3 Ideas Better Than Hiring a Celebrity Creative Director

Will.i.am. Lady Gaga. Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Justing Timberlake. No, not a list of Grammy winners. Well, actually, yes, I’m pretty sure

He drinks Bud Light Platinum?

He drinks Bud Light Platinum?

they’ve all won Grammys, but they and others like them have also been tabbed as Creative Directors by brands looking make a splash. The brands tend to be technology companies looking to add a bit of coolness to their ‘science nerd’ persona. The Harvard Business Review blog has a piece on the trend worth checking out as well. Now, celebrity endorsements have been around for a very long time so grabbing a famous face is nothing new, and by making these talented people ‘Creative Directors’ it supposedly adds more authenticity to the enterprise.

But does it? Does the average person looking to buy a computer think, “I was going to get a laptop with an AMD processor, but with Will.i.am in place at Intel as ‘director of creative innovation,’ I guess I’ve got to go for the one with the i7 core instead.” Ok, on some level I can imagine that a laptop needs to be high performance for the type of stuff Will.i.am does – producing, mixing, etc., but how does that qualify him for the Intel gig. Movie stars need high performance toothpaste, but I wouldn’t buy Crest because Jennifer Lawrence was in the lab coming up with a new tartar control formulation.

But even partnerships like Gwen Stefani and HP, or Alicia Keys and Blackberry are more believable than Justin Timberlake and Bud Light Premium. Does anyone think JT drinks light beer? In fact, this pairing seems like it’s more harmful to Timberlake’s brand than it is helpful to BLP.

Of course there are other reasons that celebrity pairings are a dubious strategy. Many celebrities are just one movie, album, athletic season away from being yesterday’s news. Others remain in the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons (crime, poor life choices, etc.). Here are three strategies that are more sensible than going the Celebrity Creative Director route:

Make Your Own Star

Lady Gage & Polaroid. A Recipe for...?

Lady Gage & Polaroid. A Recipe for…?

Yes, Apple has used celebrity in their ads. But the ‘celebrity’ most associated with Apple? Apple’s own Steve Jobs. If you had to name another it might be their Senior VP of Design, Jonathan Ive. Building celebrity from within has several advantages. For one, it’s a whole lot cheaper. It’s also a lot more credible. It was easy to believe Jobs was obsessed with Apple products because Apple was his sole focus. It’s a lot tougher to believe Lady Gaga was sweating the film game over at Polaroid.  Making your own star can also be a strong way to tell employees or potential employees that the company sees the important role they play.

Make the Product the Star

The first thing I think when a brand announces a celebrity Creative Director is that the brand can stand on the merits of the product, and that instead of trying to make the product better, they’re going to try to dazzle me with a boldface name. When craftsmanship and quality are the core of your brand you don’t need much else. Look at Red Wing Shoes, Tiffany or even Starbuck’s. The product is what sells the brand.

Make the Customer the Star

Smart brands understand that their role is to make people’s lives more fulfilled, enriched, easier or otherwise better. Ultimately it is the enjoyment  people get when using your product that is the magic. Put the customer front and center and you are on your way to creating a community, not just renting one from a celebrity. Perhaps no one knows this better than LEGO, who champion and showcase the great creations made by their fans, and have even created the LEGO Certified Professionals group.

Every brand is different and sometimes a celebrity partnership is the right way to go, but the celebrity Creative Director trend is one that can go away. There are better alternatives for brands.



The Huey Lewis Effect

Beware the Huey Lewis Effect

For brands, knowing when to hop off, and on, the cultural merry-go-round can be tricky. Knowing what clothes, food, music, toys or books people are still interested in, or will be interested in next year, is a difficult bit of business. The trick is to align your brand or product with the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time. I call this the Huey Lewis Effect.

Huey Lewis and the News were an extremely popular music act for a very specific period of time. From 1983 to 1986 you couldn’t turn on a Top 40 radio station or watch MTV and not see these guys. Huey and the boys were the right band at the right time. They came right before the Cultural Singularity Paradox exploded everything. 1983-1986 was a period of time when there was still musical distinctions. Hip Hop was for an ‘urban’ audience. New wave was for weirdos who wished they were English. Hair bands were still an L.A. thing. But the massive middle needed something to listen to. Something they could do the White Man’s Overbite to, maybe even belt it out in the car or reasonably hope to sing at the office karaoke night.

Huey Lewis and the News had put out two albums before 1983 and nobody cared. They put out five more after 1986 and people didn’t care too much about those either. Huey Lewis and the News had a formula for the most part, and they stuck to it. It was a great sound in 1985. In 1981 or 1991? Not so much. Think of Huey Lewis and the News and culture as being to lines that intersected once, never to meet again. Now compare that to, say, Madonna. Her line has intersected with culture about 10 times over the course of her career.

The question it would seem for brands is how can they be more like Madonna and less like Huey Lewis and the News? But in reality the question is “How can we be Huey Lewis in 1985, Hootie and the Blowfish in 1995 and The Dave Matthews Band in 2005?” It’s easy to get distracted by the Lady Gagas and Nicki Minajs out there. But if your brand appeals to the massive middle, you’ve got to ride out the peaks and valleys of boy bands, heavy metal and grunge and keep your eye out for the next Billy Joel (the Huey Lewis of 1975).

Trends may come and go, but the underlying truth will always be there. The clothes, music, movies or sports are just the current manifestation.

Lady Gaga, Farmville, Facebook and content distribution

Coming to a virtual farm near you.

Lady Gaga, the reigning queen of pop culture, has announced that singles from her new album will debut on…Farmville? At this point, if you are a marketer, you would be well within your right to throw up your arms and say, “I give up.”

I’ve written recently about a cultural singularity, when disparate aspects of pop culture come together, and how that contributes to, rather than alleviates, the struggles marketers are having. This is another case in point.


It’s possible that you saw Lady Gaga coming in 2008:

No slow burn, just a white hot rise.











And sure, it’s possible you knew Zynga’s social game was going to blow up in 2009:

Old McDonald had a farm, Z-Y-N-G-A













(It’s interesting to note that these two artifacts of culture seem to have come into the popular consciousness at almost the exact same time.)


But even if you were savvy enough to see them both coming, I doubt that you saw them coming together to give the world Gagaville.  Now, five years ago we would have spared a thought for the poor record companies. But they’re so dead we don’t even consider them anymore. Now we scratch our head and wonder how MTV.com, iTunes, Amazon, Pandora or maybe even Verizon let this get away from them. Any of those and we would have nodded and said, “Of course. Smart move by Gaga and Amazon.”

But Gaga and Zynga produces a different response. While we puzzle over those that missed this opportunity, we quietly go to our office and shut the door when we have to think about how Zynga landed this deal.  What does it mean when a game that lives inside Facebook built on the premise that people want to take care of imaginary farm animals does a deal with one fo the biggest names in music – and nobody says, “That’s crazy!” but rather,”Hmm, shrewd.”

If you try to create a Facebook ad targeting people in the United States who like both Lady Gaga and Farmville, do you know how many people you’d reach?  How does 14.5 million sound?  14.5 million people who have the opportunity to engage in a unique, exclusive, interactive, shared experience that combines two things they’ve already told you they are interested in.  Oh.

But this is bigger than Lady Gaga and Farmville (and that’s pretty big). This is about changing the rules.  This is about redefining what’s possible.

These “asymmetrical partnerships” are ones that are the most interesting. This one is particularly interesting because both parties are polarizing. People either love or hate both entities, and apparently several million love them both.  This will be one to keep an eye on.

Janelle Monae and the Artificial / Authentic Paradox

janelle monae archandroid

More Bowie than Gaga.

Over on his blog, Grant McCracken has written a post about Glee and American Idol, and if the ascendence of Glee signals a cultural shift. He talks about authenticity and the artificiality of musical theater, using the latter as a prism through which we can make all kinds of suppositions about the direction of Culture.

Indeed, it’s easy to see American Idol, Glee and the celebrity magazine culture as the other end of the spectrum from the late-80s / early-90s grunge ethos of the Seattle sound.  But those particular examples also need to be viewed through the looking glass of television, which adds its own layer of distortion as well.

Earlier this week Janelle Monae’s new album, ArchAndroid was released.  Here’s the trailer for the album:

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More like a movie trailer than an ad for an album. In fact, Monae has used the term “emotion picture” to describe what she is trying to create.  Here’s Monae on the concept behind the album:

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Total artifice. An android from the future named Cyndi is going to emancipate her android brothers and sisters. And yet this construction seems wholly different to me than that created by Glee or American Idol. Those programs are based on an artificiality that is agreed upon by the show producers, participants and viewers. There is a factory-style assembly line element to it. We know that next season on Idol we’ll have new contestants, and possibly new judges, but that the show will go on. Glee will have new students, teachers and guest stars.

But nobody could pick up where Monae has taken us with ArchAndroid. In this respect, she is more like David Bowie, early Peter Gabriel or even David Byrne, creating a new style, a language, that is wholly her own. Comparisons to George Clinton are not without merit as well, and certainly Grace Jones. The album, which is excellent as a piece of music, is simply awesome as a piece of art. It transcends genre to create something new, and in this way Monae distinguishes herself from another current female star, Lady Gaga.

Glee: The Culture of Artificiality

Lady Gaga certainly has talent, but it’s different. Musically, she can’t hold a candle to Janelle Monae who is not just a better singer (and dancer), but is so much more musically sophisticated. For all her costumes and unusual behavior, Gaga is a pretty traditional artist. How traditional? Well, next week her songs will be featured on, wait for it… Glee. I simply can’t imagine Janelle Monae’s music being featured on the show (or on Idol for that matter*).

My guess is that Lady Gaga, if she’s lucky, will have a career more like Madonna, forced into morphing into another role when the current one wears thin. While I believe Gaga inhabits her current role, I don’t think she has created it in the same way Monae has done with her Metropolis Suite. Monae is more like an author, or multi-media artist in this respect. Again, the comparisons to George Clinton seem apt here. And this isn’t to say that Monae won’t evolve and grow as an artist, perhaps at some point leaving her current fictional world behind. But it already has a permanency that Gaga lacks. Monae has taken the artificial so far and so deep that it becomes authentic.

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