In the pre-social media age, a brand naming a celebrity "creative director" was a largely superficial process that rarely drove results. But a new trove of deals is seeing musicians sharing in the risks of product development and financial stability in an increasingly long line of creative partnerships.
In the past two weeks alone, deals have included Alicia Keys and BlackBerry, Justin Timberlake and Bud Light Platinum, Taylor Swift and Diet Coke, and Swizz Beatz and Monster International. But those are just four in an even longer list of similar deals in the last year-and-a-half, including Beyonce and Pepsi, Jay-Z with Duracell and Anheuser-Busch, Swift and Keds, and Will.i.am and Intel.
Why the new influx? Not only are musicians the most-followed personalities on Facebook and Twitter and therefore more accessible than an actor or athlete, they're newly incentivized to work on behalf of brands by being offered equity or even royalties for a product's success.
"The beauty in a deal where you have a creative director is you can be creative with the dealmaking," says Todd Jacobs, a music-branding agent at William Morris Endeavor. "It feels like there's more of a mutual benefit versus a work-for-hire mentality if two parties go into it with that partnership mentality. It gives the artist so many opportunities other than compensation."
But what does being a celebrity creative director really mean, and what are the risks at stake? After all, for every Beats by Dr. Dre, an entire electronics enterprise successfully built on the backing of a musician, there's Polaroid's pact with Lady Gaga, which fell apart in 2011. The latter deal, announced through a splashy appearance from Gaga at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, collapsed not long after Gaga reappeared at the following CES to unveil products like camera glasses. That's because the financially unstable Polaroid, which had filed for bankruptcy protection just three years prior, was unable to meet the financial overhead such an ambitious undertaking demanded, and scrapped the product line entirely.
The case of Gaga was a seemingly rare but actually all-too-common instance of a company failing to deliver on its end of these new deals, placing too much of its stock in a celebrity and not enough on its own resources. Pharrell Williams just sued liquor giant Diageo earlier this year for $5 million after it allegedly failed to meet distribution agreements. And one of Jermaine Dupri's creative director roles, for soy-based 3 Vodka, eroded for similar reasons in 2009. "They said to me in the beginning, 'It's exciting. You get to be part of a liquor brand,' and at the same time the brand wasn't prepared to be involved with me. That's where the business went sour," Dupri says. "There's a lot of things you have to take into consideration when doing these deals. These companies have to be prepared for the next steps."
Of course, the onus also lies on the celebrity to deliver compelling product ideas-not to mention brand loyalty. On Twitter, much has already been made of Keys' devotion to her iPhone prior to aligning with BlackBerry, not to mention Timberlake's quote to the New York Post in late 2012 that he should always be seen with a Coors Light in his hand. That's where the risk of inauthenticity comes in.
"The perception is that the artist just took a paycheck and didn't go above and beyond-their core responsibility isn't being a creative director," WME's Jacobs says. "The real opportunity becomes when an artist is really evangelical about the brand and they support it with the same vigor and passion that they support their own brand to their fans."