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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Red-carpet looks and social-media posts: the truth behind celebrity endorsements

We go behind the scenes of a burgeoning industry to discover that even seemingly impromptu posts, pictures and appearances have often been elaborately staged by brands, working with third-party experts.
The celebrity makes the brand makes the celebrity. Illustration by Samar Sadik
The celebrity makes the brand makes the celebrity. Illustration by Samar Sadik

Arabic music plays in tune to the dips and dives of The Dubai Mall’s dancing fountains. The crowd at the nearby Burj Park is so mesmerised by the sight that they fail to notice the small crowd and camera crew tailing an attractive Indian woman in a striking striped dress. The woman, who also carries an embellished Gucci Dionysus bag, is none other than Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor, who, while visiting the UAE to promote the Dubai Shopping Festival, is being led through the park during Market OTB, where about 100 home-grown brands are showcasing their wares. Once word gets out that the woman is, in fact, one of Bollywood’s best-known figures, who has more than 8.6 million followers on Instagram alone, exhibitors across fashion, accessories and home decor are quick to react, making their way through the crowd to hand their products to one of Kapoor’s crew members – or, if they’re lucky, to Kapoor herself. The cool air is brimming with high hopes; knowing there’s even the remotest of chances that the actress might wear or post a photo of one of their pieces is enough to send the vendors’ imaginations into overdrive.

A celebrity endorsement can be an invaluable marketing asset for a brand. When Kapoor posts a photo on Instagram, for instance, she averages more than 100,000 likes, and her videos can get more than 500,000 views. Dubai-based jewellery designer Vinita Michael is fortunate enough to have had Indian actresses, including Kapoor, wear her pieces.

“It definitely has a huge positive influence, both on sales and your social-media presence, when a celebrity sports one of your designs at an important event,” Michael confirms.

But very few brands have access to A-listers and “influencers”, the term currently being used to describe social-media personalities who have large followings and publish virtual posts in return for free products and/or payment. Because Michael previously worked in India and has maintained connections with key editors and stylists, she has been able to adorn Bollywood actresses, but is now looking to expand into the American market. As a result, the designer recently signed with Create Consultancy, a new enterprise that helps designers, particularly those based in the Middle East, to connect with celebrities in the United States.

Lisseth Villalobos, founder of Create Consultancy and global director of events production and management company The AZDEF Group, started recruiting her first batch of brands in November, right after she facilitated the first overseas edition of the US-based Simply Stylist conference in Dubai. She noticed that many designers who were pursuing celebrity placements overseas were paying exorbitant amounts of money to United Kingdom- and US-based PR agencies. “They think of the Middle East and they think of money, which is fine for the designers who are established, but what about those who don’t have that kind of financial backing?”

“Should they not get a platform because they can’t afford the placement? I wanted to offer something that would give these designers direct [access] to celebrity stylists and red-carpet placements at a fair and reasonable price,” explains Villalobos.

She says that through Create Consultancy, designers can get on the radars of the stylists for Rihanna, Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, Chrissy Teigen, Hailey Baldwin and many more. She reveals that she charges US$5,000 (Dh18,400) for a three-month contract. After signing a brand, Create Consultancy will examine the designer’s lookbook, and pick three to six looks that it thinks will be the most successful. But the designers themselves make the final call on which pieces to send. “We start showing the looks to stylists who we know have the aesthetic and clientele that would like that particular design. Then we start scheduling appointments and fittings as soon as the pieces get there,” says Villalobos.

“It’s targeted,” she adds, stressing that she wants to facilitate relationships that are organic and authentic, rather than forced. Still, there’s never a guarantee that a designer’s piece will actually get chosen for a red-carpet occasion, so Create Consultancy’s business model offers a few ways to ensure a brand receives exposure. “The least they will get is a social-media campaign from us, with a celebrity or social-media influencer. The next stage would be a celebrity campaign, and the ultimate would be to get placed on the red carpet,” says Villalobos.

The cost covers press coverage, plus a private dinner and presentation at the end of the season, where Villalobos invites stylists, buyers, influencers and press to the company’s showroom in West Hollywood and presents the designers’ pieces. “I really want to build those relationships between the designers and their in-house PRs and the celebrity stylists, so the stylists will remember these designers for future events,” she says. “Maybe they won’t use them this season, but they’ll keep them in mind when they have some gala dinner in the next couple of months.”

Lebanon’s Jean Louis Sabaji and the UAE’s Zareena Yousuf are some of the designers currently on board with Create Consultancy. To start off, Villalobos was particularly aggressive with scouting couture and evening-wear designers, since the red-carpet award season generally lasts from September until the first week of March. Ready-to-wear and jewellery designers, meanwhile, can generally be placed on celebrities throughout the year. “I always use Jennifer Aniston as an example,” says Villalobos. “If we know she’s doing her campaign with Smartwater, or if Selena Gomez has a shoot with Pantene, we’ll contact their stylists and tell them we have a great jewellery designer they may want to use,” she says.

Michael is particularly keen to have her jewellery worn by American actresses such as Emma Stone, she tells us, and also wants to generate interest among buyers in the US. “I’m looking at creating brand awareness for the label, which will then be directed to extending our retail operations in the international market,” she says.

While Create Consultancy works to promote regional designers in the US, there’s also plenty of scope for celebrity dressing in the UAE, where concerts and performances are frequent, and elite launches and events are often hosted by international stars. The SMC Group was launched three years ago in the Middle East, and the talent-buying agency recently launched a regional division of The Closet – a global third-party initiative that connects brands with celebrities. “We’re not a talent agency, or agents, or managers – we work for the brands,” says Shamim Kassibawi, chief executive of The SMC Group. “Brands give us an overview of the personality they think represents their brand and we create a sort of database; it could be influencers or celebrities. We share it with them, and work on a set of deliverables.”

Kassibawi explains that a brand’s request may look something like this: they want their product to be worn on four different influencers, one international celebrity and one Khaleeji or GCC celebrity. Because she works closely with the Abu Dhabi and Dubai tourism boards, she can get access to all sorts of individuals visiting the region. She uses Alessandra Ambrosio’s recent visit to Dubai as an example of how the system can work. “Cartier wanted an international name to appear at its Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge, so we procured that deal. How we work is we negotiate for the client – they wanted Alessandra, and because we are the largest talent-buying firm in the world, we could negotiate her rate, plus social-media posts and a photo shoot, which made the cover of a local magazine.”

Outsiders may be astonished by the behind-the-scenes dealings that take place between brands and celebrities, and the fact that what appear like “genuine” moments are often orchestrated. “You know when you see a celebrity going to put coins in a parking machine and they’re wearing XYZ, that paparazzi kind of shot – that’s probably set up by someone like us,” says Kassibawi.

Likewise, Villalobos acknowledges the need to set up shoots to ensure that the connection between a brand and celebrity is maximised. “We’ll send out our personal in-house photographer to do the coverage, with the permission of the stylist and celebrity, to be able to go to the hotel room while they’re getting ready and that type of thing. Then, we can give the images to magazines.”

In addition to being paid, celebrities and influencers are often gifted designer items and fine-jewellery pieces to sweeten the deal. But Villalobos highlights the fact that Create Consultancy deals strictly in borrowing: “The celebrity will return the dress – no keeping, unless they buy it.” However, many brands are more than happy to part ways with their products for good, if it means being picked up and promoted by a famous name. Kassibawi reveals that regional brands often request that their pieces be gifted to the Kardashian and Hadid sisters.

Similarly, designers at the recent OTB Market jumped at the chance of offering a freebie to Bollywood’s Kapoor, considering a potential social-media post to be well worth the cost of the product gifted. Kapoor’s Instagram account flaunts a fair share of fashion, from Gucci to Elie Saab and Ralph & Russo, but so far, is void of any UAE-based brands. Perhaps those products were tossed aside, and never even boarded Kapoor’s plane out of Dubai – or perhaps she just hasn’t had a spare moment to unpack her bags. That’s where third-party agencies, complete with professional contracts, payments and connections to stylists, can prove extremely useful.

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, March 2.

hlodi@thenational.ae