Companies don’t really need celebrities to sell their products or brand awareness, and not every celebrity is right for these assignments. But when the right talent is able to connect with audiences, there is a magic that transcends mere marketing.
Indeed, many companies powered their sales thanks to having the right celebrity in their spotlight.
Here are five of the most successful celebrity endorsement spokespersons. Each one offers a sterling lesson of what the right A-list personality can do for a company’s image.
Joan Crawford for Pepsi: The glamorous Hollywood star married Alfred Steele, CEO of PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP), in Las Vegas in May 1955. During the marriage, Steele used Crawford’s star wattage to shine a spotlight on his celebrated soft drink.
Steele died of a heart attack in 1959. His successor, Herbert L. Barnet, appointed her as the first woman on the company’s board of directors, which created a flood of media attention.
Although Crawford’s film career in the 1960s saw a decline into horror-thrillers of varying degrees of quality, she still captivated the public as an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She traveled across the U.S. and around the world on behalf of the company, appearing in promotional films for Pepsi and greeting investors at business conferences. For this period in time, Crawford and Pepsi were synonymous to most consumers.
Not everyone in the Pepsi C-suite was enamored with Crawford – women were a rarity in boardrooms and the old boys in charge liked their gender exclusivity – and she was forced to retire in 1973; the notorious 1981 film “Mommie Dearest” greatly exaggerated this segment of her life. Nonetheless, Crawford’s work as a corporate brand ambassador and a board director staked out new territory for women to follow.
Karl Malden for American Express: The Oscar-winning character actor’s career gained an adrenaline shot in 1972 when he landed the lead role as a veteran police detective on the TV crime series “The Streets of San Francisco.” The popularity of the series convinced The American Express Company (NYSE: AXP) that Malden’s new persona as a television cop would help promote the safety and security aspects of its travelers checks product.
Beginning in 1973, Malden would appear dressed in the same suit-and-fedora clothing that he wore on “The Streets of San Francisco” while offering micro-dramas of vacationers who abruptly find themselves stranded when their cash is stolen. Malden would explain to the viewer that American Express’ travelers checks could be easily replaced if they were lost or stolen, adding the tagline “Don’t Leave Home Without Them” to drive home the point.
Malden’s campaign lasted through 1994 – “The Streets of San Francisco” went off the air in 1977 – and the commercials resonated so greatly in the pop culture that Johnny Carson would frequently parody them on “The Tonight Show.” In a late-life interview, Malden warmly recalled his work with American Express, saying, “It was a pleasure, it was a joy – I loved every minute of it.”
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James Garner and Mariette Hartley for Polaroid: This campaign began in 1979 and covered 250 commercials over an eight-year run. Polaroid Corporation initially hired Garner as its spokesperson, but his first commercials were too heavy on the salesmanship and lacked charm. The company paired him with Hartley, whose career mostly consisted of one-shot roles on TV shows including “Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek” and “M*A*S*H*” but was not a household name.
The commercials offered Garner and Hartley engaging in leisure-time activities – they were on a sailboat anchored in a marina, at a stable, in a garden, unwrapping Christmas decorations – and Garner would photograph Hartley with the Polaroid instant camera. The pair would watch the photograph develop before their eyes, all while keeping a good-natured banter.
Many viewers assumed Garner and Hartley were married, even though there was nothing in their dialogue to affirm that – Hartley would facetiously acknowledge this public error by creating a t-shirt that read “I am not James Garner’s wife!” Still, this was one of the longest running celebrity advertising campaigns of all time, and it helped to maintain Polaroid’s market dominance in the pre-digital days.
Michael Jordan for Nike: In 1984, Michael Jordan won a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. His athletic greatness was quickly appreciated, but not everyone noticed. Johnson had hoped to snag an endorsement deal with the Adidas (OTC: ADDYY) brand, but the company didn’t make any offers. Nor did Converse, which already had deals with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving.
Nike (NYSE: NKE) was not Jordan’s preferred choice for a corporate benefactor and an initial meeting at the company’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, left him underwhelmed. But the company’s $500,000 five-year contract changed his mind.
The rest, as is often said, is history – the Air Jordan sneaker brand from Nike generated $126 million in sales in its first 12 months the market. In Q2 FY2019, the brand recorded more than $1 billion in sales, a first for sports footwear. The 2020 documentary series “The Last Dance” put Jordan back in the spotlight and reanimated sales of the sneaker. In Nike’s case, Jordan was the gift that keeps on giving.
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Elizabeth Taylor for Elizabeth Arden: In 1991, Elizabeth Arden announced a deal with movie star Elizabeth Taylor on a new perfume called White Diamonds. The product was not marketed as a run-of-the-mill scent – the company first sold White Diamonds at $200 an ounce in an exclusive launch at New York’s Marshall Field & Co department store, and the first 150 customers who purchased a $300-an-ounce limited edition version were treated to a private tea party with the one-time big-screen Cleopatra.
There were perfumes tied to celebrities before White Diamonds hit the market. But as the blog Fashionista observed about Taylor’s star power: “While she certainly wasn’t the first celebrity to come out with a scent, she was the first to do it well.”
The success of White Diamonds stirred a whirlpool within the cosmetics industry, and companies began paying considerable sums to sign various actors, singers and athletes to put their name and image on bottles of perfume and cologne. Still, Taylor’s celebrity influence reigned the strongest – when she died in 2011, 20 years after the product debuted, its global sales were $61.3 million, a top-seller for Elizabeth Arden.
Elizabeth Arden was acquired in 2016 by Revlon Inc. (NYSE: REV), but the new owners were not eager to jettison the brand. Today, White Diamonds is still bringing in revenue for Revlon, and Elizabeth Taylor’s name remains prominently displayed on the packaging.
It would seem that some stars never fade away.
(Photo of James Garner and Mariette Hartley’s Polaroid commercial via Cinema Crazed.)
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