Celebrity Pitchmen: From Endorsement Deals to Product Development

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There’s no doubt that celebrity endorsements can help sales. A study by Anita Elberse, conditionally accepted in March at the Journal of Advertising Research, showed how stock valuation for a company goes up by about a quarter of a point for celebrity endorsements. But today, a quarter of a point may not be enough of a boost. Celebrities are becoming much more than simple shills; companies would like us to believe that they’re as involved in the development and evolution of a product—and the technology behind it—as the designers themselves. Respected artists are using their business acumen to shape the technology we use everyday. Take Lady Gaga. She’s Polaroid’s highest-profile creative director ever.

“If you look at the consumer electronics marketplace, there’s a tremendous amount of convergence going on, where fashion, photography, consumer electronics, the Internet, video, photo content, social networking are all kind of changing the way we interact and capture and share pictures,” said Scott Hardy, president of Polaroid. “We felt that we needed to have someone who was on the cutting edge of all of those things.”

Lady Gaga joins Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am, who recently became Intel’s director of creative innovation, and Dr. Dre, who helped forge HP’s Beats technology, as one of the new breed of celebrity product pitchers. Here's how today's cele-geeks are re-defining product endorsements.

Going Gaga

Traditional marketing is no longer enough for recording artists to sell themselves. As record sales continue to decline drastically—from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—musicians are beginning to look beyond record companies for the funds to finance the recording and marketing of a career’s worth of albums. Whether through gaining song placement in a film, getting a guest spot on Glee, creating a clothing line, or relentless touring and self-promotion through Twitter and Facebook, any artist hoping to stay successful must get creative about reinvigorating his or her personal brand.

Speaking of reinvigorating brands, Polaroid probably doesn’t scream cutting edge, especially since the company filed for bankruptcy twice during the last decade. That’s part of the reason why the brand found appeal in Lady Gaga, who recently surpassed Oprah as the most powerful person in the entertainment business, according to Forbes.

In January 2010, Gaga became Polaroid’s creative director “for a select set of co-branded Polaroid/Lady Gaga products,” said Hardy. Those products include the GL10 mobile printer, the GL20 picture-taking sunglasses (shown below right), and the GL30 camera/printer. He says that the company engaged the artist in every phase of the development cycle, from the initial conception of what the devices should look like to the industrial designs, finishes, and colors. Lady Gaga even weighed in on the feature set, helping decide which features were worth the cost.

According to Hardy, Lady Gaga “is very technical; she’s very capable and gives feedback on usability. There’s nothing about our relationship with Lady Gaga that isn’t completely genuine and real. That was important to us because the consumer today is very shrewd and knows when a company is just trying to do something that’s not exactly real. We feel like that’s not what we’re about as a brand and as a company and Lady Gaga is the same way.”

At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Lady Gaga debuted the Polaroid Grey Line. But it wasn’t just a photo op. She demoed the products for the press and explained the inspiration behind the sunglasses that can capture and display images. She also demonstrated the inkless ZINK Bluetooth instant printer. It was clear Lady Gaga was comfortable handling the products and explaining the technology behind them.

Hardy says the initial feedback from the product launch at CES was huge. “The results have been astounding. As we launched this new line, the number of impressions that we received as a company and as a brand far exceeded anything that we had ever attained previously with other product launches.”

The Birth of Beats

The iPod/iPhone era has fundamentally changed not only how people buy music, but also how they listen to it. Music collectors may have replaced their component stereo system with a laptop and perhaps an iPod dock, but sound engineers and music producers are still arranging, mastering, and obsessing over the timbre of the snare drum—only to have all their work compressed down to a 5MB file played over a set of shallow, tinny-sounding laptop speakers.

That’s why just more than two years ago, musical artist and producer Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, producer and chairman of Interscope Records, approached HP regarding a partnership. The goal: to create an audio system within a computer that recreates the richness of a real stereo system. In other words, to not make it sound like a laptop.

While HP does pay a licensing and royalty fee to Beats Audio, LLC, Iovine and Dr. Dre worked with HP’s engineers to create an isolated audio system within the crowded guts of HP’s top-of-the-line Envy notebook series. Carlos Montalvo, vice president of HP, said the relationship is “not a marketing endorsement relationship. It is a technology collaboration relationship. We are co-inventing these technologies.”

At each step of the process, Dr. Dre and Iovine would listen and tune the sound system on the notebooks until it matched the same level of articulation and tuning that Dre sets for his studio. “Our engineers could sit side by side with Dr. Dre and Jimmy in studio and tune the audio profile created by the digital signal processor,” Montalvo said. “In the same way that you lay down tracks and remix a particular song, we would tune and refine the algorithms driven by the DSP to get what is now known as the Beats audio profile—that unique, warm, rich sound. That is Dre’s sound.”

That sound is now migrating to more products. HP is integrating Beats into more affordable laptops, as well as the new webOS-powered TouchPad tablet. The technology can also be found inside the hugely successful Monster headphones, which can be used in conjunction with an HP laptop with Beats for improved sound quality.

Will.i.am: Super Geek

Will.I.Am Gets Inside Intel

A lot of people were left scratching their heads when Intel announced in January that Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am had become the company’s director of creative innovation. But according to Johan Jervoe, vice president of Intel’s sales and marketing group, Will.i.am initially approached Intel himself. “Will found us. Will is—and I hope I say this in the right way—a super geek when it comes to technology. It became very clear in the beginning that he was wildly interested in having an early conversation to influence product development, engineering development, but also in having an opportunity to inform himself about what is possible in the future and to be able to create art in a different way.”

Because Intel doesn’t typically sell consumer products, it’s unlikely that an Intel Core i.am chip will ship in your next laptop. Jervoe told us that Intel brings Will.i.am in to think things through in the early stages of product development and engineering with the ultimate goal being to create a better user experience using the talents and perspective of an artist without a pure tech background.

Whereas Iovine and Dr. Dre brought a very specific idea of the sound they wanted to HP, Will.i.am’s partnership with Intel is more of a free-form collaboration with the company’s engineers. At Intel’s internal TechFest conference in Oregon, Jervoe sat in on a conversation between the artist/producer and Intel personnel. “Will is a person you bring into a room with a huge amount of intelligence around engineering, around hardware and software, and five minutes in—as the business person—you’re kind of already outside of the conversation,” Jervoe said. “They feed off each other’s thinking, they feed off each other’s innovation and creative mindset and challenge each other in a very engineering, very university, college kind of way where there’s really this whole eagerness and energy in the room.”

Intel’s collaboration with Will.i.am seems to have worked out as more of motivational speaker type of arrangement. The artist is said to be working on his own version of the chip maker’s iconic “Bum ba bum” sound. Though Intel has intimated that Will.i.am-influenced products are coming, nothing had been officially announced as of press time.

The Future of Celebrity Pitchmen

It’s inevitable that more companies and artists will partner and develop products to increase each other’s brand value and demographic appeal. The NPD Group’s recently released study of audio equipment sales seems to say that these partnerships are working; nearly 30 percent of shoppers rated music artist endorsements (such as that of Dr. Dre for Monster Beats by Dr. Dre headphones) as extremely or very important when deciding what headphones to buy. However, partnerships such as the one between HP and Dr. Dre have been fruitful because both sides are interested. HP has committed engineering teams and resources, while Dr. Dre and Iovine have committed their expertise and time. As HP’s Montalvo says, “Artists that are really innovators in their industries and in the areas of their passion want to be able to drive not just the aesthetics and the look of a product but the technology itself.”

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