Brands, stars must align

Commentary: Endorsement biz a skilled trade

When Charles Finch was a go-getter agent at William Morris during the early 1990s, he got very close to signing a major deal for an athlete-turned-broadcaster-turned-pitchman when out of the blue something went wrong. The client misbehaved. Massively.

As Finch reminded an audience in Los Angeles last week at a conference on the business of luxury brands, it is crucial who one gets to represent one's product.

In this case, Finch turned to then-WMA chairman Norman Brokaw, and the veteran handled the rest. Within the day in June 1994, the agency quietly terminated its representation of O.J. Simpson. And that was that.

Finch now runs his own representation firm and, as he explained to the assembled, there must be a system in place to handle such flame-outs by the famous. In Tiger Woods' case, Finch pointed out, "everyone knew he couldn't keep it in his trousers," but around such mega-stars, people can end up behaving in a "surreal, in denial" manner. Then, if and when things go wrong, everyone has to scramble.

His company, Charles Finch & Partners, has a mapped-out plan for dealing with such situations, as in "one-third of our energy is spent on crisis management," he said, pointing to his five-step program: investigate, discover, implement, organize and, if required, terminate.

As fascinating as it was to hear about such machinations behind the scenes of these train wrecks, it was equally eye-opening to hear the positive side of these increasingly complex relationships between corporations and celebrities. It is a growing business on which Hollywood talent agencies and boutique operations like Finch's are capitalizing, especially as core representation of talent in such stuff as films and TV shows seems now, well, limited, so last century, and less lucrative than before.

It used to be, Finch and other panelists agreed during the two-day Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit, that "you cut a deal for an endorsement and you took as much money from as many people as possible."

But like so much else surrounding celebrities these days, things have gotten much more multifaceted, and the global appetite for vicariously living their lifestyle by aping their buying habits seems only to be expanding.

Consumer fatigue with all of these stars sipping this, sashaying in that or SMS-ing with whatever gizmo only comes into play when the brand and star don't match up, or there's just blatant overload (think the past couple of James Bond films, the "Modern Family" episode with the iPad, or every "Apprentice").

"The life values of a star have to be married to brand values," says Tamara Mellon, the mastermind who shoed Jimmy Choo into HBO's "Sex and the City," turning the footwear designer into a household name.

Associations between stars from whatever sphere and products of whatever kind have to be "credible and authentic," the Choo Inc. founder and chief creative officer argued.

Mellon pointed to the apt association between Jennifer Aniston and Smartwater, saying that it fits her image as wholesome, athletic and limpid, whereas the forced combination of Lindsay Lohan and designer Ungaro -- I mean, who can imagine that starlet obsessing about hemlines and fabrics? -- was nothing short of disastrous.

Given how quickly the public now catches on to authenticity or lack thereof, brand purveyors have to be careful about how they match up with personalities who are then supposed to elevate their messaging. And too, personalities have to protect themselves from looking like idiots.

For agencies, according to CAA's Bryan Lourd, who spoke earlier at the summit, corporate branding is "a growing part of the business," and one for which his agency is martialing various divisions of its army to tackle.

It's no longer about just hiring someone to open a store in Milwaukee -- though don't get me wrong, that remains a sizable business agencies book. A lot of reality contestants have converted to doing such work, and inevitably there are only more to come.

But as for such high-end products as watches or cars or designers, the financial stakes are higher and the matches more meticulously arranged.

Armani, for example, is a careful brand when it comes to linking up with the celebrity world. The company's global head of licensing, Fabio Mancone, talked about how all such decisions emanate from Giorgio Armani himself and reflect his two abiding passions: film and sports.

"We are very scientific as well as passional about how we do this," he said. "It has to be about two persons who find strong cultural ground that unites them for a long time."

Armani has been at it for a while, having set a bar early by dressing Richard Gere in "American Gigolo." Even that wasn't easy, Mancone reminded: The role originally was going to John Travolta, so the clothes had to be recut and resized.

A more recent relationship is that between the Italian designer and Cate Blanchett, in which the two have combined to support the Sydney Art Theatre.

"The passion of the clients has to be part of the discussion," is how Finch put it.

The one thing panelists didn't agree on was the critical issue -- and it is critical because even luxury brands have suffered during the economic downturn -- of whether the success of these arrangements can be measured.

Someone mentioned Kate Moss clutching a new handbag in Paris almost instantly results in more sales at Printemps; others countered that unless it's a mega-star, forget about it.

As to whether it is worth expanding the field (and lowering the prices of star contracts?) to pull in, say, public figures like politicians' wives, well, as Finch noted, they are "not necessarily the most glamorous representatives... ." Queen Noor royally pulls it off; Michelle Obama probably could, too; but in the end, Hollywood remains the deepest pool.
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