NEW YORK — Among St. John’s more controversial moves was the dropping of Kelly Gray in its ad campaigns in favor of Angelina Jolie.

David Lipman, creative director of Lipman, the ad agency that created the campaign, defended the choice of Jolie, and said he believes her strong personality and commitment to helping children around the globe are positive attributes for the brand.

“Angelina stands, today and tomorrow, for a powerful, strong woman with an amazing intellect who cares for human kind and spends so much time giving to people in need,” said Lipman. “She’s the most famous face in Hollywood, and she’s not a child anymore. She’s about to become a mother of three.”

He said Jolie, who has a three-year contract with St. John, wears the brand when she travels around the world. “She likes the fact that she can go to Washington wearing a St. John suit or go to Davos,” said Lipman.

Lipman contended that remaking an image takes time. “It takes three years for an image to set in,” he said. “Advertising should always lead as the fantasy of the brand and the ultimate expression of the brand. Then everything moves along with it. That’s why to look at [it] today is not being a visionary.”

“I think the brand is moving in the right direction,” he added. “It’s an incredible amount of hard work. It always has to stay true ‘to the lady’ and ‘to the woman.’ It’s never going to be positioned as a groovy brand. The way we position it is as an American luxury brand with California roots.”

Although most agencies contacted by WWD were puzzled by the Jolie move, Doug Lloyd, owner of Lloyd & Co., argued a change in advertising was necessary and thought Jolie was a good choice to signal the company’s changes.

“It’s tough. It’s a house that’s gotten to a certain point where they know they have to change something. They were going for maximum impact with a celebrity. She [Jolie] is the most high-profile there is. She’ll be liked by some people and disliked by others. It signals a big change for the brand. In the process, they’ll alienate some people. That’s the risk you have to take. Hopefully, on the upside, you’re going to bring in a new customer,” said Lloyd.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But other ad agency executives strongly criticized the campaign, believing there was no warning and that it was too abrupt a change.

“It’s great for a brand to nudge its loyal client base to keep up with the trends as they move forward. But if you completely change the brand image and don’t give people a head’s up where the brand is headed, you can really disenfranchise them,” said Kathy Delaney, chief creative officer and president of Deutsch Inc. “It’s kind of a betrayal to the loyal customer base. It’s as if they say, ‘you didn’t ask me,’ or ‘you didn’t warm me up,'” she said. She also suggested the company could have developed “another line that’s hipper and younger with the St. John name [as part of the label].”

Charles DeCaro, partner in Laspata|DeCaro, said he never got the Jolie connection. “It’s the biggest disconnect in the world. You have a brand with such a loyal customer base, it’s like a cult. People live for St. John. There’s a Baby Boomer who dearly loves this brand. Not everything has to be Gucci or Prada or marketed to a twenty- or thirtysomething.”

DeCaro said he believes the company should have chosen a celebrity much more targeted to the brand’s demographic. “Diane Lane would have been a fabulous choice for St. John. She’s of a certain age, she’s sexy and still vital and vibrant.”

Some ad execs felt there needed to be a transitional campaign between the campy Kelly Gray ads and the new Jolie ads to bridge the gap.

According to Peter Arnell, chairman of the Arnell Group, “The Angelina Jolie ads sent a message that the customer that you are may not be the customer they’re talking to anymore.”

He said had it been done differently, and there was a handoff publicly between Kelly Gray and the new spokeswoman, for example, it would have worked much better. “There was a step missing in the transitional message,” he said.

Trey Laird, owner of Laird & Co., didn’t feel the Jolie images reflected what St. John is all about. “The whole thing is [that] an image can’t be out on its own with nothing to back it up. There wasn’t a cohesive image behind the ad and the product. It didn’t feel like it had a momentum or vision behind it. It felt like there was one foot in the old way, and one foot in the new way,” said Laird.

“Angelina Jolie is arguably one of the most visible actresses right now. I’d rather see her naked and wrapped up in one of those knit jackets,” said Laird. “People are fascinated with her. She is the most photographed woman on this planet. But nobody even cared. If she had done Versace, it would have been a totally different thing.”

Brand experts said they believe that when repositioning a label, it’s necessary to focus on product first, and getting the right designer in there.

Marc Gobé, president and chief executive officer at brand-image creation firm desgrippes gobé group, said, “Of course, there’s room for a mature brand [but] it’s important that brands do not stay at the same place. Look at what Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Coach have done. What’s interesting is the first thing they focused on is not an advertising campaign, but the designer. Those brands focused first and foremost on the product to be right for younger generations. The feeling is St. John focused on advertising without fundamentally changing the business.”

“Advertising is least effective [at] brand building if the product is not there. Some people believe advertising is the brand. It is not. The brand is the design and the experience people will have with the product. The promise needs to be delivered. I don’t think Angelina’s promise can be delivered by St. John, even in their wildest dreams,” said Gobé.

Sometimes, repositioning a brand can have disastrous results, experts said.

Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said when it comes to mature brands in general, “Repositioning is very difficult, and a lot of brands end up dying. People try to reposition a brand and lose the core and fail to attract the new customers. Now, this business that was struggling is hemorrhaging.

“The better known a brand is, the harder it is to reposition it,” he added. For example, he pointed out the problems Oldsmobile had when it tried to use the tag line, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” But the reality was, it was their father’s Oldsmobile, he said. He also recalled the marketing misfire when Coca Cola wasn’t performing well in relation to Pepsi, and Coke launched New Coke to great fanfare. “There was a backlash from customers,” and they had to reintroduce Coca Cola Classic.