Final Analysis: Do Microsoft's Celebrity Endorsements Work?


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.

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

City regulations may be well meaning, but small businesses are feeling put upon.
David Lee founded FareStart in Seattle to train chefs because he believed the homeless would benefit from “the dignity of preparing food as a vocation.” He launched Field Roast, a producer of vegan “meats,” because he considers the mass industrialization of animals as “a blight on our culture.” He has nurtured a caring culture at his SoDo production facility, remodeling the space so production workers have plenty of space and natural light.
So when Seattle passed a paid-sick-leave law mandating a set number of paid days for sick leave, Lee accepted it. But the results have been disappointing.
“For the first time,” he says, “I have employees lying to me. A medical appointment becomes a paid day off.”
The city’s $15 minimum-wage mandate was another challenge.
“It hurts businesses like ours that compete on a national level against companies in places like Arkansas that pay $7 [an hour],” says Lee. But, wanting to do the right thing, this summer Lee boosted the wages of his employees to $15 an hour four years before he was required to do so under the law.
Seattle can be proud that its $15 minimum-wage law has led the way in driving up wages across the country. And because it is being implemented over seven years and at a time when the local economy is strong, there have been relatively few negative impacts (page 20). Similarly, while there may be widespread abuse of sick leave, there is evidence that the ability of workers to take the time off helps prevent the spread of the flu and other harmful viruses.
But each new layer of regulation is an added burden on business. Now the city is adding yet more regulations — one set that will require businesses to set schedules for employees two weeks in advance and yet another that requires landlords to choose tenants in the order applications are submitted. What’s next? 
A requirement that companies hire employees in the order that they applied?
While each regulation may have some logic to it, the cumulative effect is to make it harder for businesses to fulfill their important role as job creators. The rules can be particularly hard on small businesses without the resources to hire staff to deal with the complications regulations create.
Regulations also create bureaucracy. The Seattle Times reported that to enforce a law requiring landlords to select tenants in the order in which they replied, the city would hire two employees at a cost of $200,000 and launch sting operations. Really?
Meanwhile, the city isn’t enforcing basic sanitation laws to prevent the homeless from leaving excrement on city sidewalks. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience came close to shutting down because an illegal encampment just a block away included “tents serving as drug galleries” that made it unsafe for the museum’s employees and visitors. The problem contributed to the shutting down of the nearby House of Hong restaurant and resulted in negative reviews for the museum on websites like Trip Advisor during the important summer tourist season.
It will be interesting to see if the city’s new director of homelessness, appointed in August at an annual salary of $137,500, can address this expanding problem.
“Clearly, what is happening is that government is forcing business to take on the social imperative,” Lee says.
The altruistic entrepreneur accepts that, up to a point. But the city needs to spend more time attending to basic services. And it has to stop pretending it can solve the world’s problems on the backs of small businesses.
Executive Editor