging singer.

Secret ended up sponsoring a 12-city mall tour for Rihanna, financing various production costs and creating a MySpace site where fans could get tickets for the shows.

While her first concert attracted about 250 people, Rihanna was drawing crowds of 2,500 when the tour closed. A star — and a pitchwoman — were being born.

Mr. Straughn and Rihanna’s managers, meanwhile, actively negotiated other deals, including one with the Barbados Tourism Authority, which used portions of a video for one of Rihanna’s early songs in television ads.

Eight months after her debut album, Rihanna released a second album, whose hit song “S.O.S.” prompted a deal with Nike. Rihanna shot a separate music video for the song, singing and dancing in a high school gym in a new line of Nike fitness dance clothes.

She also did deals with J. C. Penney and Nokia, then with a juice and tea company, Fuze. Rihanna featured Fuze drinks in one of her videos, and the company put six-foot-tall displays of the singer in grocery stores.

While Rihanna was paid for some of her work, the endorsements were intended to raise her visibility, push her music — and her brand — in new ways to consumers, and perhaps save the record label some marketing expenses.

BY the time Rihanna was on the verge of releasing her third album, “Good Girl Gone Bad,” the offers for endorsement and licensing deals were flying in, Mr. Straughn says. Not all were good fits for the singer, who was trying to reach an older audience with the album.

“We said no to so many deals,” says Marc Jordan, one of her managers. “Either the fit wasn’t right — it was more about a check than extending Rihanna’s brand — or there was a disconnect between the brand and Rihanna.”

Despite the desire to reduce marketing costs, Mr. Straughn says he can’t push Rihanna or any of Def Jam’s other artists into doing endorsement deals they don’t want to do. He notes that many artists, like the Killers, don’t want to take part in any endorsement deals.

For her part, Rihanna has been a branding machine — though she says that she has grown more wary of overexposure.

“We started out trying to get everything we could and now we have to be a little more selective,” she says. “We have to hold back a little bit. It’s a good thing to have to say we can take things back a little bit.”

Last spring, she completed her deal with Totes, which was her first licensing arrangement. Meanwhile, CoverGirl, which planned a print ad and related campaigns for the singer and its Wetslicks lip gloss, was persuaded by Rihanna’s representatives to do a commercial as well.

CoverGirl executives saw a chance to connect their new product seamlessly to a megahit song.

“I knew in my gut that this was going to be a hit,” says Vince Hudson, marketing director for CoverGirl North America. “Def Jam needed to have promotion of her album, and CoverGirl wanted the product to be associated with the hot song. It was a win-win.”

As part of the promotion, CoverGirl allowed consumers to download the “Umbrella” video on its Web site and put displays in stores near its Fruit Spritzers product that allowed consumers to push a button to hear the song.

Mr. Straughn says Rihanna provides a good example of how the recording business is changing and how artists and brands can successfully wed without either feeling as if they’ve lost themselves. Rihanna, he crows, “is my single biggest success story.”

Earlier this year, P.& G. provided a glimpse into what the future of celebrity-branded advertising may look like: it’s creating a joint-venture record label with Island Def Jam.

The venture, called Tag Records, is headed up by the record producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri and will sign on new artists who, along with Mr. Dupri, will be the faces of P.& G.’s Tag body spray lines. (Aspiring artists hoping to get noticed will be able to upload their music to the Tag Web site, P.& G. says.)

“Our plan is to fully integrate and merge the music and the marketing for the new Tag body sprays that we have out there,” says Adam Weber, P.& G.’s brand manager for Tag. “This is different than the typical endorsement deal that has a start and end date. This is going to be ongoing throughout their entire career. The message becomes one and the same at some point between Tag and the artist.”

So are there any limits to what celebrities can endorse, or how far the celebrity pitch could go? Mr. Stoute briefly considers the question before jumping up and grabbing a framed front page from a newspaper.

“See that?” he asks, pointing to the picture in the center of the page, showing a General Motors S.U.V. in a metallic blue concept color that Jay-Z helped to design. “That’s Jay-Z blue! We invented a color! There are no limits. There is no such thing as too far.”


Julie Creswell, The New York Times. June 22, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.