Leading Men

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, all eyes and photogs were trained on the very pregnant Angelina Jolie. But one other celebrity managed to steal the show: funnyman Jack Black, who appeared alongside Jolie on the red carpet to promote a film they made together.

Air-kicking up a storm — the movie was “Kung Fu Panda” — Black executed a volley of roundhouses for the cameras, ensuring that at least one of his feet was in every photo. He was wearing Ben Sherman’s Compton shoe, which was captured on film and printed in thousands of publications worldwide. The publicity for Ben Sherman was priceless, and it was no coincidence.

The brand’s big moment in the flashbulbs was the culmination of a relationship with Black that stretches back five years. And it serves as proof that in the men’s market the best celebrity marketing comes as the result of personal outreach, organic — but strategic — cultivation of talent and careful follow-through on product exposure.

“We reached out to Jack Black about five years ago,” recalled Dana Dynamite, VP of entertainment marketing for the U.S. division of Ben Sherman. Though he was a well-known celebrity back then, Black hadn’t yet reached the A-list status he now enjoys. “I’ve taken him shopping, and he’s always been a fan of the Compton.”

Dynamite’s latest outreach project involves the band Alkaline Trio. Last month, she made contact with the band members when they were in New York to promote their new album. “We’re giving them product now,” she said. “They’ve been buying Ben Sherman on their own, but now we’re going to have a relationship going forward.”

While Dynamite’s access to talent seems effortless, she’s been in product placement for years. Not all brands have access to Rolodexes like hers, though. Victor Hsu, marketing director for Taiwan-based Jump Shoes, faced a challenge when the label launched in the States last year. He wondered how to hitch the company’s wagon to a star, given low brand awareness in the U.S. and a small marketing budget. “We took the route of getting in touch with some management agencies, getting the sizes of celebrities and sending shoes, but I don’t know how much return you really get from that,” he said, noting that sometimes product sent for celebrities ends up on the feet of their assistants and other entourage members. Though Jump still pursues celebrities in that manner, Hsu has hit upon a strategy he thinks works much better: reaching out to up-and-comers and growing along with them.

“We’ve aligned with one actor in particular,” Hsu said. “His name is Sung Kang, best known for his part as Han in the ‘The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.’” Hsu sought out Kang because he was struck by a similarity between the actor’s career and the uphill climb Jump faces in its newest market. “As an actor, he is a challenger to the bigger names in Hollywood, just like we are to established shoe brands,” Hsu said.

Besides wearing Jump on the red carpet and silver screen, Kang also serves as an ambassador for the brand, seeding product with costars and tastemakers. “If he’s a supporting actor in a movie, he’ll interest the lead actor in the brand,” Hsu said. “It’s a much more organic, natural approach.” Kang, who now has an endorsement contract with the company, also starred in a series of short films Jump recently released online.

Other brands have grander ambitions and are willing to spend more money to realize them. With the aid of a public relations firm, Auri Footwear, a new label started by California-based entrepreneur Ori Rosenbaum, achieved significant returns by placing brochures and vouchers for free shoes in gift bags at the Grammy Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. “We were expecting a 3 percent response, but we ended up with about 500 of the 800 gift cards [getting used],” Rosenbaum said.

Making contact is only the first step in winning A-list fans for a brand. Successful marketers then deploy a range of strategies to keep and cultivate their relationships with famous friends. After his gift bag gambit, Rosenbaum began calling some of the talent who had taken him up on the offer. “I wanted to know what they thought of the product,” he said, noting that each conversation was a potential springboard to a closer relationship with the tastemaker in question.

Rosenbaum’s hands-on approach has resulted in relationships with what he describes as “hundreds of Hollywood’s top movers and shakers, producers, agents and actors.” One of his latest “gets” is Benjamin Bratt, star of the new cable series “The Cleaner,” in which Rosenbaum hopes his product will feature prominently.

For bigger brands, retail environments can help introduce a label to celebrities. “Our stores absolutely help with our celebrity outreach,” said Ben Sherman’s Dynamite. The company’s Beverly Center store in Los Angeles is at the heart of the entertainment industry, and Dynamite said the store receives 10 to 15 requests from stars and their representatives each week. “The store really gives them a feel for the brand, with the music that plays and the range of product on display,” she said.

Branded retail also provides footwear companies a means of publicly announcing their relationships with stars. After Jump received a request from Shaquille O’Neal for size 22 shoes, the company duplicated the specially made product and displayed a copy in its New York store, where it still remains a conversation piece.

That is one small but important way of inculcating in consumers’ minds the links between a shoe brand and a celebrity — one of men’s labels’ biggest challenges in the seeding game. Whereas female stars’ footwear choices are obsessively chronicled by celebrity weeklies, men are typically of less interest to the press. Because shoes are often less distinctive in terms of appearance — and often cropped out of photographs — marketers seeking celebrity associations must be willing to accept a certain failure rate. “When a celebrity wears your product, it doesn’t necessarily translate into exposure,” warned Myles Levin, managing director of Maryland-based J Shoes. “But other times it does, and that often comes down to how we communicate the connection to the consumer. Sometimes, it’s through buyer networks, point-of-sale elements or talking directly to registered users of the Website.”

Never one to underestimate even a B-list name, Levin related the story of when Ross the Intern, the lovably schlubby “Tonight Show” personality, professed his love for J Shoes on the air. Levin was thrilled with the result: “The online response shut down our server.”


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