Mark Ritson: Steve McQueen keeps endorsement real

A walk around London’s shops at the weekend had me wondering if it was 2012 or 1972…


A walk around London’s shops at the weekend had me wondering if it was 2012 or 1972. It started in the rather fetching Barbour shop that has opened near Covent Garden and its eye-catching capsule collection inspired by Steve McQueen. The range of jackets, shirts and T-shirts all carry the deceased Hollywood star’s profile on the label and, from what I saw, it’s working wonders for the brand.

Next stop was Selfridges and I was expecting to see McQueen’s image on the ground floor at the Tag Heuer concession because the square-faced Monaco watch has been indelibly associated with the star for four decades. But the McQueen theme continued around the corner where Persol sunglasses were also proudly using his image to promote its 714 range of folding sunglasses.

The associations continued upstairs in the menswear department, where upmarket tailoring brand Richard James was playing excerpts of the McQueen movie The Thomas Crown Affair to illustrate the epitome of stylish dressing and masculinity, even though the man himself was not actually wearing Richard James.

Had I walked around London in the mid-Seventies, at the height of McQueen’s fame, I would probably have seen far fewer references to the star than the sea of images on display last weekend. So what is it about Steve McQueen that, more than 30 years after his death, has made him such a magnet for so many big brands? He did not make that many movies. He was generally seen as being irascible and hard to work with by many in the industry. And by today’s standards, he kept himself out of the public spotlight as much as possible.

I finally settled on two things that shed light on both the appeal of McQueen and the current limitations of today’s celebrity endorsement-obsessed culture.

First, we must acknowledge that McQueen offers consumers a sip from the elixir of authenticity. It’s a nectar that tastes so much sweeter than the confection today’s movie stars represent. While I enjoy the work of Brad Pitt and George Clooney and the like, they are hardly role models in real life. George has a nice house on an Italian lake and Brad is clearly an inspirational father to his large, multi-cultural family. But these are not the dreams most men aspire to.

Men, alas, are driven by much baser imaginings. Most of us want to look cool, be impossibly superior to our peers, irresistible to the opposite sex and be able to drive very fast in very nice cars all the time. Female readers may harrumph at this vision of masculine aspiration but I can assure you that most men really are that sad. Ask your male colleagues if they would rather be George Clooney or Steve McQueen – and only the metrosexuals and those trying to impress you will opt for the former.

Men want to be McQueen because he was the real deal. Clooney’s Dad was a TV news presenter, McQueen’s was a stunt pilot. For the circus. Clooney grew up in a rich suburb of Kentucky, McQueen at Chino the notorious teenage reform school. Clooney was an extra before he made it as a movie star, McQueen was a Marine who saved the lives of five of his men by pulling them from a tank about to sink into the sea. And you can tell. When McQueen smokes a cigarette or glowers at a bad guy – he really knows what he’s doing. Clooney by that standard is just a great actor.

Aside from the inherent shortcomings of today’s celebrities, there’s another reason why the endorsements McQueen made have been so enduring. The reason McQueen is associated with Tag Heuer is because he bought a Monaco to look like his racing idol, the Swiss driver Joe Siffert, in the Le Mans movie. He wore Persol sunglasses everywhere he went because he loved their blue lenses. His association with Barbour is based on the fact that on his way to represent America in the 1964 International Six Days Trials motorbike competition in East Germany, he bought a Barbour jacket on the way there in London as protection against the European winter. He wore it throughout the event (with a small stars and stripes motif that he sewed onto the shoulder).

These endorsements endure because they are authentic. I cannot imagine my son, 40 years from now, sipping his Nespresso and remembering the great coffee drinking days of George Clooney – partly because Clooney was just a good actor but mostly because his endorsement of the brand didn’t come across as being a personal one.

For 21st century marketers the lesson is not to associate brands with the bygone heroes of the past like McQueen. In doing so, brands like Richard James, formed more than a decade after McQueen’s death, merely highlight their lack of authenticity and originality.

No, the challenge is to seek out today’s genuine heroes who are already clients of the brand. And don’t pay them for their patronage – to do so is to extinguish the nascent authenticity at the heart of the relationship and its future power. Foster a genuine relationship with genuine heroes, and maybe 50 years from now that endorsement, and your brand, will also live on. Steve McQueen was an iconic movie star and an endorser of some of the world’s leading brands.