Matchmakers pair stars with brands
Posted July 3, 2012
Hollywood types are peddling everything from fast-food eateries and reverse mortgages to adult diapers and margarine these days.
What's going on?
While ad campaigns overseas have featured many American A-listers, such as Brad Pitt for the Japanese company Softbank, George Clooney for Honda and Gwyneth Paltrow for Coach, it seems like bigger-name stars are trying to sell more products and services domestically.
Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones is the spokesman for financial-planning service Ameriprise. Salma Hayek was trying to sell us on Burger King. Clint Eastwood promoted Chrysler during the Super Bowl. And who hasn't seen Jamie Lee Curtis pushing Activia yogurt?
In the past, it seemed to be almost taboo to see an "artist" do a sales job. U.S. celebrities have typically leaned toward "endorsements outside of the U.S. so that if something was going wrong or if the message was spread out in the wrong way, this wouldn't really resonate in their home country," says Renaud Skalli, head of artist and label relations at My Love Affair a Paris-based international agency dedicated to pairing world-famous musicians and companies for branding opportunities.
Melissa Gilbert, who runs Los Angeles' Celebrity Link, which matches brands with celebrities, says domestic campaigns are becoming more accpetable.
Gilbert, whose projects have included matching Chris Noth with Glenfiddich Scotch whisky and Kristin Chenoweth with Bulova watches, says, "It's just been a natural progression of what's acceptable in society, and there's no stigma where there used to be a stigma before in regards to doing a commercial. You know, (the idea that) doing a commercial, what does that mean? It means I'm not as serious about my craft, or whatever the perception had been … We're just not there anymore."
But how does the celebrity brand marketing campaign work?
It all starts with the brand itself, says Skalli. The brand client has a product, possibly an idea of the direction of their ad campaign and then his agency is off and running.
Gilbert describes a similar process. "The advertising agency or brand will contact me and say, 'Look, I want want X.' And they either have the budget or they don't." That certain Celebrity X, Gilbert continues, "wants to do it or she doesn't. And then my job is to get the criteria … whatever it is. … If they don't want a specific person, there's criteria. You name it. I put a list together."
Skalli's company recently teamed Lenny Kravitz's Kravitz Design with a European brand of restaurants called Sushi Shop. The brand approached Skalli's company because it wanted to do something special for the opening of its first U.S. venue, Skalli says.
Skalli wanted to find a star who could spread the "Sushi Shop message out in a way that's unexpected, new and very strong. So we thought of Lenny, which was an idea that the brand loved," he says.
Kravitz loved the idea, and with Skalli designed the NYC Box, a box of sushi with a Kravitz-designed logo. "So on the day that the U.S. restaurant was launched in early April, the NYC Box came out on the U.S. market at the same time as it came out on the French market," where the brand has a strong presence.
Skalli summarizes the process: "It was about the brand coming to us. Us having the idea and proposing to the brand the idea of working with Lenny. And then reaching out to Lenny, making sure this was something he'd be interested in doing. And then making the campaign happen."
So why Kravitz?
"First of all, the brand was born in France," Skalli says. "It was about to reach out to the U.S. for the first time. When you think of Lenny, who was born in New York but who's lived many years in Paris, he's got this double connection so he reaches out to both targets. The other great thing about Lenny is he's very much into design and very much into art in general. When you think of designing or drawing something on a limited line of product, you couldn't come up with anyone better than him really."
But if there isn't anyone specific who might be at the top of the brand's radar, the celebrity endorsement matchmakers really do come into play.
Gilbert explains, "It's my job to put the right people on the list. Because a lot of the time, the brand doesn't know the personality or isn't familiar with whatever show someone is from. They're depending on me to tell them why that person is right."
Skalli explains, "It's really about finding someone who can organically and genuinely connect with the product. Many of the celebrity endorsements that you see around most of the time are very much only built on the actual fact that the person is a celebrity. We tend to try and look at it in a different way. We try to make sure that when a celebrity gets involved; it makes sense for the celebrity as well," Skalli says.
Connecting with a brand and its potential consumers is key. Janet Jackson, who is a spokeswoman for Nutrisystem, is open about her struggles with weight. "I think people really connect with the idea of someone who's gained and lost weight in a very public way, and also someone who's an emotional eater," she says in the July issue of Prevention magazine.
But sometimes the connection goes wrong. . For example, singer Mary J. Blige is still stinging from a Burger King commercial that leaked in April. She said on New York's Hot 97 radio station in June that she thought doing the ad campaign "would have been … great for a branding opportunity."
In the ad, Blige lists the ingredients in a Chicken Snack Wrap — fresh lettuce, ranch dressing, etc. — to the tune of her song Don't Mind.
She was immediately criticized for playing into African-American stereotypes about fried chicken, and the fast-food chain quickly pulled the commercial, citing music licensing issues. Soon after, the company issued a public apology to Blige.
And she did the same on the radio show. "I want to apologize to everyone that was offended or thought that I would do something so disrespectful to our culture," Blige told Hot 97. "I would never do anything like that purposefully. I thought I was doing something right. So forgive me, if that hurts you."
You can't just do whatever a brand wants you to do, Skalli says, explaining that's where companies such as his come into play to advise artists of what the repercussions might be of campaigns. "You've got to be looking out for your own career as well."
Finding a match might not be as difficult nowadays. Gilbert says, "There is an increase in celebrities that are willing to do anything these days. Look at Lisa Rinna (for Depend) or if you look at the people that did Poise (Whoopi Goldberg, Kirstie Alley). Years ago, it would never happen. And these days, you're getting people to do it. And there's only two reasons, really: It's because you're passionate about it, or there's a lot of money involved."
Skalli says it hasn't become more expensive to hire a celebrity for a commercial, but that the market has tiers. "For example you have these very high-class celebrities that are over a certain budget and that won't do anything under that budget. Then you've got the vast majority of more celebrities who are in the music world or actors and actresses who are still in the same budget range. It's more and more about the product" or service for many of them, he says.
Gilbert agrees that just because a celebrity is getting paid to sell something, "It doesn't mean they're not passionate about it."
It's all about mutual benefits. Skalli says, no matter how many millions of records an artist might have sold, they would be likely to consider how teaming up with a brand might boost their career and image.
After all, he says, "There's always the money. Commercials do well."
And that's where the line between passion and money blurs. Gilbert says, "I don't think the public isn't aware that people get paid for commercials."
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