The video for Usher's latest single, "Love in This Club," begins like any other: The singer sits alone in an ambiguous place with moody lighting.
Suddenly, Usher reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Sony Ericsson W350. A beautiful woman's photo appears on the screen. A few seconds later, she materializes in person. The rest, well, proceeds like a typical music video.
How did Sony Ericsson nab a starring role in a high-profile video? In a word, money.
Cellphones are beginning to rival cosmetics and fashion in their pursuit of celebrity star power. Sony Ericsson has Usher and tennis star Maria Sharapova. Motorola has David Beckham, Danica Patrick, Wyclef Jean and Fergie. Samsung has soccer studs Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba. And that's not counting the corps of Bollywood, Cantopop and K-pop stars the companies employ in Asia.
Motorola has used brand ambassadors for about two years. The celebrities "help elevate and build credibility for the Motorola brand and products," says Jeremy Dale, vice president of marketing for Motorola Mobile Devices.
The trend is growing as more people around the world acquire cellphones--3.5 billion and counting--and phone makers realize they need to work harder to sell their wares. Brand marketers say the match-ups make sense. "As the market gets more saturated, success is increasingly tied to retaining users and stealing other companies' consumers," says M:Metrics analyst Jen Wu. "The challenge for handset manufacturers is that the meaningful differences between one handset and another are small," says Allen Adamson, a managing director at San Francisco-based brand consultancy Landor Associates and author of BrandSimple. "If you can't differentiate on a product level, you need to do it on an image level."
That, unsurprisingly, is where celebrities come in. Sony Ericsson tapped Usher to represent its Walkman line of music phones based on his musical ability, mass appeal and youthful fan base, says Karen Morris, the company's vice president of marketing. Besides flashing Sony Ericsson in his videos, Usher will pose for in-store ads and provide exclusive photos and videos to AT&T, Sony Ericsson's U.S. carrier. In turn, Sony Ericsson will sponsor the singer's North American tour later this year.
Musicians, in turn, see phone endorsements as a respectable way to earn money amid sinking album sales. "At the rate the industry is turning, cellphones will matter more than any other mobile device [in terms of music sales]," said Usher at the press conference announcing his Sony Ericsson deal.
Sony Ericsson isn't the only phone maker that recognizes the power of pairing musicians with music phones. Motorola employs Wyclef Jean and Fergie to talk up its ROKR phone. Samsung drafted singer Rain--often called Asia's Justin Timberlake--to be its "Olympic brand ambassador" and enlisted Lebanese singer Elissa to publicize its F400 music phone in the Mid-East. In Hong Kong, singer-actor Andy Lau plugs LG Electronics' Shine phone. In China, Taiwanese R&B singer Jay Chou hawks Motorola.