Be they subtle or downright brash, fashion’s relationships with the famous and infamous are long established as part of promotional practice. But although the use of celebrities may be a potent weapon in the fashion promoter’s arsenal, research into its effectiveness is still maturing. Furthermore, the types of promotional activity undertaken by celebrities on behalf of brands have expanded significantly during the Internet era. Paid endorsements remain relevant today— often amplified via social sharing—but fashion promoters now enjoy access to a host of other ways of using celebrities to boost their brand’s profile among an increasingly atomized consumer market.
Following definitions and a brief history of celebrity involvement in fashion promotion, this chapter probes existing research into the practice, shedding light on its effectiveness, and offering insight into how it works, with recent examples and commentary on the importance of social media in enhancing celebrity impact.
Celebrity status can be attributed to a whole continuum of people within the public eye, from high-status, glamorous or skilled individuals through to the most infamous: serial killers and those best known for committing lewd acts. No longer simply a media phenomenon, celebrity is now the subject of intensive academic scrutiny, with its own classification system:
Celactors: fictional characters (e.g., James Bond; Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City). (Rojek, 2001)
However, many celebrities are difficult to pigeonhole. For example, the Kardashians rose to prominence due to their father’s role as defense attorney in the 1995 murder trial of American football star, O. J. Simpson, so their fame could partly be attributed to lineage (ascribed celebrity). The sisters have since featured in reality TV shows as celetoid celebrities, but Kim is now perhaps most famous for a pornographic home movie made with then boyfriend, the rapper Ray J, and subsequently, her marriage to Kanye West—typical “attributed celebrity” territory. As Ellis Cashmore (2006: 205) notes: “The distinction between ascribed, attributed, and achieved celebrity has been not so much blurred as erased.”
Long before the nineteenth century emergence of fashion branding—where European couturiers first “branded” their garment using name labels— influential individuals sought out the most reputable dressmakers, milliners, and glovers as a guarantee of quality. In these relationships, both artisan and customer benefitted from making their association known by word of mouth. While celebrity involvement in fashion promotion is now commonplace, a brief overview of its roots highlights how the original, often serendipitous, associations have transformed into a distinct and virtually ubiquitous commercial promotional practice.
Charles Worth is commonly cited as an early exponent of celebrity endorsement. Having opened his first shop in Paris in 1858, the couturier lured in Princess Pauline von Metternich—wife of Austria’s ambassador to France—as a client to draw the attention of the French royal court. Having noticed Pauline wearing one of Worth’s creations, Emperor Napoleon’s wife, Eugénie de Montijo, ordered Worth to supply her with a selection of gowns, one of which Napoleon encouraged her to wear as a means of promoting the Lyon silk industry. Eugénie’s taste gained a popular following at court, and Worth’s reputation was made.
As designers metamorphosed into brands throughout the twentieth century, they sought new ways to differentiate their products, becoming less reliant on propositions predicated on value and quality, in favor of emotional associations with talented or notorious personalities. In 1927, the Sears catalogue included a display ad for inexpensive Clara Bow Hats modeled by the Paramount actress.
However, not only was Hollywood considered somewhat vulgar by many designers and fashion followers, but until the demise of the studio system in the 1960s, virtually all United States movie stars’ sartorial needs were catered for by costumiers. These included MGM Studios’ Adrian Greenberg (responsible for Joan Crawford’s famous 1932 Letty Lynton gown, which reportedly sold one million copies in America), Paramount’s Travis Banton, and the most celebrated Edith Head, who worked for Paramount and Universal. Not only were studio costumiers responsible for all leading characters’ on-screen attire, but also movie première and award ceremony gowns.
A notable exception to the dominance of Hollywood costumiers was designer Hubert de Givenchy who, in 1953, was introduced by Paramount studios to Audrey Hepburn, about to star in a new movie, Sabrina. After initial reservations, Givenchy and Hepburn developed a relationship that led to the designer providing costumes for several Hepburn movies, most famously, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
With the advent of television in the 1950s, and the Hollywood Antitrust Case forcing studios to sell off their cinemas, a financial downturn for the movie industry led to many studios sacking their costumiers. In addition, the creeping influence of realism in movies led to more “everyday” attire replacing chinchilla fur or sequined gowns. Luxury brands eager to benefit from these evolving representations of glamour seized upon such developments, with Giorgio Armani at the forefront. So crucial were Armani’s designs to the memorable aesthetic of the cult 1980 Richard Gere movie, American Gigolo, that the influential website Clothes On Film wrote: “American Gigolo is not even about its protagonist; it is about what he wears. American Gigolo is about Armani.”
From film costumier to celebrity stylist, Armani quickly became the go-to designer for Hollywood A-list red-carpet attire, providing outfits for twelve actors at the 1990 Oscars ceremony—an event dubbed the “Armani Awards” by trade publication WWD. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour declared it “a revolution… Armani gave movie stars a modern way to look.”
Since the 1990s, relationships between luxury brands’ creative directors and Hollywood royalty have proliferated. Many of these relationships follow the artist-muse form exemplified by Givenchy and Hepburn. Pairings include Sofia Coppola and Marc Jacobs, with Coppola collecting an Oscar in 2003 wearing a Marc Jacobs purple dress, and posing topless the same year for an ad for the Marc Jacobs fragrance, Blush. In 2013, Jacobs invited Coppola to work on the advertising campaign for his Daisy fragrance, tweeting at the time: “Best friends make magic together: Our dearest Sofia Coppola will be directing the Daisy TV ad campaign this Fall!”
Anne Hathaway and Valentino are similarly linked, since first meeting in 2005, with Valentino designing Hathaway’s dress for her 2012 wedding. Jennifer Lawrence and Dior have a long-running relationship since Dior’s creative director, Raf Simons, selected her as the face of the brand’s advertising in 2012. Likewise, Cate Blanchett supposedly signed a ten-million-dollar contract with Armani in 2013 to appear as the face of Armani fragrance—a deal considerably more valuable than Brad Pitt’s reported seven-million fee to endorse Chanel fragrance in 2012, and dwarfing a similar three-million arrangement made in 2010 between Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester and Vera Wang. While these associations appear to have been healthy for the brands involved, far less successful was the arrangement between Ungaro and Lindsay Lohan. The actor’s 2009 role as artistic adviser to designer Estrella Archs was roundly deemed disastrous (Odell, 2009).
Celebrities are used in a multitude of ways by fashion promoters for many different purposes, depending on the specific marketing needs of their brand at any particular point in time. The table below describes the most common ways in which celebrities are used to help promote fashion brands.
Eight Types of Celebrity-Brand Relationships in Fashion
Today’s celebrity fashion associations span the continuum from Hollywood’s highest earners to reality show “wannabees”, all of whom have a specific niche of interest to fashion brands. But how do brands select their stars, measure effectiveness of endorsements, and deal with damage limitation when human frailty threatens credibility and profit?
Many academics have investigated the reasons for the ongoing appeal of celebrity. Early research established the “source credibility” and “source attractiveness” theories, originally devised to help understand how certain individuals were able to communicate more persuasively than others, through either their level of perceived credibility, or their appearance (Howland and Weiss, 1951; Baker and Churchill, 1977). These theories were later applied to the study of endorsement effectiveness (Ohanian, 1991). However, in his 1989 critique of these theories, academic Grant McCracken proposed an alternative: the “meaning transfer” model, whereby celebrities’ effectiveness as endorsers “stems from the cultural meanings with which they are endowed” (McCracken, 1989). In McCracken’s model, “meaning” comes from celebrities’ persona, attributes, and achievements including any stage and screen roles. This is then transferred by consumers to any products associated with the celebrity, either through endorsement contracts, or less formally—for example, when a garment is worn in a movie, or at high-profile events. The process of meaning transfer is complete when consumers use the meanings thus transferred to help construct their own identities by wearing identical (or similar, lower-priced) garments to those associated with— and given meaning by—celebrities.
Since the late 1980s, research into the economic value of celebrities for apparel brands has become increasingly sophisticated. Two of the key determinants of celebrity choice—credibility and performance—are easiest to ascertain within the field of sport. For this reason, much of the academic research into the economic effectiveness of celebrity endorsement focuses on deals involving professional athletes and sport/fashion brands. In a 2012 study of 341 sports celebrity endorsement deals, Anita Elberse and Jeroen Verleun found that endorsement added on average ten-million-dollars worth of sales annually for the brands involved, raising average weekly product sales by 4 percent.
While the commercial sensitivity of brands’ celebrity choices preclude accurate pronouncements on the reasons for their selections, today’s brand-celebrity partnerships are likely to be derived through a combination of market research, celebrity availability, and—perhaps most importantly for paid endorsements—budget. Given the high fees involved in such deals, the extent of research into this area seems appropriate, although to date, little firm evidence exists to suggest a fail-safe formula for fashion brands seeking the perfect celebrity fit.
Much research into celebrity endorsement focuses on how the “fit” or “matchup” between brand and the celebrity’s image affects consumers’ attitudes towards brand and intent to purchase. A good fit between celebrity and brand is generally considered to add to the persuasiveness of any endorsement, and it may also increase the celebrity’s trustworthiness and appeal. Predictably, a bad matchup is likely to have negative consequences (Erdogan, 1999), and can also result in the celebrity’s personality overwhelming the brand. In addition, events, both positive and negative, affecting the celebrity’s social or professional life, are likely to have significant impact on associations with endorsed products (Till & Shimp, 1998).
Moving beyond the realm of typical endorsement activity, researchers Astrid Keel and Rajan Nataraajan have investigated other forms of celebrity marketing including celebrity-branded product lines, exploring the factors contributing to the success of celebrity-branded products. The researchers highlight the variety of celebrities’ involvement in the product ranges they endorse. Victoria Beckham and Elle Macpherson are cited as examples of highly involved celebrities in their respective dVb luxury fashion and Elle Macpherson Intimates lingerie lines. As yet, there is no consensus on exactly how celebrity involvement in branded fashion products affect brand attitudes, purchase intent, sales, and the longevity of the brand (Keel & Nataraajan, 2012).
Research into the industry perspective on choosing celebrity endorsers shows that although practitioners are unlikely to consult theoretical models, they instinctively use some common criteria in making these important strategic decisions, with five main areas typically considered:
No doubt, celebrities by birth or by achievement still command the most lucrative endorsement deals, but just as Internet entrepreneurs have stealthily joined captains of industry atop the world’s rich lists, other types of celebrity are joining the endorsement jet set. For example, celebrities engaged by Calvin Klein for its 2014 “show yours #mycalvins” campaign have included: musicians Trey Songz, Fergie and Iggy Azalea; models Miranda Kerr, Vanessa Axente, Clark Bockelman, Garrett Neff, Liu Wen, and Matt Terry; bloggers Rumi Neely (Fashiontoast), Aimee Song (Song of Style), Bryan Grey Yambao (BryanBoy), Adam Gallagher (I Am Galla), Betty Autier (Le Blog de Betty), Gala Gonzalez (Inside Am-lul’s Closet), and Jennifer Grace (The Native Fox); as well as digital influencers, such as Poppy Delevingne and Hanneli Mustaparta.
Tales of celebrities losing multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts are not uncommon. Drug taking, marital infidelity, and other criminal activities are unlikely to endear a celebrity to a major brand, especially when that brand trades on a clean-cut, high-class image, as do most luxury and sportswear brands. The increasing use of insurance to mitigate against bad behavior by celebrities, and the mini-trend towards using deceased celebrities (e.g., Steve McQueen for Puma), or even cartoon characters, offer several indications of the extent of this issue as a concern for brands (Thwaites et al., 2012).
In April 2013, Reebok ended its partnership with US rapper Rick Ross due to concerns about lyrics on one of his tracks purported to condone date rape. In a statement, Reebok said: “Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand. Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so.” News reports in early 2014 continued to question the status of Ross’s endorsement deal, with the rapper continuing to wear Reebok products, describing his relationship with the brand in a 2014 interview with Huffington Post Live as “super cool.”
Research into the impact of celebrity misbehavior on the brands they endorse is in its early stages and while there is some evidence to support the assertion that criminal, or morally questionable, activities may damage a brand’s reputation and profits certainly in the short term (Thwaites, et al., 2012), there is also contrary evidence to suggest that to some degree, notoriety may bring positive meaning to brands in certain circumstances (Donaton, 2002). For example, in the Reebok case above, the brand sought to distance itself from the rapper due to public outcry about one specific lyric, even though the general content of Ross’s lyrics appears to celebrate a criminal lifestyle, and must be assumed to have been part of the original attraction of Ross as an endorser.
As this chapter shows, the extent and scope of celebrity involvement is vast and wide ranging While academic research has to date failed to show conclusively the financial value to fashion brands of using celebrities in promotional campaigns, it would seem that the practice is cemented into the professional fashion promoter’s repertoire Celebrities may fire the promotional imagination, but precisely how, why, and for how long remains steadfastly open to question.