Christopher Johnson, CEO of Whitehorn Group, weighs the pros and cons of big name endorsements

New York, NY. May 23, 2013--The news goes like this for two high profile and potentially rewarding arrangements: Lil Wayne, the famous rapper, had signed a multi-million dollar endorsement with Mountain Dew, part of PepsiCo. Another sponsorship was established between Reebok and rapper Rick Ross.

Recently, Wayne performed vulgar lyrics on Emmett Till, “the African-American teenager whose 1955 torture and murder in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman helped foment the civil rights movement.” The family of Till took issue and started putting pressure on Mountain Dew to drop the artist. What is the result? So far the consequences are a brand damaging public relations embarrassment for PepsiCo. and the termination of its cooperation with Wayne.

Rick Ross inflamed a protest outside a Reebok store in New York because of his casual lyrics about rape. Reebok dropped Rick Ross. Similarly, Tyler, the Creator, was axed after a black scholar called his soda commercials racist.

“It is not the first time a celebrity endorses a product brand,” says Christopher Johnson, CEO of Whitehorn Group. “And it is definitely not the first time that something goes wrong in this equation.”

Of course, the damage is already done in all those cases.

So, it is not exaggerated to say that sometimes a celebrity association with a brand can be like lightning in a bottle—powerful yes, but potentially equally as destructive. “It goes without saying that the image of a brand is enhanced by the celebrity’s allure; nevertheless, the successful stories are very few, which is too bad because it could be a win-win for all,” says Johnson. “The endemic issue is that most of the time, even when a celebrity is aligned with the core values of a brand things often change—on both sides. This natural growth generally leads to division, which if not carefully planned can be uncomfortable at minimum or monumentally destructive. ”

So, is it worth the investment from both sides? “Well, the answer is not simple and requires serious consideration and brand planning,” continues Johnson. “Short and long-term business objectives can and should be defined for both, as well as key considerations for change. This activity, plus an honest investment of ‘Brand DNA’ from both sides to produce a new product will in many cases, alleviate much of the risk and produce a better reward for all concerned.”

When handled properly, successful celebrity associations with major brands are powerful and long term. Who doesn’t remember the cooperation of Michael Jordan with Nike back in 1984? Air Jordan changed the world forever and produced serious value that has stood the test of time.

What seems to be the key issue in cases where the cooperation doesn’t work? “Corporate values and the celebrity’s values are more often than not mismatched and the planning process involved in long-term brand strategy work was often ignored in favor of short-term gains, demographics or audience preferences alone,” says Johnson. “The result is often a quick hit and an awkward fit at best or a disaster with serious consequences on the long-term value of a brand at the worst.”

Today, who doesn’t know about the series of Gatorade disasters (Lil Wayne is not the only one for the brand). Remember the broad consumer confusion with the “G” or the more recent issue of flame retardant as an ingredient? “Beyond these very important considerations is, what about tomorrow?” asks Johnson. “These are questions we confront often when helping brand owners make serious strategic decisions, both for their shareholders and often themselves.”

So how can this equation work for both sides? “In cases where a celebrity’s actions or words—in other words, their own brand—can affect the true value of a brand, my suggestion is that it would be much better for this celebrity to make their own products. Endorsing others’ simply won’t work, irrespective of the size of the third party brand or the celebrity’s own,” offers Johnson.

Characteristic examples of this successful extension of a celebrity’s credibility into their own product brands are Sean John and Paris Hilton. “The music icon Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs created his own highly successful brand in a crowded, established and highly competitive industry by clearly linking his own iconic personal style to equally well tailored products,” says Johnson. “Paris Hilton did the same. As mentioned on her product website, ‘the brand and the persona need no introduction’. Her image is clearly reflected on her series of bags and accessories.”

The list of successful examples is not long, but when handled correctly, the resulting balance sheets are.

Lisa Berkowitz
Berkowitz & Associates
(201) 210-4510

About Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is CEO of Whitehorn Group. Mr. Johnson is a highly regarded authority on leveraging intellectual brand capital and creating innovative products that change markets. His focus is primarily in the global consumer marketplace using ground breaking global retail and e-commerce channels to penetrate markets, change consumer preference and influence behavior and establish worldwide distribution. Johnson attended Carnegie Mellon University where he won the Tholenheimer Award and McCurdy Prize. 

About Whitehorn Group

Whitehorn Group is a premier full-service brand identity firm that combines strategic insight, innovation and implementation know-how to deliver imaginative profit-focused solutions designed to get results. Their capabilities include Branding, Product Development and Digital Marketing.