BlackBerry, Alicia Keys & the perils of celeb pitch people

As Alicia Keys winds down her year as BlackBerry’s Global Creative Director, all I really want to know is whether she’ll keep using her Z10 after her contract ends Jan. 30?

I doubt it. After all, soon after she got the gig last year, she famously tweeted her love for BlackBerry from an iPhone. By following in the questionable footsteps of Oprah Winfrey – who expressed her support of Microsoft’s Surface tablet from the keys of her iPad – Keys reinforced the perils of celebrities shilling for brands they’d otherwise have nothing to do with. For most companies looking for a quick marketing lift, the costs and risks simply aren’t justified by the often-invisible returns.

A most famous victim

With BlackBerry reeling from a US$4.4 billion loss last quarter, Keys now becomes the most famous casualty as the company sheds 4,500 jobs and restructures under its new CEO John Chen. Despite her participation in a science and technology scholarship program for young women, she failed to move the creative needle for the company or reignite consumer interest in its products. As BlackBerry refocuses itself on enterprise customers, don’t expect her to be replaced.

At a certain level, the appeal of bringing a major artist, sports or public figure on board is easy to understand. For companies trying to extend their brands, celebrities give them near-instant access to a large and engaged audience. Instead of building awareness separately, it’s easier and faster to write a big check and springboard into an already-primed pool of consumers.

Unfortunately the celebrity’s audience isn’t always the brand’s audience. And if the celebrity didn’t already have a natural reason to connect with the brand or its products before the contract was signed, those millions of die-hard fans will see it for what it is: A marriage of lucrative convenience.

Alignment is crucial

Apple’s choice to align with one of the world’s top rock bands for the U2 iPod in 2004 made a certain amount of sense given the obvious brand alignment. Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps was also a natural fit with cereal maker Kellogg’s.

But even perfect alignment can hit the skids if the chosen pitch person behaves less than honourably. Phelps disappeared from Corn Flakes boxes fairly quickly after pictures of him smoking from a large bong went viral online. Nike got burned after uber-celeb cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong finally came clean about using performance enhancing drugs for much of his career. Sometimes the disconnect has less to do with sleaze than style: Charlize Theron was sued for $20 million after appearing in ads for watchmaker Raymond Weil. Her crime? She was seen in public wearing Christian Dior and Montblanc timepieces while she was supposedly under contract with Raymond Weil.

When the hottest celebrities often juggle multiple clients – Tiger Woods endorsed over ten brands before scandal sent most of them packing – individual brands don’t get the benefit of a unique, exclusive relationship. And when they become even bigger megastars, consumers may remember the celebrity more than they remember what he or she is trying to sell.

Closer to home, rap star Drake’s turn as ambassador for the Toronto Raptors gives the team stronger international credibility as it gears up to host the 2016 NBA All Star game. It helps that he’s an ardent basketball fan and is often seen courtside.

More difficult to understand is Lady Gaga’s pairing with back-from-the-dead imaging pioneer Polaroid and will.i.am’s role as an Intel Director of Creative Innovation. When the hype surrounding the initial announcement wears off, it’s hard to see how these matches made in not-quite-heaven will benefit the brand and the bottom line. The end of the BlackBerry/Alicia Keys relationship suggests now might be the right time to dial back this questionable marketing strategy in favour of something with less flash and more substance.

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