Mogul taps into mainstream 'apirational' market

For Sean Combs, making money transcended the music biz a long time ago.

The mogul has spent the past decade turning his name into a successful brand for clothing, fragrances and, more recently, vodka.

He launched the Sean John clothing line in 1998 (moniker’s his first and middle names) to produce sportswear that reflected a sophisticated urban sensibility. Initially geared toward young males, women’s wear was introduced in 2005.

Combs followed that up in 2005 with Unforgivable, a men’s cologne, as part of a licensing pact with Estee Lauder. A fragrance for women bowed in 2007.

And last year, he brokered a deal with beverage maker Diageo to become a co-owner in Ciroc Vodka.

“What you have is someone who has identified and filled a void that wasn’t being filled — a lifestyle void,” says Derek Ferguson, chief financial officer of Combs’ Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group. “He partly created and partly identified the urban aspirational consumer and lifestyle and identified various brand opportunities that weren’t being addressed by anybody else.”

Each product line represents Combs’ diverse personal style. If it didn’t, Combs says, he wouldn’t be part of it.

“Everything that goes out is critical,” Ferguson says. “It’s gotta represent the overall franchise in a way that adds to it versus detracts from it.”

What that franchise is going after is “a metropolitan type of person who is all about celebration, is discerning and wants a taste of luxury,” says Dia Simms, g.m. of Blue Flame, Combs’ inhouse agency that markets the company’s brands. “The overall brand is essentially about a lifestyle. It’s a swagger. It’s a person who can really appreciate luxury and wants that kind of aspirational, attainable luxury in their everyday life.”

It’s basically Combs’ lifestyle.

Because of that, he’s remained hands-on, often closely overseeing the development of each product that bears his name.

“He’s unbelievably involved,” Simms says. “He really wants to be a tester for his consumer and make sure what’s going to happen when he wears it or tastes it.”

That hands-on approach extends to marketing as well — after all, he’s the name and face that pushes the product. Sometimes literally.

To launch the fragrance line, Combs prominently appeared in the print and online ads for the cologne.

But he’s also enlisted the artists signed by Bad Boy Records to promote his wares.

For example, Cassie was front and center in the company’s campaign for Sean John Women and is the “ambassador” for the women’s fragrance. Day26 and Janelle Monae have also touted Combs’ various lines.

The products also have been integrated into musicvids for the artists Combs reps and his TV shows, including four seasons of “Making the Band” on MTV.

“It’s all about synergy between all the brands,” says Eric Wong, chief marketing officer for Bad Boy Records.

Combs’ brand awareness among consumers is certainly helping push product.

Sean John, which includes the fragrance biz, claims $525 million in annual sales in the United States, up from $400 million in 2003.

It’s the third-largest menswear label, behind Polo and Tommy Hilfiger at Federated’s Macy’s department stores, and easily bests sales from rivals like Rockawear, Phat Farm and Fubu. Department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue also carry the brand.

And it’s received accolades, winning the Menswear Designer of the Year Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2004.

On its own, Unforgivable earned $80 million in 2006, according to the company, and wound up becoming the top-selling cologne of 2006, according to NPD Group.

How much Combs is earning from the fragrances is unclear. Yet in similar deals, celebrities typically collect between 5% and 10% of the sales.

The relationship with Combs has already helped raise the exposure for Ciroc, a 5-year-old brand, through promotional tours, events and contests.

And Combs continues to grow his brands.

The success of Unforgivable encouraged the mogul to create Unforgivable Multi Platinum, a more expensive, limited-edition scent, as well as introduce a women’s line late last year.

And 10 years after launching Sean John, Combs recently expanded into accessories like hats, ties, belts and shoes, and added a sunglasses line through a deal with Marchon Eyewear.

To promote the anniversary, Combs paired up with MTV to air “If I Were King,” a docu on the brand’s first New York Fashion Week runway show in five years, and the behind-the-scenes planning it took to prep the fall 2008 collection.

The docu aired early April, and later that month Combs and MTV also bowed “Sean John: Internship by Design,” in which four New York City design students compete to become an intern at Sean John.

Of course, there may be limits to how many products he can lend his name to.

“We get a lot of things brought to us,” says Ferguson, who has seen pitches for everything from electronic gadgets to boxing gloves, some of which he even calls “a little bizarre.”

“Everyone sees him as an incredibly dynamic entrepreneur and knows what he’s able to bring to various businesses,” Ferguson says. “We’re on a lot of people’s lists. There are a lot of categories that make a lot of sense. Every category that touches the lifestyle and fits in the overall lifestyle of the consumer we’re trying to reach is one that we’ll consider. But if it’s something where brands aren’t important, then we won’t do it.”

Whatever he endorses, it’s got to tie in with Combs, and be something he’d want to buy.

“One thing we do is always focus on Sean, the brand, but the product is most important,” says Jeff Tweedy, exec VP of brand development and licensing at Sean John. “The product should work with or without Puff.”

PUFF ‘N’ STUFF

New vodka line lets buyers toast their good fashion taste

Sean John clothing

Sean John’s critically acclaimed clothing line has transitioned over the years from its baggy, urban-centric roots. Bad Boy artist Cassie is a major component of the women’s line and is the “ambassador” of the women’s fragrance.

Unforgivable fragrance

Celeb fragrances are de rigueur, but Combs’ Unforgivable line has been a huge seller.

Ciroc vodka

Developed with Diageo, Ciroc is one of the company’s super-premium brands, a strategy that fits the Combs empire mold.

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