Ever since marketing and branding began, brand owners have been trying to create personalities for their brands to inspire consumers with positive feelings towards them. In the early days of American consumer goods branding this often manifested itself in the creation of a friendly, usually fictional character between the consumer and the brand. Uncle Ben, Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima became familiar and trusted faces in the household pantry.
The problem with fictional characters, however, is that their lives are very limited and there are only a few things within the characters’ parameters that the public can identify with or aspire to. American marketers soon decided that if your brand isn’t interesting you should try to attach it to something or someone that is. Borrowing the fame of a celebrity spokesman became the mantra for American consumer companies and charities trying to bolster their public image. Sports stars, actors and models with the right look and personality were signing million dollar deals with American consumer goods companies, and the profits were rolling in.
Celebrities, however, were quick to notice the profits they were generating for their adopted brands, and many of them decided to cut out the middleman and become brand owners themselves. Forget brand personality – in today’s celebrity-crazed America, a famous face is the most powerful brand of all. Many cultural commentators believe that the cult of celebrity today is more powerful than religion. People are driven by their aspirations to look like, act like and have a lifestyle like the actors, models and popstars they see on screen and in magazines. Any chance to dress like them, eat like them or behave like them is welcomed – after all, their success could rub off at any moment.
Sean “Puffy” Coombs and Jennifer Lopez (whose new brand name for herself is J.Lo) have both turned their hand to fashion designing so that their fans can copy their style while they reap the cash benefits. Puff Daddy claimed at the launch of his “Sean John” clothing line: “I didn’t want to over-use my celebrity status, so I just called it Sean John, which is my fashion alter ego and real name.” He may not wish to over-use his celebrity status but he is still appearing in every print ad for the brand and wearing the clothes on most of his public outings.
It is unlikely that the launch of another menswear label would have raised even an eyebrow of press interest if its creator had not been the public figure that he is. Sales of the Sean John brand topped $32m (£22m) in 1999 only a year after launch and by the end of this year he expects to have sales reaching $200m (£142m). Such a hit is the range that last week it announced that it is the fastest growing label in the US. The success is being attributed to the growth in urban fashion, which is now a multi-million pound industry.
At the press conference, in April, to launch her self-designed “sporty chic” urban wear for women, J.Lo modestly told reporters: “It’s time for the world to wear my look.” The “J.Lo by Jennifer Lopez” line is backed by an investment group led by fashion and retail veterans Andy Hilfiger (brother of designer Tommy) and Larry Stemmerman.
After the clothes, a more extensive “J.Lo Lifestyle” collection will follow, including swimwear, eyewear and accessories. This brand certainly has big plans. According to Hilfiger, the company expects to top $100m (£71m) in sales within the next year and a half.
Another American woman who has the Midas touch when it comes to turning her own name into a well-known product brand is ex-model Martha Stewart. Little known outside the US but omnipresent within it, Martha has turned her homewares business into a multi-billion pound empire. The company claims to use the “Martha Stewart” brand across a range of media and retail outlets, “providing consumers with the ‘how to’ ideas, products and other resources they need to raise the quality of living in and around their homes”.
Her Sunday morning TV show has been described as an alternative church service for those seeking aesthetic self-help. The huge success of the public flotation of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia rested on a single overwhelming asset – the comforting familiarity of Martha Stewart herself – an aspirational lifestyle broadcaster who has merchandised her brand with ruthless efficiency. Marthastewart.com claims that she has become America’s “most trusted guide to stylish living”.
However, not all celebrities are in the business of brands purely for the money. Paul Newman joined the likes of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima when he launched his “Newman’s Own” range of cooking sauces, dressings, popcorn and other products back in 1982. Far from being a niche line, it is sold in every major US grocery retail outlet and has been a huge hit with American consumers. All profits from Newman’s Own products are given to educational and charitable organisations, with over 1,000 benefiting from the $100m (£71m) that the brand has given away so far. Newman, however, is the exception rather than the rule. With fame being an often fleeting thing, most celebrities are keen to maximise their brand value while they can.
Where fame used to offer the allure of a world immeasurably detached from our own, it now supplies a different satisfaction – that of the familiar and possibly attainable (if you have the money to buy the right “personality” brands).
Celebrities the world over are cashing in on their fame by launching brands that promise consumers a slice of their lifestyle. They have the great advantage of already being a marketable commodity that people are interested in and newspapers will devote column inches to. What kind of brands British celebrities will be offering their adoring fans in the future remains to be seen, although “Posh & Becks’ Pasta Sauce” and “Chris Evans’ Super Strength Lager” both have a certain ring to them.
Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive who is now working as a freelance writer in New York