The Changing Dynamics of Celebrity Branding

Using celebrities to promote brands has been a “long and winding road”. While that Beatles song was about the band’s relationship, the title aptly describes the complex nature of stars’ endorsements. In recent years, the dynamics have evolved, according to entertainment industry insiders working in music, sports and modeling. At a Tuesday Advertising Week panel in New York, the discussion and takeaways also focused on the current state of celebrity marketing, deal-making, media exposure and social media.

Shifting perspectives: “Until recently superstars didn’t want to touch celebrity endorsements,” said Tommy Mottola, well-known music executive and talent manager. But now he said only a handful of A-listers, like Bruce Springsteen, steer clear of such promotions. As Ryan Schinman, CEO of Platinum Rye Entertainment added, “Meryl Streep is the only female Oscar winner who hasn’t appeared in ads.” Online videos are partly responsible, noted Jon Liebman, CEO of Brillstein Entertainment Partners. “Though stars often did endorsements overseas, now YouTube offers fans access to international ads.”

Reasons for “selling out” vary by category: In the music business it’s mainly about money, Mottola observed. “Now music revenues have been significantly reduced. So that’s helped promote the need to find other income sources”, he said. Meanwhile, “sports endorsements were catapulted by the example of Michael Jordan”, said Mike Levine, co-head of CAA Sports. “In modeling, there were fewer magazine covers available when actors and musicians began appearing on covers. So models had to figure out what else to do”, explained Faith Kates, founder of Next Model Management.

Close alignment between brands and talent: “I don’t want to let my clients in any way hurt their core business, which is acting”, said Liebman. “I make sure it’s a safe shot that’s interesting and fun.” Mottola considers deals “that enhance the artists’ image and broadens their horizons.” As for Kates, “I look for the right team, brand and package. I want long-term opportunities, not hit-and-runs,” she said.

The downside of diva deals gone awry: “It’s an inexact science”, Levine noted. Mottola expanded on that notion. “Some bad experiences have occurred over the years, with female singer divas, ballplayer divas or those with the wrong entourages. We’ve all been through those bad management deals that turned into nightmares. To some extent they’ve tainted us and the industry.”

Types of deals depend on the talent: “Different clients want different things. What’s a home run for one is of no interest to another. We keep our clients in their appropriate lanes”, said Levine. “The deal has to be meaningful, and it’s not just about money”, added Mottola. For example, he said Pepsi’s ads for World Cup soccer featuring Ricky Martin and Shakira turned the musicians into global superstars.

Weighing the amount of media exposure: “Actors and singers only do 2 to 3 deals per year, so they should be the right ones”, Kates said. “One recent deal had too much media exposure, so I walked away from it.” Levine agreed, adding, “It’s a balancing act regarding the amount of media exposure. Peyton Manning was in too many ads a few years ago.”

Stars’ social media prowess rules, but users beware: “Whether you like it or not, social media is now the basis of analytics. If social media outweighs the talent, you can still get a lot of deals, and that’s the sad truth now”, Mottola remarked. Kates concurred, saying “five years ago we lost a deal to a client with a large social media following. So now with our clients we start forming their fan bases early on.”

“For us, social media is a blessing and a curse. The authenticity of athletes may not necessarily be commercially appealing. So we spend time now policing our guys to protect them from themselves”, said Levine.

“Clients on social media run the risk of snarkiness every day”, Liebman observed. He may have been referring to a recent Real Time With Bill Maher, and the comedian’s lamenting about nasty, profane insults directed at even popular stars, as he concluded, “We tell our clients not to read the comments.”