In Jamaica, telecommunications company LIME just pulled the plug on a hot new reality show, on its new mobile TV channel Peppa, that featured dancehall star Vybz Kartel. Kartel was last week charged with murder following the discovery of a dead body at his house. He has had a history of run-ins with the law; a few days after the murder charge, he was once again before the courts charged with marijuana possession.
Rihanna has also had a troubling couple of weeks of bad publicity (is there really such a thing in the entertainment world?) of a different stripe. First, there was the unfortunate choice of what to wear to church in Brazil. Then a case of over-exposure in Northern Ireland. Most recently, in her interview appearing in the latest British Vogue, Rihanna professed her affinity for the “c-word” and declared that her fellow Barbadians use the sexual expletive in conversation as they would breathe air. This past June, Rihanna signed an exclusive multi-year contract with the government to promote Barbados tourism; she was previously proclaimed a cultural ambassador-at-large for the country.
Businesses have sought out the patronage and endorsement of the rich and famous for centuries, going back at least to the origins of the royal warrant. Today, brands recruit celebrity spokespersons and ambassadors— most often from the worlds of music, screen and sport— for the prestige, media attention, fan base and increased sales that they can bring. It’s important that the stars align: that the anointed one’s own personal brand be compatible with the values and aspirations of the business brand. The objective is, ultimately, that the minds, hearts and wallets of many new customers will be drawn into a profitable orbit by the gravitational pull of the new star; while, hopefully, the appeal of both brands is enhanced by the relationship.
In return for the financial reward, the brand ambassador is expected to represent, to endorse and promote the brand—to use or wear its product, star in its commercials or media, appear at its corporate events, tweet about it, or by any other means that the company’s marketing team can dream up and get written into a contract.
A brand, however, does not dictate how an ambassador lives their life and cannot be responsible for everything that they say or do. It therefore has to be prepared to take protective action if its representative unwisely begins to “do foolishness”. The brand will want to avoid contagion by association; protect its reputation with customers and the marketplace; and evaluate the value it is receiving for its endorsement investment. If necessary, contractual escape clauses will have to be invoked. It is most likely that Gilbert Gottfried was swiftly let go by Aflac not so much because his tsunami jokes were in questionable taste but because a huge chunk of the company’s business is generated in Japan; you do not make light of your own customers’ misfortune.
As marketers, we hitch our wagons to a shooting star and hope for a great ride. But stars do sometimes fall from the sky. And very occasionally, they blow up and self-destruct completely. A supernova is extremely bright and attracts a lot of attention but you don’t want to be standing next to one when it happens (cue footage from the Tiger Woods Story).
LIME made the right decision—and the only decision that it could—to place its relationship with Vybz Kartel on pause until his significant legal troubles have been closed out. In the case of Rihanna, perhaps someone in the Barbados Tourism Authority needs to temporarily recall the ambassador, have a quiet word and remind her that the objective of the relationship is actually to enhance Barbados’ appeal and thus to avoid saying things that will embarrass or damage the brand.
In announcing her endorsement contract in June, Rihanna was quoted as saying: “Barbados is a place like no other and one of the reasons for this is the spirit and national pride of our people.” It’s hard to reconcile fostering national pride with declaring to the world that Barbados is a place whose people love to accost each other in the most obscene way. (Whether or not there is any truth in what was said is not the issue here. The brand ambassador’s role is to portray her product in its best light, not its worst.)
In political diplomacy, a country’s representative is given the formal title of Ambassador Extraordinary. That sums up the expectation in brand diplomacy, as well: counting that the celebrity’s exceptional ability to command the spotlight and influence the taste of the consuming public will help the product to shine so much brighter.
And happily, it seems that, even when brand stars fade or fall, redemption is still possible. Rolex has just embraced Tiger Woods as its newest brand ambassador, paying tribute to his “exceptional stature” in the sport of golf and expressing commitment to him for the long haul. Tiger’s star is ascendant once again. He has only to watch out for the flying hot-dogs as he gains altitude.