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NULab Faculty Yakov Bart Comments on Celebrity Brands

Reposted from Northeastern Global News

By Erin Kayata

While news of the mysterious status of her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, dominated headlines last week, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, dropped some news of her own via Instagram: She’s starting a new lifestyle brand.

While information on American Riviera Orchard is still sparse — its website only prompts users to sign up for a waitlist, while the brand’s Instagram page only shows its logo — its Instagram already has a half-million followers.  

A trademark application filed in February shows that the company’s goods include tableware and cutlery, cookbooks and recipes, kitchen linens, and spreads including jams, nut butters and fruit butters. The application also indicates plans for a retail store service.

The concept of a celebrity brand is hardly groundbreaking, said Amy Pei, an assistant professor in marketing at Northeastern University. What is new is celebrities branching out into brands that are outside their perceived area of expertise. 

“Rational consumers know that anything is a money-making ploy,” Pei said. “They are OK with it as long as the products you create are actually great products: high quality, great value (and) useful.”

This principle can be applied to any brand. But celebrities get a leg up when starting a new venture thanks to their name recognition, whether it’s Reese Witherspoon’s book club leading to massive success for its picks or Kim Kardashian’s shapewear line, Skims, which is valued at $4 billion.

“If a brand is known for high quality, people are going to purchase it,” Pei said. “But (celebrities) have this added layer of trust.”

Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, said it might be easier for an influencer to sell products in some ways as their relationship with the consumer is more “familiar.” They’re posting every day and consumers know them. They also have likely built their following on reviewing products. But since celebrities outside the influencing realm are less accessible, buyers might then be more quick to jump on a chance to connect with them.

“Consumers choose a brand (because) they want to be associated with something that brand stands for,” Bart said. “They want to be part of the story that brand is telling. So if they would like to be associated with a certain celebrity, buying a brand associated with that celebrity is one of the ways for consumers to ‘buy into’ the relationship with that celebrity. … Social media celebrities already know how to communicate. Consumers feel like (they) already have a connection with that person. They don’t have to buy a brand associated with them in order to fill the connection.”

But while a celebrity still holds sway even with the rise of online influencing that has everyone from reality stars to bloggers pushing products, the success of brands can depend on whether the product is close to the perceived expertise of the star. There’s a reason cookware lines from celebrity chefs fare well, as do high-quality makeup lines by style icons like Fenty Beauty from Rihanna and Kylie Cosmetics from Kylie Jenner.

“The most iconic example is Michael Jordan,” Bart said. “(Air Jordans) are probably the most successful so-called celebrity brand, because obviously it’s … very closely related to the perceived expertise of that celebrity.”

On the flip side, brands are more likely to flop if a celebrity reaches too far.

“The problem is when you start creating a million different products spanning over many different categories,” Pei said. “They’re not all going to be great.”

Whether Markle’s brand will succeed depends on how people perceive her. Pei pointed out many view the duchess as a style icon and might take aesthetic cues from her. Markle also previously ran a lifestyle blog called “The Tig.”

However, the quality of the products, their pricing and whether people can turn to her for kitchenware remains to be seen.

“(Meghan Markle) is not a cook,” Bart said. “That’s not what she’s known for. So it might be difficult to differentiate from other celebrity brands because there’s no specific recognition.”

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