The inherent upside of attaching a celebrity to a brand is that the brand literally has a face, name and personality that immediately projects an image of a living, breathing, credible person as opposed to a faceless corporate entity. The downside is that individuals are not as stable or as easily controllable as corporate entities. As fame comes and goes, so goes the brand.
But when the star is ascending, the idea is to capitalize on the glamour of celebrity by selling a piece of the dream. Jennifer Lopez sells music, movies, clothes and perfume bearing her name. Céline Dion sells music, Las Vegas shows and perfume. The brands are aspirational and literally sell the fairy-tale like qualities of the celebrity and his/her life.
“What is a celebrity but a projected image? To use that projected image to sell products and brands that are consistent with whom they want to project is a very smart thing,” says Rita Tateel, who has worked with celebrities for over twenty years as president of the Celebrity Source in Beverly Hills.
Smart indeed and revenue is the proof. Legend has it that Tommy Hilfiger’s clothing brand enjoyed a US$ 100 million sales climb over a one year period after rapper Snoop Dogg appeared clothed in a Hilfiger logo rugby shirt on television program “Saturday Night Live." The dramatic sales coup and successful partnership with music celebrities was largely attributed to Tommy Hilfiger’s brother, Andy Hilfiger. In 2001, Andy Hilfiger went on to work with celebrities who wanted to create fashion companies based on their own image. First recruit? None other than Jennifer Lopez.
For those who haven’t heard, Jennifer Lopez, also known as J. Lo, has earned unprecedented success as a music and acting phenom, including a debut album that went five times platinum and a commanding salary of over $12 million a film. She is easily one of the most talked, photographed and written about celebrities for fashion trends in the US.
J. Lo’s first perfume “Glow by J. Lo,” released in 2002, was an instant hit among 15 to 21 year old females – the same group who buy her albums. While no exact figures are public, in early January 2003, industry observers estimated that her fragrance sales totaled $44 million in the scent’s first four months.
As of March 2004, Britney Spears and cosmetics maker Elizabeth Arden Inc. are hoping to repeat similar success with a fragrance from Spears that will, like J. Lo, be linked to the pop princess’ name. The planned fragrance marks Britney Spears’ debut in the fragrance/cosmetics category.
Of course the inherent downside to a celebrity-name brand is that when the name is no longer the public’s darling or encounters personal problems and/or scandals, the brand has a much tougher time convincing the public that the "name's" current problems do not reflect on the brand's name itself. Martha Stewart’s empire knows this problem all too well.
On March 5, American guru of all things household Martha Stewart was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements in connection with the sale of her shares of ImClone Systems in 2001. She has been the target of much negative publicity and jokes since the allegations first appeared in 2002. Now she faces jail time, heavy fines, or both.
Not only are consumer sales down, advertisers abandoned Martha’s flagship magazine, some television affiliates have dropped her television show, which is based on the magazine, and the future relationship between Martha Stewart products and Kmart is highly uncertain due to royalty disputes and her conviction.
Last fall Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, already struggling with huge revenue losses, launched a new food magazine called Everyday Food. It features no traces of the Martha Stewart name or her image. The strategy illustrates Omnimedia's efforts to lessen its dependence on Stewart's name and face to power the company's magazines, books and TV shows. But survival of the brand is highly questionable.
“If your brand isn’t trusted you’ve got [a] problem. No amount of niceness will change the fact that you don’t trust someone,” says a spokesperson at CMM, a celebrity booking and crisis management agency based in the UK. “Time and again products and companies have been re-branded when there is a lack of trust [or some other issue involved]; you forget the original problem. With the Martha Stewart brand, that’s not possible.”
“I feel very strongly that it’s not just dishonesty [that’s a problem], it’s lack of information and making the appearance that you’re hiding something. I think that’s the worst thing you can do if you’re in the public eye: you’re accused of something and don’t immediately respond. That was one of the worst things with Martha Stewart, being advised to keep quiet and not say anything,” adds Celebrity Source’s Tateel.
According to press reports, Omnimedia recognized from the start of its brand that there were risks in being linked to one personality. In its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, one of its "risk factors" listed for the company as it went public read: "Our business would be adversely affected if [...] Martha Stewart's public image or reputation were to be tarnished." The company also took out a $ 67 million insurance policy on her life (Washington Post, March 7, 2004).
But is it impossible to save a brand if the personality is sinking? In some cases a tarnished and even violent past hasn’t impacted the brand at all – it may even add to the mystique. A slew of hip hop artists from 50 Cent to Eve have or are turning their urban images into lifestyle brands. P. Diddy (a.k.a., Sean Combs), saw his five-year-old Sean John fashion label bring in $400 million in retail sales in 2003. A women's collection and fragrance are also planned. At Federated, one of the biggest department store chains in the US, Sean John occupies 153,000 square feet of floor space -- making it the store's third-largest player in menswear, behind Polo and Tommy Hilfiger.
Not bad considering Combs was arrested in 1999 for assaulting a record executive, and tried in 2001 on gun possession and bribery charges related to a 1999 shooting at a Manhattan nightclub (where he'd been with then-girlfriend J. Lo). He was acquitted of the gun and bribery charges after a highly publicized trial. Since then, he and his team have worked hard to tame his bad boy image by tying his name respectably to the business community and engaging in philanthropic works, including running the New York City Marathon to raise money for the city's public schools.
“As long as the brand fits the demographic of what your target market is. If you’re a bad girl or a bad boy, as long as the brand or service is trying to attract that core demographic, you’re in business,” commented CMM’s spokesperson.
“There’s the old saying that there is no bad publicity as long as they spell your name right, and to a certain degree I think that is true,” adds Tateel. “Such as the Janet Jackson situation” – where Jackson’s breast display during the American Superbowl halftime caused a burst of publicity – “while there was such negative press about it, the reality is it did exactly what it set out to do – which was it sold records. It got extra publicity for her. There was evidence after the Super Bowl incident that hits on the website and on album sites and the number of albums sold increased.” (Jackson’s new CD, “Damita Jo,” wasn’t yet released at press time. However, on February 5, it was reported by Rankforsales.com that Jackson and the event became the most searched-for event in Lycos history. According to Google, users searched for “Janet Jackson” almost 10 times more the day after the Super Bowl than the previous day.)
The price of fame may be high for celebrities turned brands, but they still have what both Wall Street and the everyday Joe want: attention, power and a star sizzle. How long the money keeps rolling in before the star falls is anyone’s guess.