Final Analysis: Do Microsoft's Celebrity Endorsements Work?

| 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.

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Here’s a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout — Alaska will soon be the nation’s fifth-largest air carrier — on becoming the college athlete’s best friend.
 
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
 
On the weekend that news of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW women’s basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines’ own backyard.
 
Alaska’s Husky Stadium agreement — 10 years, $41 million — already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and “student-athlete welfare.” Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses — things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel — that aren’t covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board. 
 
The UW’s annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
 
Alaska’s naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides — tuition, room, board, books and fees — and the “real” cost of attending college.
 
The problem is that this “cost of attendance” stipend has made a  playing field that’s not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if you’re a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose — the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
 
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, “We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local university’s athletics program, we think it’s time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money — and paid them fairly acros the board.”
 
It doesn’t have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in “pay these athletes or we’ll take our sponsorship money elsewhere.” But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a “fairness fee” and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
 
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but don’t begin to acknowledge that an athlete’s contribution to an institution’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public — deserves considerably more than free tuition. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.