Celebrities and luxury brands, hardly an innovative concept. History has proven that a heavenly pairing of Hollywood starlet and French couture house can have dazzling, often very durable, effects on a brand.
Audrey Hepburn will forever be associated with Givenchy, just as Jackie Onassis will Gucci and Elizabeth Taylor, Bulgari. In the modern sense, one only has to think about the effect that ‘It girls’ have had on the sale of ‘It bags’.
Luxury brands have long celebrated partnerships and placement with celebrities – people that exert significant influence in several facets of society – across arts, music, movies and television, sports, culture, politics and even religion (Brand Channel). The nature of these arrangements has traditionally remained private, so as not to detract from the ‘authenticity’ of a celebrity endorsing a brand.
With the passing of the Academy Awards and more recently, Paris Fashion Week, it became clear just how integral the cult of celebrity has become in the luxury brand marketing mix. Style.com’s video coverage of the Fall Winter 2012-2013 womenswear shows featured insights from Vanessa Friedman, Charlotte Stockdale, Stefano Tonchi, Cathy Horyn and Natalie Massenet, interlaced with the musings of Alicia Keys, Dakota Fanning, Katy Perry, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tilda Swinton.
“ When Julia Roberts picked up her Academy Award wearing vintage Valentino, the house reported that the moment was worth $10 million in publicity ”
Mainstream media coverage favoured pictures of Kim Kardashian, Alicia Keys, P Diddy and Rosario Dawson front-row at Kayne West’s catwalk show, over Raf Simons emotional finale at Jil Sander. Katy Perry’s hair colour seemingly attracted more media attention at Viktor & Rolf, than the actual clothing itself. Fast-forward to BASELWORLD 2012 and all eyes were on Cameron Diaz as she was announced the latest TAG Heuer ‘muse’.
Celebrity collaborations with luxury brands may have become de rigueur but the age is one of innocence lost. Whilst it is naive to think that consumers remain unaware that these relationships are anything less than chaste, as the dizzying financial rewards begin to leak into the mainstream media, perhaps they will be less willing to accept these collaborations at face value.
Top celebrities can now command up to $100,000 cash to attend a fashion show, on top of trans-continental first class flights, five star accommodation and the necessary wardrobe to support appearances. Tiffany & Co. reportedly paid Anne Hathaway $750,000 for the actress to wear its jewellery when she hosted the Oscars.
During a lawsuit initiated by Raymond Weil in 2007, court filings revealed that Charlize Theron had been paid $250,000 by Chopard to wear its jewellery to the 2006 Oscars and BAFTA awards. After wearing Cartier jewels to the 2006 Golden Globes, a spokesperson for the brand confirmed Ms. Theron had been ‘given’ a $35,000 ring, $8000 earrings, and a $7500 bracelet as ‘tokens of appreciation’.
CHANEL Fall-Winter 2012/13 Ready-to-Wear, Celebrities Interview
The issue of compensation aside, celebrities are a proven tool in raising the awareness of luxury brands and aiding in positioning and public relations. “The reasons that these personalities are used in brand communications include making the brand’s message stand out among the clutter of advertising from competitors and convincing customers of the credibility of the brand’s offerings,” muses Uche Okonkwo, founder of Luxe Corp.
“Celebrity endorsement transfers the personality and status of the celebrity as successful, wealthy, and distinctive directly to the brand,” she concludes. “Other personality attributes that the celebrity may have such as glamour, beauty, talent, and style will also be ultimately linked with the brand."
Celebrities also do well to communicate to those whom the brand are not targeting, suggests branding expert Jean-Noël Kapferer and luxury industry executive Vincent Bastien. “Luxury has two value facets; luxury for oneself and luxury for others,” explain the duo, in The Luxury Strategy: Break The Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands. “To sustain the latter facet it is essential that there should be many more people that are familiar with the brand than those who could possibly afford to buy it for themselves.”
“ Celebrity endorsement transfers the personality and status of the celebrity as successful, wealthy, and distinctive directly to the brand ”
“In traditional marketing, the keyword is efficiency, but over and above efficiency there has to be a return on investment. In advertising for example, the media plan must concentrate on the target consumers and nothing but the target consumers. In luxury, if somebody is looking at somebody else and fails to recognize the brand, part of its value is lost. It is essential to spread brand awareness beyond the target group."
Celebrities have also been credited in bringing necessary context to luxury brands when awareness and understanding is low, as is the case in some of China’s lower-tier cities. “If your noodle ads have a top Hong Kong star, then it must be a top brand,” explains PT Black, senior creative director of Thoughtful China.
“Context is the background brand awareness that we use to make choices. It’s developed over time from multiple sources. First tier cities have solid brand context; shoppers know the difference between Hugo Boss and Bossini but not so much in third and fourth tiers. The [lower-tier] market is a jumble of local brands and knock-offs, it’s hard to know what’s what. That’s where celebrities come in. Forget uniqueness – their primary role is to bring context to a brand.”
Rooney Mara in Givenchy Haute Couture at the 2012 Academy Awards in Los Angeles
The most obvious risk involved in brands aligning themselves with celebrities is alienating consumers that feel neutrally or negatively about the selected celebrity, causing them to feel neutrally or negatively about the brand itself. There is also a risk that consumers will not understand the link between the personality and brand, or decide the fit is ‘wrong’ – this can often be the case when brands use celebrities to reposition themselves in the minds of consumers.
Another obvious risk is that personal transgressions and scandals will in turn affect the brands reputation. Kate Moss was famously dropped by a host of luxury brands after pictures of her apparently snorting cocaine at a recording studio appeared in a newspaper. Tiger Woods was met with a similar fate following media reports of his gross infidelities, followed by a very public divorce.
In advertising, Jean-Noël Kapferer and luxury industry executive Vincent Bastien believe the practice should be reserved for consumer products, not luxury. The pair suggests that using celebrities to promote luxury products is extremely dangerous. “A luxury brand is courted by the stars, in the same way as those stars are courted by journalists and paparazzi,” suggest the duo.
“ Calling on the services of a star is tantamount to saying that the brand needs some of this star’s status just to survive, & admitting that it has none of its own ”
“In a luxury brand’s typical relationship with its customers, it must respect them, but it also has to dominate them. Even the most famous ones. Calling on the services of a star is tantamount to saying that the brand needs some of this star’s status just to survive, and admitting that it has none of its own.”
“For the luxury brand, this is a gross error of strategy, for it turns the relationship on its head. Only brand domination, standing above everything like a god, is acceptable, not simply behaving like any ordinary mortal. If celebrities are used to promote the luxury product, the status of the latter is reduced to that of a mere accessory.”
Dana Thomas has noticed a power shift, suggesting that luxury’s offer to lend clothes, jewels and shoes has been like the goose laying the golden egg. “First, celebrities asked to keep the clothes or jewels they were officially borrowing. Then they asked for perks such as all-expenses-paid trips to the designer’s fashion show in New York, Paris or Milan. Now they want cold hard cash.”
Blake Lively for CHANEL’s Mademoiselle collection
“In most industries, when money is exchanged under-the-table for services rendered and deny such deals publicly, it’s considered payola, bribery,” she continues. "But in the world of luxury brands, it’s modus operandi. Luxury executives call the practice “selling the dream.” Next time you see a star wearing the same brand at every red carpet event and blathering on about the talent of the designer, chances are it was a business deal."
If it is the intention of luxury brands to associate themselves with celebrities, in the hope that the consumer trusts said celebrity and is influenced by their taste and style, the transactional nature of these modern relationships certainly threatens the effectiveness of the tool. If consumers continue to learn the scale of these so-called ‘partnerships’, it is quite possible that they will cease to be influenced by them.
Authenticity – or at the very least discretion – formed an integral part of the relationships between Jackie Onassis and Gucci, Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy and Elizabeth Taylor and Bulgari. These heyday stars also had relationships with luxury houses for lifetimes, not for seasons or campaigns, and the values each party brought to each other were clear.
Perhaps the biggest case against modern day celebrity marketing is the merry-go-round of one-star-after-another in advertising campaigns and dressing anyone and everyone on the red carpet. Ultimately this practice is confusing to consumers, in a way that it is not when the same fashion model is used in different campaigns. What value did Alicia Keys bring to the front rows of Paris Fashion Week, after she was spotted at almost all the big name shows?
Nothing, if Nicole Farhi has anything to say about it. The French-born, London-based designer mused to the Sunday Telegraph; “What do they show you in the papers after a fashion show? Not the clothes, but the celebrities being paid to sit at the show… It is so unprofessional. I have never paid a celebrity and I will never do it. It’s stupid.”
Reflecting on Marc Jacobs’ most recent runway extravaganza for Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Guardian’s Jess-Cartner Morley suggested that “fashion has outgrown the catwalk show." Going on to describe the industry as a “worldwide entertainment business, with celebrity-packed audiences and global-reach live streamed collections.”
The luxury industry has dramatically changed in the past twenty or so years, as has the culture of celebrity. In this time, luxury brands traditionally known only by the world’s elite have become household names, just as Kim Kardashian is known the world around for nothing much at all. As Jean-Noël Kapferer and Vincent Bastien suggest, it is essential to the concept of luxury that many more people are familiar with it than just those that can afford to buy it.
In this case, celebrities are undoubtedly powerful. They have more than proven their abilities in raising awareness of the products, places and services they favour. Even during times of scandal they ensure brands are being discussed. And perhaps this is the only thing they need to do.
Instead it’s up to the luxury brands to ensure they are not over exploited.
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