Inside the Consumer Mind

Understanding the rational and emotional foundations of consumer behavior

What Connects Consumers to Celebrity Brands?

Is it “star power” or something deeper?

Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren photo
Beyonce’s brands are hot. Jennifer Lopez’ brands remain popular but are declining. However, if you are still longing for a bottle of Cher’s fragrance, you’ll have to search on eBay.

The basis of these brands is nothing more than the licensing of the celebrity’s name. They have short life cycles which track the stars’ peak popularity. Their afterlife is a lingering existence in Internet auctions and yard sales.

And the aging of the celebrity can be a brand’s death blow. A couple of years ago I conducted a study for a fragrance with the brand name of an international male movie star. At the time the actor was around 50. The target group for this type of fragrance was women in their 20s to early 30s. “Maybe you should be talking to my mom,” said one research respondent.

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When a consumer makes a purchase, money is exchanged for tangible features and benefits. On the brand level, however, the benefits received most always also include positive psychological factors such as an emotion or experience. Brands which have deeper and stronger psychological relationships with consumers have longer product life cycles and are more successful.

Consumers who purchase a fragrance which has licensed the name of a celebrity like Beyonce are acting on the basis of emotion. They really “like” the celebrity. However, music, sports, and movie stars rarely engage the consumer on any basis other than their performance. In a relatively short time period, attention shifts to the next “hot” performer. It is this lack of depth of relationship with the consumer that condemns typical celebrity brands to being nothing more than fads.

However, a few celebrities are able to establish relationships with consumers that are deeper and longer-lasting. These unique people become celebrities because of the success of their brands.

What connects these celebrity entrepreneurs to consumers is an aesthetic predisposition that is expressed in the brands they create. This influence produces brands with enduring qualities. When a celebrity develops a brand based on deeply held aesthetic judgments and principles, the marriage of person and product can have enormous effect on the consumer.

I worked with Martha Stewart on a project prior to the rise of her celebrity star. This was just after the publication of her first book, Entertaining, and while she was completing her second, Weddings. In these two books you can see the aesthetic attitude that put Martha on the map. Her use of extravagant visuals that seem borderless in design and imagination make presentation equal to content and evoke an emotional response – a desire in her readers to break from tradition to achieve the same dramatic effect. In conversation with her then, Martha articulated her aesthetic vision about a style of living.

It is easy to trivialize Ralph Lauren’s products as a preppy and Waspy clichés. But that stereotype misses the underlying meaning of Lauren’s aesthetic attitude. Lauren’s aesthetics are a commitment to classic designs that are beautiful yet friendly and comfortable. He transforms aesthetics into emotions. Lauren’s vision is a timeless statement about life itself. His approach is the opposite from most major designers who entice the consumer with an unending succession of the new. And his aesthetic attitude embodies more than the Ralph Lauren brand; it defines the lifestyle of the celebrity who created that brand. They are one in the same. They cannot be separated.

Finally, while Apple’s iPhone and other products do not carry the name Steve Jobs, his personal identity is bound together with them so totally that they are, in effect, celebrity brands. That’s because they are an intimate expression of Job’s aesthetic attitude. He saw that technology could be imbued with emotion through design. Jobs said, “I want [the product] to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box.” Thus, memory chips invisible to the consumer as well as exterior product designs were created to his exacting aesthetic standards. And to maintain that standard, products like the iPhone often were redesigned at the last moment and at great expense.

So how does the celebrity status of Ralph Lauren, Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart affect consumer attraction to their brands?

Truly successful celebrity brands embody the aesthetic attitudes of their creators. This transference of deeply held personal values gives these brands the quality of authenticity in the mind of the consumer. Through this connection, consumers not only enjoy the design and features of the brand, they experience the celebrities themselves.

 

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., is principal of a consumer psychology practice in New York City. Dr. Murray's specialty is the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, with emphasis on emotion.

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