WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

Final Analysis: Do Microsoft's Celebrity Endorsements Work?

Do Microsoft's celebrity endorsements really work?
John Levesque |   January 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

Do celebrities influence you? More specifically, do their endorsements make you buy stuff? Are you more likely to shell out a few hundred bucks on a Windows Phone 8 because Gwen Stefani says it allows her to stay creative and never miss a thing in her busy life? Will it make a difference to you if Jay-Z, an old Friend of Microsoft, jumps aboard the Windows Phone bandwagon, as has been reported by some media outlets?

In case you haven’t noticed, Microsoft likes famous people. Remember when Jerry Seinfeld appeared with Bill Gates in those goofy TV commercials in 2008? Or when Queen Latifah helped Gates announce Microsoft’s vision for digital entertainment in 2004? Jay Leno shows up regularly as a Microsoft accomplice. Conan O’Brien, too.

Attaching the company to famous people is a strategy that, for better or worse, is something Microsoft’s marketing execs believe in deeply. It’s their way of telling the rest of us that it’s OK to want and own something Microsoft makes.

At the official launch of Windows Phone 8 in October, former iPhone user Jessica Alba joined Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer onstage to tout the features and advantages of the new phone. Alba wasn’t articulate or even all that knowledgeable about the product, but the point was obvious: Here was this glamorous young actress—a busy mom to boot—offering her cherished imprimatur to the media horde.

Same with Stefani. She’s an accomplished singer. A fashion mogul. A wife and a mom trying to keep her life in balance. And the Windows Phone 8 helps her do that. Why wouldn’t we want one, too?

As Thom Gruhler, Microsoft’s vice president for Windows Phone marketing, put it recently to The Seattle Times: “It’s creating this permission. I know it’s OK. It’s acceptable. I can pull that out at a dinner party and say, ‘Hey, Gwen Stefani has that phone. Check it out.’”

Don’t know about you, but if I’m at a dinner party where someone pulls out his or her smartphone and starts dropping celeb names, I am long gone before the tiramisu arrives. But that’s just me. Celebrity endorsements are as old as advertising. I mean, if you’re a caveman and you’ve just discovered fire, wouldn’t you covet an endorsement from the celebrated artist who’s been doing all those critically acclaimed cave paintings? (“Before, I could only paint during the daytime. Org’s fire invention allows me to be creative all the time. I absolutely love it!”)

It’s human nature to attach an idea that you think is cool to someone who is perceived as cool. It’s also human nature to look at celebrity endorsements and wonder what they imply about a company that uses them. Are these tactics rooted in inspiration? Or desperation?

Writing in Ad Age last year, marketing executive Jonathan Salem Baskin worried that Apple had lost some of its own considerable cachet by employing Samuel L. Jackson, Zooey Deschanel and John Malkovich to promote the iPhone’s Siri feature. “Hiring famous people is what Microsoft or Acura do when they get Jerry Seinfeld to try to make their brands funny,” Baskin declared. “It’s what packaged goods brands do when they can’t think of anything better to talk about.”

Not that Apple hasn’t used celebrities before. But Baskin’s point is that Apple doesn’t need celebrities. It usually is happy to let its products do the talking. Which leads me to wonder if Apple felt uneasy about the Siri feature and decided to ask the cool kids for help. And if Microsoft will ever feel confident enough not to rely on them.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.