Clueless Or Subtly Strategic? What Brands Can Learn From Wayward Celebrities

by , Feb 29, 2008, 5:00 AM
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Is it possible that corporations and their brands can learn something useful from the seemingly clueless 20-something celebrities like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse?

If you doubt the effectiveness of their branding strategies, ask yourself how these young women can continually embarrass themselves, endanger the work product that made them famous, flirt with disaster, hospitalization and even death, and yet still manage to make the front page of glossy magazines and be hired as brand ambassadors-not to mention pull down millions in private equity to start up their own product lines?

These disaster-prone celebrities translate the simple act of buying coffee, pushing a baby carriage or shopping for sweatpants into a sought-after, hyper-analyzed and Web-immortalized media moment. What innate branding secrets do these seemingly clueless celebrities posses? Most importantly, what lessons can we adopt in our quest to elevate the cultural currency of our own brands? Here are eight key lessons:

1. Hire a great stylist. A great stylist elevated Lindsay Lohan from Disney Teen Queen to favorite of Karl Lagerfeld, and Nicole Ritchie from "stripper casual" to red-carpet tastemaker. Regrettably, Britney hasn't mastered this lesson yet. And consumer brands with great stylists are winning more market share. Heineken Premium Light, which looks as chic and stylish as a cocktail, became the beer of last summer as soon as it launched. This "diva in a bottle" used a sexy, minimalist approach and found its way into the hottest, A-level social establishments. And, despite its engineering and service problems, Apple's iPhone proved that design always triumphs over function.

2. As much as we like a good train wreck, consumers love a great comeback. Our young celebrities know that the only narrative sure to generate more publicity than bottoming out in rehab, an unwanted pregnancy or jail time is a personal turnaround. Martha Stewart has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the publicity, and sympathy, her jail stint for tax evasion generated. Nintendo was considered down and out by the hard-core gaming audience after the ascent of Sony PlayStation, but Nintendo reinvented itself-and the gaming category as a whole-with the Wii. Al Gore is another great example. His Q score bottomed out after his election defeat, but thanks to his shape-shifting embrace of environmentalism, he is more popular, hip and influential than at any time in his career. His branding went from stiff Washington wonk to MySpace-friendly eco-dude.

3. Expand your talent profile-be a double/triple threat. Today's celebs are not content to flaunt their talents in just one discipline. Every B-level actor is also a director, producer, online entrepreneur or owner of a clothing or fragrance line. Today's brands are following suit. Game consoles like Xbox are no longer satisfied to be single-use devices and now play movies and provide a gateway to the digital home. Mobile phones are multimedia platforms and PC rivals. Beverages are energy drinks. Books are being outfitted with CDs and DVDs and web portals.

4. Drastically downsize. One strategy that never fails to draw an outside share of attention is to dramatically downsize, with celebs ideally dropping below 100 pounds and inviting the inevitable gossip about eating disorders. The Olsen Twins went from being sitcom has-beens and straight-to-video actresses to Page Six "It Girls" with the increasing momentum of every pound lost. This can work for brands, too. The iPod Nano, the Blackberry Pearl, the Mini-Cooper, digital cameras-smaller means smarter, hotter and buzzier.

5. Get caught with another sexy brand. If one sexy celebrity is good, two is better. It worked brilliantly for Brangelina and Bennifer, even if neither partnership lasted. As for brands, when Nike teamed up with Apple to form Nike +, it nabbed a Grand Prix at Cannes. And many retailers and fashion brands are discovering the power of two. Whether it's Kohl's teaming up with Vera Wang or Stella McCartney and Adidas, brand marriages are hot.

6. Adopt a cause. Paul Newman transformed the celebrity-as-change-agent concept in 1982, setting the gold standard for celeb philanthropy and social change. Now, just about every celebrity, even those prone to appearing in sex tapes, is fighting to save the environment, feed and clothe refugees, or rescue Third World children. Of course, individual brands, as well as their corporate parents, are also trying to reap the benefit of enlightened citizenship by joining (RED). Some corporations are using eco-initiatives to re-brand themselves, like BP. Ironically, because everyone in the world is going green, it's even harder to stand out amid all the foliage.

7. Develop an icon rather than a tag line. We're moving into a post-literate world. The hottest celebs are one-note caricatures who need no explanation-Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton are sex bombs, Amy Winehouse is a crazy beehive, Britney is bottomless. Advertising is becoming increasingly iconographic. The hippest brands have unmistakable visual IDs-the one-bite Apple logo, the Target bull's-eye, the Nike swoosh. But mature brands can transform themselves into leading players by finding an icon or symbol that illuminates their brand personalities, like Geico and the gekko, or Staples and the Easy Button. These symbols translate across all media platforms.

8. Parody means popularity. In defiance of the old cliché about all publicity being good publicity, brands are terrified and paranoid about negative PR. But the more Paris and Britney are ridiculed and photographed in flagrante delicto, the more successful and desirable they become. Most major brands know they've become household words when they see their TV commercials parodied on "Saturday Night Live" and YouTube. Comedians like Jay Leno have had a field day writing jokes that end with the familiar punch-line, "Got Milk?" The fact that its two-word tag line is part of the cultural vernacular shows how far even a mundane commodity like milk can go as a brand.

In a real-time, 24/7, blogger-driven universe, celebrities and brands are learning that the conversation with consumers never stops. And, if there is a period of quiet, then it's time to push the panic button. Lori Senecal is general manager of McCann Erickson, New York. You can reach her at lori.senecal@mccann.com.

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