The Celebrity Endorsement Game

Kirsten Ulve

Famous faces have been selling luxury goods for years—but how well do they really work?

Would you buy a pair of Gucci loafers from Grace Kelly’s granddaughter? A Louis Vuitton tote from Angelina Jolie? An H.Stern ring from Katie Holmes or a Burberry trench from Romeo Beckham? How about a bottle of Chanel No. 5 from Brad Pitt? We all know the answer to the last question. Or do we? Pitt’s Joe Wright–directed campaign for the tony house of Chanel was widely panned and parodied (thank you, Saturday Night Live). But evidence suggests the actor’s rambling 30-second spots have raised No. 5’s awareness among consumers. In London one store reported that sales were up among both sexes, with purchasers referring to No. 5 as “the Brad perfume.” In the United States, Chanel confirms double-digit growth for the fragrance since the campaign launched. All of which goes a long way toward proving the old adage: There is no such thing as bad publicity. Then again, it could also mean that despite the company’s questionable attempts to the contrary, you can’t keep a good perfume down.

Ever since nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, celebrity and brand endorsement have gone hand in hand. And nowhere is the balance more critical than at the very top end of the market; in fact, where luxury goods are concerned, a celebrity association can hurt more than it can help. It’s said all the time, and not just in departures: Luxury consumers are different. And for beyond the obvious reason that they possess more money; they’re also more discerning, more scrupulous.

“People want to identify themselves with a certain lifestyle. Often, choosing the right celebrity can invite the right people to buy in and literally un-invite the others,” says Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson, chairman and director of research for neuro-marketing company Mindlab International. Lewis-Hodgson uses Rolex’s endorsements by sportsmen from narrow fields of interest such as sailing and equestrianism as an example; but these days one can find hundreds of examples of brand endorsements by celebrities obscure or otherwise, some of whom, it has to be said, have a questionable relationship with the brand they are representing. Among the most successful and convincing: Jolie, Bono and Ali Hewson, and Sean Connery for Vuitton; Keira Knightley and Nicole Kidman for Chanel; and Daniel Craig for Omega.

Such is the risk of alienating your well-heeled customers by associating the brand with the wrong sort that the savviest no longer refer to their celebrities as, well, celebrities. “To a certain extent, the term ‘celebrity’ itself devalues the contributions that cultural figures make in their fields,” says Gucci’s chief marketing officer, Robert Triefus. For Triefus, genuine relationships with people in the public eye are what make the difference. “There’s so much celebrity noise that working with people who sincerely like what the brand stands for and wear it because of that shines through.” Triefus says the word “celebrity” is no longer part of Gucci’s vocabulary. “We’re interested in personalities who have engaged with us,” he says, citing historical references to illustrate his point: “Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor and Yul Brynner all loved and wore the brand—that’s how it should work.” The star of Gucci’s Forever Now campaign further exemplifies his point. Charlotte Casiraghi, the daughter of Princess Caroline and granddaughter of Grace Kelly (a longtime Gucci client; its iconic Flora scarf was at first a custom creation for her), is not so much the face of the company as much as a narrator of its story. Casiraghi told French Elle last year that the campaign “pays homage to the Gucci spirit, to 90 years of the history of the house, to our common passion for horsemanship.”

But at the very top of the luxury goods market, does celebrity hold any sway over those poised to spend, say, $300,000 on a Riva boat or $180,000 on an Aston Martin DB9? “The wealthier you are, the less influenced by and the less you care about celebrity,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute. Pedraza, like many other luxury analysts, distinguishes between older, more established tastes, like third generation, and the newly monied, either first generation or those from the BRIC countries. “In the emerging markets, there is some evidence to suggest that people buy to belong. In these markets, taste is still an issue, and if you live in a closed system where you learn from the media, then advertising can impress,” he says.

The Celebrity DBI, started in 2006, scores 25 celebrities each week on a variety of attributes, like influence, trust and appeal, and then ranks them by their marketability. The index—with a database of almost 3,000 personalities scored by a panel of 4.5 million researchers—began in response to advertisers’ seemingly unquenchable desire for celebrity endorsement. Mick Carter, managing director of Marketing Arm’s Davie Brown, which publishes the list, says clients want instant credibility. “Brands are willing to spend a lot of money to find that right person to market their products, because the effect on sales can be significant.”

Advertisers are not wrong in their assumption that a “face” can help a brand, even at the top of the pyramid, says Professor Gemma Calvert, founder of neuro-marketing firm Neurosense, which tests consumers’ reaction to celebrities by tapping into their subconscious responses using online tests. “Research suggests that a single exposure to the combination of ‘expert’ and object leads to a lasting positive effect on our memory of and attitude toward the object,” she says.

Miuccia Prada’s choice for her latest men’s campaign reveals that even the most anti-celebrity of designers sometimes acknowledges the need for some serious star power. The fashion house’s choices are all carefully weighted toward the label’s cool overtones, with edgy cameos from Harvey Keitel and Benicio Del Toro.

But by the same token, says Calvert, get it wrong and you have a real problem on your hands. “The audience is very clever. Research is showing us that the consumer brain can pick out celebrity endorsements that are not feasible,” she says. And therefore companies and celebrities guard their images very carefully. No one doubts, for example, that Swiss company Nespresso paid a considerable amount for actor George Clooney to drink its coffee in its advertising campaign. But the brand decided not to air the advertisements in its most lucrative market, the United States—surely with no objection from the actor. The overseas markets have long held an attraction for American stars wary of sullying their reputations at home (although in the age of social media, everything surfaces: Just search “Clooney” and “Nespresso” on YouTube). The aforementioned Mr. Pitt advertised Softbank and Roots Iced Coffee in Japan, Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Telecom Italia ads in Italy, and Jennifer Aniston is currently featured in a Sky Broadband ad in the United Kingdom. “Even those less wealthy and more susceptible to celebrity influences question credibility,” says Pedraza. Look no further than the 2011 Jennifer Lopez and Fiat 500 blunder.

And at the very top end of the market, authenticity seems to matter more than celebrity. “The less sophisticated wealthy person is still building a lifestyle, and it helps to identify with an individual before one buys into a brand, but with an educated wealthy consumer, it’s all about being genuine—what can the product do and how was it made?” says Lewis-Hodgson, who points to the ultimate example, Patek Philippe. “There’s no celebrity link, but what there is is history and the promise of passing something on to the next generation. Of course one could buy a watch that works for $8, but at this level that’s not the point.” Advertising guru Robin Wight agrees, citing Patek Philippe as “by far the best example of a brand that simply could not be improved by celebrity, because it taps into an emotional wavelength far beyond that.” The recent economic downturn has forced lots of brands—witness the latest campaigns for Gucci and Vuitton—back to their roots, asking the consumer to consider their heritage, craftsmanship and expertise. Hermès, which, it should be noted, has never focused on celebrity other than having its best-selling handbags, the Kelly and the Birkin, named after two high-profile customers, has forever prided itself on process and product. Never going on sale, never giving discounts or freebies.

Price matters greatly, too, says Wight. “Brands recognize that they are giving the customer satisfaction by being expensive,” he says. “We assume things have value because of their location,” adds Lewis-Hodgson, who points to Bond Street in London and Madison Avenue in New York. “You can have a lot of money and not know anything about bags, shoes, wine or art, but subtle things like location and brand names—Sotheby’s and Christie’s, for example—help you know what and where to buy.”

According to Wight, the other prerequisite for a luxury brand to sell at the top end is what he and others in the business call “over-engineering.” “Any brand can hire a celebrity, but not every brand has the heritage and excellence that is required at this level of purchase,” he says. As Wight sees it, consumers, even exceedingly wealthy ones, need an “alibi” to allow them to part with significant levels of cash where products are concerned. “The fact that your Range Rover can climb a rugged mountain matters because that’s what makes it so special,” he says. “Never mind that the farthest off road it will go is up onto the sidewalk when you’re parking.” Among other examples are Montblanc pens engineered to write at a mountain’s peak and Wedgwood teacups designed to withstand the weight of a Rolls-Royce. The over-engineered angle first found a home in sport, where its merits were obvious: “Wear the watch of a celebrity golfer or tennis player and play like one,” says Lewis-Hodgson. “A product endorsed by a sporting celebrity can convey values and skills. The problems come, of course, if the celebrity begins to play badly or loses credibility for some reason.”

Could luxury brands be running out of options when it comes to endorsement opportunities or are they adapting to their new crowded environments and trying to offer something different to the consumer? Pedraza says what’s interesting these days is the idea of the celebrity as the brand, rather than an individual who represents the brand. “Lots of affluent customers want to understand the passion that inspired the brand,” he says. “If the brand is a human being, then we can understand those values—take Coco Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent or, these days, Tom Ford.” Pedraza contends that while a luxury brand must be high-performance, it must also have a level of humility and humanity: “So we say, ‘Well, Tom Ford is glamorous, but he seems like a good guy, too.’ That sentiment is enormously powerful.”

Designer Roland Mouret, whose curve-enhancing dresses have been in demand by celebrities and luxury consumers, says the value of being able to be one’s brand is immeasurable. “Victoria Beckham has what the rest of us don’t,” Mouret says of the former Spice Girl turned award-winning designer. She can not only design clothes but she can wear them on the cover of almost every fashion magazine. In this way she controls the story of her brand entirely. She’s asking her customers to buy a piece of her. Like Diane von Furstenberg before her, Beckham has the lifestyle to match the clothes and vice versa. It’s a rare celebrity who can wield that sort of power. That said, in all the discussions of celebrity endorsement and luxury branding that arose while researching this article, one name was consistently singled out as being beyond reproach: James Bond. “I wouldn’t buy anything from anyone unless it was Daniel Craig,” says the managing director of one of London’s top PR companies.

“It’s hard to think of another brand as unimpeachable as James Bond,” says Tony Lewis, style consultant and founder of the online sports and fashion magazine Spashion. “The brand has all the elements that luxury-goods companies are looking to attach to: excellence, craftsmanship, style and authenticity. And Sam Mendes has taken Bond back to his original heritage—from Aston Martin to the Scottish Highlands to the Tom Ford classically designed clothes. Daniel Craig personifies all this.”

So how powerful can a brand without celebrity endorsement hope to be? Because of their unique target market, luxury brands might prove even more powerful in eschewing star power. “High-order brands are different in that while they still signal something about where we are on the social ladder, at the top the signaling can be quite subtle,” says Calvert. In other words, so exclusive is the club that messaging one “belongs” need be only in the form of, say, a particular suit lining (Paul Smith), a fabric used for a dress (Chanel) or the almost incidental branding on an Aston Martin or a Riva boat. “We are genetically programmed to survive and procreate, and what we interact with serves the purpose of sending out information about where we are in the social sphere,” Calvert says.