When celebrity brand partners go bad

What happens when celebrity brand partners turn bad? asks Gavan Stewart, managing director at Touchdown Brand Affinity Marketing.

Celebrity is a rather devalued term these days. Time was when to be a celebrity meant being one of the elite, an untouchable Hollywood star, an heroic adventurer or sporting colossus.

Nowadays, it seems that anyone willing to bare some flesh, spend a few weeks locked in a house surrounded by cameras or touch up a pig has the epithet of "celebrity" awarded to them. Once "celebrity" status is conferred on an individual, the marketing juggernaut swings into action to milk every one of those 15 minutes of fame, primarily it seems by endorsing any and every brand in sight.

There is no question that celebrity endorsement can make good business sense, particularly if the brand in question is rather anonymous. A celebrity endows a brand with the face and personality of an actual person rather than a soulless corporation. The problem is, today's stars are no longer the glamorous untouchable creatures they once were -- they are all too fallible and subject to the same human weaknesses as the rest of us. Thanks to the ever-present long lens, these failings are swiftly exposed and the star inevitably comes crashing back down to earth, taking your brand with them.

Basketball star Kobe Bryant is one of the hottest young talents ever to emerge in the sport, going straight from high school to the NBA, picking up lucrative sponsorship deals from Nike, Nutella, McDonald's and Coca Cola along the way. Accused of rape in 2003, Nutella and McDonald's chose not to renew contracts with Bryant and while the others remained on board, they were obviously unable to capitalise on the association, a planned Kobe Bryant trainer obviously never hit the shelves. The rape charge was dismissed but Bryant still faces a civil action from his accuser and it remains to be seen whether his former sponsors will return once the dust settles.

The right to terminate a sponsorship contract in the event of a criminal conviction is nothing new. Take the case of former footballer Vinnie Jones who was enjoying a lucrative deal endowing Bacardi Rum with some of his tough, no-nonsense persona. That is until he was prosecuted for a drink-fuelled air-rage incident and dropped by Bacardi-Martini faster than a former 'Pop Idol' disappearing out of the charts.

As the money and the risks increase, many companies are also now including "win or omit" clauses, allowing them to step away from all or part of the deal if sport stars, in particular, fail to achieve the desired results. A planned ad campaign for Quaker Oatso Simple, featuring Paula Radcliffe and the strapline, "Helps you go the distance", was quickly dropped when Radcliffe crashed out of the marathon and the 10,000m at the Athens Olympics.

Some celebrities seem to be all too keen to shoot themselves in the foot. Britney Spears photographed swigging Coca-Cola while employed as the face of Pepsi, David Beckham shaving his head shortly after becoming the new Brylcreem boy and Helena Bonham Carter, the "face" of Yardley cosmetics, declaring that she never wore make-up spring to mind.

Janet Jackson is another case in point after her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl. In different circumstances, the act itself might not have caused such uproar but the fact that it took place at an event typically viewed by family groups meant that Jackson faced moral outrage and was forced to apologise. It may have sullied the Super Bowl brand in many people's eyes but Google reported that the number of searches for Jackson increased tenfold the day after the incident and it undoubtedly did sales of her album no harm at all.

In certain cases, of course, questionable values can actually enhance the reputation of a brand or celebrity. Frank Sinatra's fans were never troubled by allegations of his links with the Mafia and, in a similar manner, many of today's hip-hop stars find their status boosted by tales of violent conduct. P Diddy's fashion label Sean John achieved $400m in sales in 2003 despite the rapper having twice been arrested on charges of assault and firearms possession. Tommy Hilfiger's clothing line was reputedly boosted to the tune of $100m after rapper Snoop Dogg, once tried for murder, appeared on 'Saturday Night Live' clad in Hilfiger clothes.

Celebrities are also becoming brands in their own right, allowing them to sell a piece of the superstar dream directly to their public. Jennifer Lopez is now the J-Lo brand, churning out cosmetics and clothes as well as the films and music from which she made her name. Canadian warbler Celine Dion flogs her own perfume, as do Britney Spears and Cindy Crawford and any woman famous for being nubile now has her own underwear range; Kylie, Caprice, Elle Mcpherson.

Being so intimately associated with a range of products does, of course, create a whole new set of problems should the celebrity's star wane as it inevitably will or even suffer a spectacular fall from grace as in the case of Martha Stewart.

Stewart was the inspiration for a generation of American housewives and her company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia churned out any number of products bearing her name. The sheer number of different types of her products is simply staggering; Christmas, crafts, gardening, cookery, baking, tableware, entertaining, decorating, furniture, bedding, bathing, home keeping, stationery, weddings and, of course, the inevitable book, magazines and television show.

That all changed last year when Stewart was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about a suspiciously well-timed share sale and sentenced to five months in prison. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's share price tumbled, her flagship television show 'Martha Stewart Living' was suspended, advertisers fled the magazine, merchandising sales tumbled and workers were laid off.

Omnimedia quickly made moves to distance itself from Stewart as far as possible. A brand new magazine, Everyday Food, was launched with accompanying television show to help recoup sales losses, neither of which contained any trace of the Stewart name, image or brand.

However it seems that with careful image management, even the ultimate Stepford Wife is bouncing back. Sales and share price at Omnimedia are climbing back up; Stewart is in talks with various networks about new shows and seems to be manoeuvring herself to become a self-styled champion of reform in women's prisons.

It would seem that some people are simply untouchable or perhaps simply very good at turning any situation to their advantage. These are the stars that brands have to seek out, cultivate and hitch their wagons to if they want to avoid the inevitable embarrassing upsets somewhere down the line.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.