Has Celebrity Endorsement Jumped the Shark?

It's not 2008 anymore
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It's not 2008 anymore
Christopher Caen.jpg

Long ago in 2008, Beats by Dre was launched to an unsuspecting world. Unsuspecting in that its approach to the audience was dramatically different. In reality, the birth of “lifestyle” marketing in technology can be traced in no small way to this launch. Sure, today reviewers make snide comments about the audio quality, and folks like to berate them for being overpriced, but give credit where credit is due.

When Beats launched, technology was sold with techs and specs. Then Beats showed up on shelves across the country, looking exactly like nothing else in the stores. On the side, where one would expect to see microscopic copy with things like frequency response and impedance, there was a man’s face and a story.

The story was about how people were not hearing music the way Dr. Dre heard it in the studio. And Beats were the answer to letting people hear music the way the artists did. This one narrative completely overwhelmed any competitive advantage steeped in numbers. Because Beats at the end of the day were a gift, a favor that Dre had bestowed upon us all, something that he had done not for himself, but for you and me.

Now, that’s a great angle. Dre didn’t create Beats for himself — he created them for us! And by making his name synonymous with the product, he ushered in the age of celebrity-driven audio products. If Dre was the opening shot, Beats then doubled down with Kobe Bryant and the Dream Team, cementing the product in pop culture. Soon you couldn’t walk into your local Best Buy or Target without seeing a sea of celebrity-driven products staring out at you from a wall of endless black packaging.

And for a while it worked. SOL Republic jumped into the market with a line of modular headphones behind the bouncing face of Uber-DJ Steve Aoki. Soul by Ludacris could usually be found on a nearby peg, and every company had a website filled with photos of their celebrity endorsers. The headphone market charged along with growth rates it hadn’t seen in years, and consumer flocked to the stores.

And then something happened. The celebrity wave started to recede, and the “old” brands like Bose, Sony and Sennheiser started to reassert themselves. Audio quality became important again, and actual technical differentiation appeared once more in the market. Sure, Beats still sells like hotcakes, but the day of taking a product off a shelf in China, slapping a face on it, and instantly creating a success seem past us now.

Which is why the announcement from Tidal last week seemed so out of place. For those who started their Easter early, Tidal is the new audio streaming service led by Jay-Z and a pack of his celebrity music friends, including Madonna, Rihanna and Kanye West. In typical celebrity fashion, they announced to the world that Tidal would “forever change the course of music history.”

Easy there, tiger. First off, he didn’t invent Tidal to solve the woes he saw in the market. Tidal, and its parent company Aspiro, have been around for years before Jay-Z bought them. And if its model really was going to change the course of history, you would expect to see that in their numbers. So here they are: Spotify has 60 million global users, and 15 million of those have forked over cold hard cash to become paying subscribers. The number of paying subscribers for Tidal? Around half a million.

But hey, throw some celebrity firepower at that sucker and we have a ballgame, right? Except celebrity firepower isn’t as, well, powerful as it used to be. What made Beats work as a celebrity endorsement was the mythology they built that Dre had done this for us. It was a gift to correct the fact that we were not hearing all the music.

Tidal, on the other hand, is very much not about us. There is no free trial version of the product, so either you pay the subscription fee or you are out of luck. One of the benefits is supposedly that the artists will get paid better, but they neatly avoided mentioning the ugly secret of streaming services at the Tidal launch: The streaming services don’t pay the artists, they pay the labels. So, in reality, you have no idea how much of your money actually winds up the in the pocket of an artist. Tidal is also the latest to try the “lossless” music approach, where the quality of the audio is better than the compressed iTunes files we have all become used to. But if Neil Young’s similar Pono player is proving anything, it’s that the lossless dog don’t hunt.

So at the end, what are we left with? A second-tier streaming company bought off the shelf, with a bunch of celebrity endorsements slapped on top of it. It feels late to the lifestyle party, late to the streaming party, and not terribly focused on us, the consumer. If Beats was the starting gun for creating a new relationship with an audience with a celebrity narrative, Tidal may turn out to be the coda, and the day celebrity-driven technology died.

 Christopher Caen is a partner and chief brand strategist of Theory Associates, a strategic branding agency that creates demand for some of the world’s leading technology brands. He can be reached at christopher@theoryassociates.com.


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