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Gimmick or Gold Mine, 'Creative Director' Brand Craze Adds Timberlake to Ranks

Posted by Sheila Shayon on February 8, 2013 03:24 PM

The list reads like a Who’s Who of A-list celebrities: Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, Swizz Beatz, will.i.am. But it's not a concert bill.

Instead, it's a list of stars who have recently agreed to serve as creative directors for brands — a trend that seems to blur the lines between star bling and business acumen.

Bud Light Platinum is the latest, announcing this week that it's inked deal with Justin Timberlake “to provide creative, musical and cultural curation for the brand.” The collaboration is to debut at Sunday’s 55th Grammy Awards via an ad, "Platinum Night," which features his latest single, "Suit & Tie." "Bud Light Platinum brings a refined, discerning aesthetic to beer that plays well with what I'm doing," Timberlake stated in a press release.

Brandchannel began noting the trend in 2010 when Ashton Kutcher was named Popchips' first "president of pop culture," taking a minority stake in the company (and two years later appearing in an ill-conceived campaign). "Listen, I'm going to eat these chips anyway," Kutcher said. "If I can, why not actually own a piece of the company? As my image is being leveraged, I am participating in the upside." (Katy Perry also recently announced her own flavor of the chip, and played a role in the packaging.)

Also in 2010, Spice Girl turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham was hired by Range Rover as its creative director to bring her stylish imprimatur to a limited edition Evoque.

That same year, Polaroid bestowed the title of creative director upon Lady Gaga, who also acquired an undisclosed minority stake in the company. “I consider myself to be a visionary, not just a songwriter and a singer. I am an artist," she said in unveiling its Grey Label line of products at the Consumer Electronics Show. "I brought my vision and love of fashion, technology and obsession with the future into all of my work with Polaroid.” (More from her on the partnership here.)

Next came the 2011 appointment of will.i.am as Intel's "director of creative innovation," which Deborah Conrad, its vice president and chief marketing officer, called "a prime example of how we want to convey and deliver the Intel experience." The Black Eyed Peas frontman added: “Nearly everything I do involves processors and computers, and when I see an Intel chip I think of all the creative minds involved that help to amplify my own creativity.” That partnership led to the singer introducing Ultrabooks at 2012 CES.

Some critics questioned the wisdom of such hires. “Does having a celebrity, who doesn't actually have any experience or knowledge about the specific business you're in, as a 'creative director' really make sense?” Mike Mansnick asked on Techdirt. “The idea that these celebrities have 'jobs' as 'creative directors' is just silly. They're not creative directors at all, and it's actually something of an insult to people who actually do have jobs as creative directors.”

In a 2011 Harvard Business Review blog post, Grant McCracken, an anthropologist and cultural observer, asked: “Should corporations have this kind of truck and barter with celebrity culture? Do celebrities create value for the corporation?”

“Plugging our finger into the socket of contemporary culture is bound to make us look a more current, a little less corporate," he wrote. But "celebrities aren't team members. They're celebrities. That means 'take it or leave it.'"

Still, celebrities are continuing to serve as more than mere spokespeople for brands — and not just for the brand's core offerings. Case in point: Pepsi’s recent multimillion-dollar deal with Beyonce leaves ample room for creative input even sans the "creative director" title. For the singer, who has been on the brand's celebrity roster since 2002, the Super Bowl-centric deal is a “true creative and wide-ranging global collaboration,” Pepsi said, while The New York Times noted that its “less conventional aspects... are meant as collaborative projects that indulge Beyoncé’s creative whims, and might well have no explicit connection to Pepsi products.” 

Hot on the heels of this year’s CES, Monster announced that the recording artist Swizz Beatz will join the company's board member after purchasing a co-ownership stake in the company. Noel Lee, creator of the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, said that “the products that we have planned are revolutionary in technology, sound, and style. We need the talents and reach of Swizz to help bring these products to life in the eyes of the consumer.”  

Beatz has also served as a creative director for Reebok, which no doubt inspired his wife, singer Alicia Keys, to consider moonlighting as a creative drector. On January 30, BlackBerry named Keys (who was a self-declared "iPhone junky" only days before) its first "global creative director"... 

...while fashion designer Marc Jacobs and Diet Coke just announced a partnership celebrating the brand’s 30th anniversary in the UK with a Fashion Week collaboration that follows on similar partnerships with Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld...

...and Taylor Swift, recently hired as Diet Coke’s brand face, says she is a loyal fan of the soda and keeps it in her fridge at all times “because it understands me.”  

On Friday, brandchannel asked McCracken to weigh in on the recent crop of "creative director" appointments. His verdict was mixed.

“There's a good and bad here," he said. "The good: celebrities like Beyonce, Timberlake for Bud Light Platinum and Keys may have a deeper feeling for where contemporary culture is going."

"The bad," he said, is that "it's merely an intuition and what these celebs know about branding you could get into a phone booth and still have room for 12 college students. That is to say, they don't know anything about branding and could care less.”

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