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Branding Deals With Pop Stars Go Beyond the Casual Endorsement

Full-fledged partnerships have rock stars endorsing products within an inch of their lives

Given the “any revenue is good revenue” mantra adapted by the music biz in the wake of the digital revolution, across-the-board destigmatization of commercial sponsorship is not only the norm, it’s become its own industry — on steroids.

Simply signing an endorsement deal with a brand is starting to look as passe as having no brand partnerships at all, as artists and corporations become intimately involved in ways that would have been unheard of even a decade ago.

Over the past three years, corporations have been handing out creative director titles to pop stars like so many studio VP monikers: Lady Gaga’s creative director gig for Polaroid is now in its third year, and Pharrell Williams has been in that position at Karmaloop TV since 2011. Earlier this year, Alicia Keys assumed the mantel at Blackberry, as did Will.i.am for Intel and Justin Timberlake for Bud Light.

Even traditional endorsements have evolved. In January, Beyonce and Taylor Swift both became “brand ambassadors” for Pepsi and Diet Coke, respectively. Beyonce’s deal not only puts Pepsi logos on tour stages and Beyonce’s face on cans, it essentially gives Pepsi an investor role in her future projects, with the soda company providing what it calls a “creative content development fund.” Swift’s deal with Diet Coke is more like a traditional sponsorship in theory, albeit one blown up to huge proportions: Swift has gone so far as to talk up her love for Diet Coke in a “Bon Appetit” interview, and she has appeared holding a can during on-camera appearances.

But when do such partnerships reach a breaking point, where even the lenient standards of our post-authenticity age start to feel tested? And considering how many young musicians chase superstardom as a way to avoid serving coffee at Starbucks, why are so many of the industry’s top earners shooting for a corner office with a multinational corporation?

Steve Angello, one-third of the recently-disbanded Swedish House Mafia, wasted little time after the supergroup’s spring farewell tour to begin setting up his solo-career brand deals. Before even revealing album-release dates or touring plans, he went public with a partnership with Kraft, for which he will help promote a new energy drink dubbed MiO, designing a signature flavor and debuting new music on the company’s platform.

He says without the ability to be creatively involved with the product and the marketing campaign, it wouldn’t have made sense.

“It’s just hard to find big brands like Kraft foods that are willing to be creative,” he says. “I’ve been approached in the past by big brands to do something weird that wouldn’t fit me.

“If a cell phone brand came to me and asked, ‘do you want to be involved?’ I’d say ‘sure, but can I change the phones?’ … I don’t think you could really just put a product in my hand just for cash.”

Steve Stoute, recently named Ad Age’s 2013 executive of the year, jumped ship from Interscope as head of urban music in 2004 to found the Translation advertising agency, which was instrumental in bringing Timberlake to Bud Light. He concurs with Angello’s idea that artists are at their best when allowed to actually create, rather than simply licensing their name and image.

“Our approach is that we believe the artists have much more to bring than just their face,” he says. “Their finger is on the pop culture trigger. Why would we not embrace them and use their insights and experiences to help inform what we do?”

When a flexible company and a brand-conscious artist see eye-to-eye, the results can be spectacular. One need look no further than 50 Cent’s deal with Vitamin Water manufacturer Glaceau — the Platonic ideal on which so many of today’s branding deals seem to be modeled

In the early 2000s, Vitamin Water was attempting to break out beyond the health food market. Fitness buff 50 Cent, then the hottest rapper in the country, had been seen drinking the beverage on his own dime, and the company approached him for a plug. Thanks to the foresight of his late manager, Chris Lighty, instead of a hired spokesman, 50 became a full creative partner with a signature flavor — Formula 50 — and a minority share of the company. With his involvement, the drink took off, and when Coca-Cola acquired Glaceau for $4.1 billion, 50 saw his personal portfolio swell by a reported $100 million.

Yet pulling off this massive operation is far harder than it looks, and when the brand management isn’t fully integrated, it can reflect badly on all involved.

Keys, for example, raised some eyebrows when her creative directorship at Blackberry was announced, and caused a minor furor weeks later when a post on her personal Twitter account was marked “sent from my iPhone.” (She claims she was hacked.)

Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” has experienced the marketing vs. authenticity debates from multiple angles as a former journalist for the Source, and former VP of A&R for Def American Recordings. He says the Keys incident simply underlined the questionable nature of the pairing in general.

“What the fuck does Alicia Keys have to do with Blackberry?” he asks. “And when has Alicia ever had the aesthetic to be a creative director of anything except an album? It doesn’t make any sense to me, other than it’s a company trying to make something that’s inorganic more organic. It’s the co-optation of cool.

“It’s a title that makes the artist feel better about any misgivings they have about whoring themselves out to a company. But the fact of the matter is, if it’s a good combination, if it’s organic, then there’s nothing whorish about it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, especially in this environment.”

Ice Cube is nothing if not upfront about the transactional nature of his relationship with sponsor Coors Light, now entering its third year, which comes without any sort of title or sinecure.

“You just wanna make sure at the end of the day everybody’s going to be happy,” he says. “I want to be happy, I want Coors Light happy, and to do that I want us to sell a hell of a lot of beers and make their projected numbers.”

Yet even Cube’s partnership comes with a creative element, as the two recently launched “Search for the Coldest,” which will stage a contest for upcoming rappers that Cube will judge. Citing the hip-hop-targeting St. Ides malt liquor campaigns of the early 1990s, Cube sees nothing wrong with involving a multimillion-dollar beer brand in something as street-level as a rap battle. In fact, he sees it as a point of pride.

“Everything’s on a higher level now. Those St. Ides commercials back in the day, you’d see ’em on the Box, or some latenight MTV show. But this, you get to see these during the playoffs, during the Final Four. So it’s really letting Madison Avenue know that you can bank on hip-hop. I mean, who would have thunk that putting Dr. Dre’s name on some headphones would be a phenomenon?”

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