x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Dr Dre, Will.i.am and Alicia Keys: Why tech manufacturers are going rock 'n' roll

BlackBerry is one of several companies that have turned celebrities in a bid to boost sales and capture new markets. But bringing in showbusiness heavyweights is not without risks.

Lady Gaga was named creative director for a specialty line of Polaroid products. Ronda Churchill / Bloomberg News
Lady Gaga was named creative director for a specialty line of Polaroid products. Ronda Churchill / Bloomberg News

In the weeks leading up to BlackBerry's splashy unveil of a new line of smartphones this year, the company fought hard to keep a major part of its launch a heavily guarded secret.

Many details about BlackBerry's new mobiles had already been leaked to the public, so few of its employees were made aware of how the company's presentation would ultimately unfold. A carefully rehearsed ending, in particular, was largely a ruse.

"We actually did a run-through for our management team with an alternative ending," says Heidi Davidson, a spokeswoman for BlackBerry.

"They all thought there was a different ending."

During the global unveil, almost everyone at BlackBerry expected the chief executive, Thorsten Heins, to cap off the show. But from behind the scenes, after grooming in a private greenroom and slipping through a back entrance, emerged the pop singer Alicia Keys. Her new role at the company was also announced: creative director.

BlackBerry is only one of a growing number of tech manufacturers turning to the creative input of celebrities - oftentimes musicians - in a bid to better their devices and boost sales.

Intel's corporate roster includes Will.i.am, the artist who first made it big as the frontman for the Black Eyed Peas. He now stars as the company's director of creative innovation.

A new venture named Daisy is planning to stream music online. It dubbed Trent Reznor, from the band Nine Inch Nails, as its chief creative officer earlier this year.

Over at HP, employees from the computer and printer company have previously collaborated with No Doubt's lead singer, Gwen Stefani, as well as the fashion designer Vivienne Tam on a peony-themed mouse and butterfly-patterned netbook.

For manufacturers, these kinds of partnerships are typically seen as a way to tap new segments of shoppers, or breathe life into struggling business areas where products could use some much-needed creative flair. Lady Gaga, for one, appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2010, where the singer was declared the creative director of Polaroid - the camera company that had filed for bankruptcy, twice, between 2001 and 2009.

Since then, the singer and the company have unveiled a picture-taking set of sunglasses called the GL20 Camera Glasses, through the Lady Gaga "Grey Label" brand.

They have also co-designed the GL10 Instant Mobile Printer, which lets consumers print small images on the go from a smartphone, digital camera or computer.

In BlackBerry's case, the company says it hopes Keys can help with "seeding and influence" about the adoption of mobile apps on its platform given she is one of the top 30 people on Twitter, with more than 13 million followers.

The phone maker, which is based in Waterloo, Canada, is also seeking ideas from Keys for entertainment-related projects and leveraging her star power among women to attract more female subscribers to BlackBerry phones.

"She's working very closely with us," says Ms Davidson.

"She may be in a commercial at some point but that's not what we wanted."

"We're very focused on the brand and what's driving the brand and different audiences, and we think that she will relate quite well in terms of that female audience. We're working with her to create and curate content for women who are trying to do everything."

BlackBerry would not disclose details about its financial relationship with Keys. Typically, experts say, a celebrity partner might be offered a set fee, royalties based on certain product sales or an equity stake in some ventures.

But not everyone in the industry sees these kinds of tie-ups as a significant sales booster.

"There may be some sort of collaboration but most of it would probably be to do with superficial designs," says Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer for Jacky's Group of Companies based in the UAE, which oversees the electronics retailer Jacky's.

"To be honest, I think most of the benefits of these creative partnerships tend to help the brand value of the individual manufacturer rather than aiding the retailer," he adds.

Tech analysts say it is difficult to determine exactly how much influence a celebrity might have over the specific device a fan purchases. And the consumer hype for new products does tend to have a short-term effect.

The selling price of Polaroid's GL10 printer from Lady Gaga, for instance, has been cut by US$30 to $169.99. Meanwhile, the GL20 glasses have yet to make it to market following an announcement back in January 2011.

Convincing concertgoers to use a particular product may also be challenging.

During Keys' recent Set The World On Fire concert tour, the crooner displayed unique videos based on photos that had been shared by fans. But the pictures could just as easily have been taken by an iPhone or another device from a BlackBerry competitor then uploaded online.

Perhaps most troubling is when a celebrity gets embroiled in a public relations fiasco.

"Negative, real-world events can have a major effect on a brand, causing loss of income, reputational damage and so on," says Omar Kassim, the founder of JadoPado, an online electronics retailer based in Dubai.

For this reason, some consultants in the smartphone market refrain from advising clients to take this creative marketing approach.

"An extensive, long-term partnership with [a] celebrity is not advisable," says Thomas Kuruvilla, the managing director of Arthur D Little Middle East, a consultancy.

Certainly, some celebrities have proven to be reliable partners - even if they do not get as creatively involved, or switch between rival manufacturers for that matter.

The Irish rock band U2, for one, endorsed Apple's iPod back in 2004 and famously appeared in the company's advertising campaign promoting the portable music player.

More recently, though, they were featured in another campaign tagged "BlackBerry Loves U2".

Many point to Dr Dre, a record producer and rapper, as someone who smartly played to his strengths while creating strong global demand for headphones and speakers under his Beats by Dr Dre brand. He has done so, in part, by featuring fellow celebrities in ad campaigns, including the singer Nicki Minaj.

"I think Beats by Dr Dre has the right mix," says Mr Kassim.

"This really helped to build out the brand and push it to an audience that values celebrity endorsement. Dr Dre and headphones is a natural fit."

Still, there are challenges, says Mr Panjabi.

"You could see the synergy with the musicians endorsing the headphones but you don't quite see that with the technology industry and celebrities."