Key to understanding how celebrities are brands is an appreciation of the way in which the celebrity is a different entity to the person who gives his name to it. This in fact, mirrors precisely the way in which a company, product or organization is separate from the brand that relates to it.
Take Real Madrid and former Manchester United star footballer, David Beckham. When people follow him in a celebrity magazine, they are not by and large interested in the human being with the name David Beckham. Rather, they are interested in the media icon, the freely-available public face, the thing with which the wider community has a relationship: and this is the brand.
Clearly, David Beckham the brand and David Beckham the man are two different entities – the former existing in our heads, and the latter on the football pitch. So a celebrity is somehow ‘bigger’ than the flesh and blood that provides its figurehead, and the brand encompasses much more than the person who gives his name to it.
Like corporate brands, celebrities are usually owned by someone or something – but the relationship between person and celebrity brand is frequently not one of total ownership. In this respect, David Beckham is fortunate. David Beckham the man is part of an effective management team running the David Beckham brand. (Indeed it is often suggested that Mrs. Beckham is one of the key drivers of the David Beckham brand, having learnt about image creation from her days in the girl band the Spice Girls.) But at least David Beckham is the majority shareholder in his brand.
Unfortunately for many other celebrities this is not always the case. In a recent interview, one of the singers with the UK girl band Atomic Kitten announced that she was “just back from maternity leave.” Comments like this remind us that while such frontspeople may indeed have achieved fleeting celebrity status, they are merely employees of the business that has produced the brand – alongside the spindoctors, researchers and writers that remain behind the scenes.
Again the same is true in the corporate world, where brands and brand-owners don’t necessarily coincide. There are plenty of examples where franchising, shared ownership, licensing, and the sale of brands to new owners can separate brands and companies – even if they have the same name. BMW makes cars called Rolls-Royce; while Rolls-Royce doesn’t even make cars. Most McDonald’s restaurants are owned by independent operators, while McDonald’s Corporation owns stake in several other food outlets. Kangol clothes and Carhartt tops aren’t made by the companies of the same name; but the Caterpillar name appears on other people’s boots. Jimmy Choo shoes aren’t made by Jimmy Choo, Gucci isn’t a person and Skoda cars are made by Volkswagen. The relationship between brands and businesses is anything but simple.
Certain celebrity brands seem unlikely to ever change hands – like Madonna, a brand owner so closely involved in her brand that it is hard to imaginer her ever walking away from it. But celebrity figureheads who feel little affiliation with their brand – particularly those who are “just employees” – don’t tend to stick around. Few are surprised when the last month’s girl or boy band is deserted by its singers, and one suspects that the singers with Atomic Kitten won’t stay for too long even if the management company makes them rich.
Another similarity between celebrity brands and their corporate counterparts is that those who own celebrity brands use many of the same techniques to manage and enhance their standing. Perhaps one of the more subtle techniques favored by celebrities is a form of “positioning by association,” such as that practiced by our friend David Beckham.
Beckham has developed his celebrity not just on the back of playing football, but by aligning his brand with high fashion products and associating himself with the “bling bling” lifestyle of royalty, pop stars and designers. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that much of his pay negotiations with Manchester United were not about his payment as a footballer, but for his image rights – for which he claimed he was worth many more than comparable footballers. A successful brand indeed.
In more extreme circumstances, there are countless examples of celebrities extending their brands. A particular favorite of today’s celebrities is clothing (think Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta Jones or Michael Jordan), while other popular sideways moves include vineyards (Cliff Richard, Greg Norman) or airlines (Nikki Lauda). Even David Beckham is at it with his latest venture being the DB clothing range, which he allegedly co-designed, introduced into UK retailer Marks & Spencer.
Apart from self-indulgence, there are two good business cases for celebrity brand extensions – as indeed there are in the business world. The first benefit of brand extension is that it enables the brand owner to open new revenue streams. A footballer reaches his peak in his 30s, and as David Beckham seems unlikely to enter alternative employment such as journalism, management or training, his recent moves into modeling, hosting parties and sponsorship provide a suitable alternative. The second benefit of brand extension is that it also enables the core brand to introduce new attributes. We’ve already seen that David Beckham’s association with high fashion has helped to differentiate him – something that he couldn’t achieve with his footballing skills alone.
In the corporate world, it is a general rule of thumb that brands where the extension contributes greater value than the core product ultimately tend to fail. Pierre Cardin is often cited as an example of an over-extended brand, which lost credibility for exactly this reason. When there were more extensions and diffusion lines than core product, the brand almost collapsed. The same problem was true for Gucci, and the subsequent success of that brand under new management is usually attributed to reigning in these licensing agreements. By analogy, if David Beckham does too many non-footballing activities, of if Jennifer Lopez launches too many clothing lines, one suspects that they will no longer be taken seriously in their day jobs.
In a recent FT interview, Robert Bensoussan, CEO of luxury footwear brand Jimmy Choo, wisely observed, “Licensing is a bad thing if over-exploited. We don’t want to do toilet covers.”
In the business field, many observers criticize the Virgin brand for over extension and the same criticism can be justly leveled at celebrities. But with Virgin as with Beckham, the brand’s stretchability seems to confound its critics. One wonders what will happen when David Beckham finally leaves football – an equivalent step perhaps to Virgin quitting the airline industry with the consequential loss of glamour, prestige and respectability.
To those who follow American pop music, Jennifer Lopez will also prompt associations with another characteristic popular among corporate brands: the rebrand or brand refreshment. Jennifer Lopez changed her name to J.Lo in an attempt to appear more street. But she is not alone. While David Beckham’s brand management has been relatively subtle, singers like Tom Jones, Madonna and Prince are well-known for reinventing themselves to keep up with changing fashions and tastes, and many businesses could do well to follow their example; not necessarily by changing their name, but by reappraising their behavior or their products to ensure they don’t fall behind.
With celebrities as with corporations, the trick to successful repositioning is to remain recognizable – still true to an essential set of values for instance – without falling behind customer requirements or market demands. The frequently-cited case study of Kodak’s early failure to embrace digital photography was nearly fatal for the company – but could have been addressed without altering the company’s fundamental principles.
A danger that any repositioning exercise must avoid is that of changing appearance without altering substance. The jury may be still out on the rebranding of Britain’s high street bank, Abbey National, but many cynics have already observed that a new logotype and name (“The Abbey”) does not by itself signify real change. Celebrities too cannot afford to merely change the packaging – Tom Jones is back in the charts not because of his youthful plastic surgery, but because he is relevant again – appearing in new films, singing with contemporary musicians and experimenting with more modern musical styles.
Finally, in a world that brought us TV shows that celebrate the image-makers’ art – such as American Idol or Fame Academy – our thoughts turn to the implications of so-called manufactured celebrity. In business as in popular culture, some brands are created by their founders (The Beatles, Oasis, Coca-Cola, easyJet, WalMart). Others are the result of careful testing, marketing research and consumer insight (Atomic Kitten, The Monkees, Orange, Powerade).
While so-called manufactured celebrities can be easily targeted to potential consumers, their potential weakness stems from the lack of stories behind them. This parallels “coined” versus “organic” brands from the corporate world, where brands like HSBC or Citibank can play on many years of history, while newer financial providers such as Egg or www.Smile.co.uk often have to work harder to be taken seriously.
Although musical purists bemoan the lack of depth in manufactured music, in the corporate world artificial and organic brands provide us with both good and bad examples. There’s no simple answer, nor a readily-identifiable trend – since, for every Coca-Cola there’s a whole host of brilliant inventions doomed to failure due to poor brand management; and for every brand consultant’s success like Orange, thousands of other coined brands will never fly outside of Soho or Madison Avenue.
One thing is clear. Celebrities may well function like brands; and brands like celebrities. But however well we understand them, neither will cease to fascinate and entertain.