Crafting a Celebrity Image for Tough Times

Flash is out, substance is in as consumers evolve.

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Flash is out, substance is in.

This story first appeared in the February 4, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Celebrity endorsers won’t go the way of dinosaurs in this recession-driven shakeout, but consumers are likely to be seeing more famous faces — with a heightened online presence — that convey a degree of seriousness, either through the projects they pursue, the charities they support or the lifestyles they lead.

“You’ve got celebrity names today that consumers love who aren’t over-the-top, flamboyant celebs,” said Gerry Philpott, chief executive officer of E-Poll Market Research, a celebrity research firm based in Los Angeles.

The public’s appetite for party girls such as Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie has waned, and interest in more down-to-earth types has increased. Philpott cited research showing heightened consumer interest in young mothers such as Jennifer Garner, and actresses who give the appearance of leading more low-key lifestyles, including Halle Berry, Reese Witherspoon and Jodie Foster.

“They’re more grounded; they set the tone,” he said. “It’s less decadence, more responsibility.”

That theme echoes President Obama’s inauguration speech and his subsequent statements about excesses on Wall Street.

People don’t want fluff, they want real,” said Nathalie Moar, director of celebrity and branding at Marilyn Agency, which has offices in New York and Paris and places models and celebrities with fashion brands. “It’s because of the shift in the economy. It’s why Obama was elected. Everything is shifting in the way we communicate to audiences.”

Whatever the economic climate, from luxury names to mass brands, “it’s all about influence. Celebs will always drive fashion and interest in products or style,” Philpott said. “That’s always going to be the case. It’s just a matter of who. That’s what changes over time.”

The desire of consumers to identify with the down-to-earth types doesn’t mean some brands are shying away from edgy campaigns. In other words, moms can be hot.

Several spring-summer 2009 campaigns featuring celebrities speak to these points. Mothers such as Katie Holmes, Madonna and Victoria Beckham have been tapped for provocative ads for Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and Emporio Armani, respectively. Models are out in force, too: Claudia Schiffer appears for Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana. And Kate Moss appears in the latest advertisements from Stella McCartney, Versace, Just Cavalli and accessories firm Longchamp.

“The belief that celebrities will no longer have any relevance in a down economy is silly and historically inaccurate,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University. “You don’t go from making $60,000 a year to $0 a year and not like Angelina Jolie anymore. Your time to engage in that interest may change, but the interest itself does not.”

“No one is ever uninterested in glamour — or glamorous people,” Thompson added.

In the beauty sector, the glamour and down-to-earth quotient is reflected in celebrities such as Diane Keaton (L’Oréal), Eva Longoria Parker (L’Oréal), Tim McGraw (Coty) and Drew Barrymore (Procter & Gamble/Cover Girl), all of whom have been matched with brands for their latest ad campaigns. And in September, Procter & Gamble announced the new face of Cover Girl and Olay Simply Ageless Foundation: Ellen DeGeneres. Ads began rolling out last month.

“Ellen is smart, confident, natural and beautiful from the inside out,” said Esi Eggleston Bracey, vice president and general manager, global cosmetics, Procter & Gamble. “Of course, she’s also extremely funny and absolutely unique, which keeps her approachable and real. At 50, she tells us she’s at the best age of her life so far, and our consumer embraces this perspective.”

For its holiday campaign, Sears chose to convey how gifts celebrities received during childhood helped lead them to their careers. Ty Pennington (toolbox), LL Cool J (turntables) and Vanessa Hudgens (tap shoes) were all featured.

“Using celebrities can be a real proof point,” said Bill Kiss, Sears’ divisional vice president of program development. “If you have an idea, you can’t just buy a celebrity and put them next to your product. When you can connect the dots between what you’re about, what you’re selling and what that celebrity has to say, you can put together a great advertisement.”

During periods of economic hardship, experts said staying relevant is essential.

“Choosing a celebrity for your brand — it can’t be a forced association,” the Marilyn Agency’s Moar said. “People want authenticity nowadays. And authenticity, particularly in luxury goods and high fashion, has always been important — but it’s even more so now.”

Sears’ Kiss agreed: “The consumer is a much more sophisticated, scrutinizing one.…From a general perspective, a celebrity partnership with a retail or fashion brand is getting to a more sophisticated level. Gone are the days of putting athlete X in front of product Y and hope they’ll come. Consumers are more savvy than that.”

Online is a key destination where retail, fashion and beauty brands are enhancing their marketing strategies in order to speak to these savvier consumers.

Carlstadt, N.J.-based Southpole, a junior sportswear brand that has worked with celebrities such as Ciara and Nick Cannon, said it plans an Internet contest in which consumers will select the next face of the label, alongside the season eight winner of “America’s Next Top Model,” Jaslene Gonzalez.

“We really wanted to try a different marketing initiative,” said spokeswoman Nivia Prescod. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘How can we find new ways to get our presence out there?’ Everyone realizes how strong it is to have an online presence. This contest gave us direct contact with our customers.”

She noted that fans of the brand have wanted to be part of its campaigns, so the company decided a contest in which people can vote for the next face would speak to them.

Other celebrity-focused brands are venturing online. The Milan-based Tod’s site features a behind-the-scenes look at it latest ad campaign featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. Late last year, Gucci also released an online film with Rihanna to celebrate its launch of the Gucci Tattoo Heart Collection campaign to benefit UNICEF.

“Brands in a downturn market need to stay relevant and have a connection to their customer. They’re looking for ways to get more bang for the buck, so they have started to change the way they feature celebrities,” Moar said.

In addition to the online shift, she pointed out that celebrities and brands can strike up other deals, especially if the relationship is solid. For example, Hayden Panettiere designed a limited edition handbag for accessories brand Dooney & Burke.

“To reach your consumer, you have to go to where your consumer lives,” said James Grant, ceo of Starworks, which connects fashion clients with Hollywood celebrities.

Creating online content is exciting for these brands, he noted — and for the talent, because it’s a living, moving thing. “Yes, something can jump off of a page, but when something is interactive, consumers are living through it.”

Grant emphasized the continuing importance of print and television campaigns, but “online is a medium where brands need to be reaching their consumers.”

As for the year’s outlook, budgets are being cut or at least reevaluated. Lucky Brand Jeans, the Liz Claiborne Inc.-owned denim maker, has eliminated its magazine ad budget this season and is focusing on the Internet and store events to raise awareness for the brand.

Although Grant did not comment on actual deals and compensation involving celebrities and brands, he said, “The global economy is impacting every facet, whether you’re shopping in a supermarket or you’re buying a car or you’re in the market for a celebrity. The anticipation is that budgets will come down.”

Said Philpott: “They’re all reevaluating budgets. Everyone is walking very carefully right now. I think there’s going to be more of a magnifying glass on what brands spend for celebrity tie-ins. ”


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