Luxe Brands: Biting the Hand That Feeds Them?

Some high-end brands would rather not have certain celebs touting their goods.

ByABC News
August 1, 2008, 4:02 PM

Aug. 4, 2008 — -- At first glance, having a celebrity photographed toting or wearing the merchandise from a luxury goods company would seem to be a marketer's dream come true. Instead, the purveyors of high-end clothes, booze and bling are increasingly calling in the lawyers on celebs who feature their goods or trademarks without permission.

Last week, high-end designer Louis Vuitton reached an agreement with Sony BMG after suing the record label for allowing its artists, including Da Brat, Britney Spears and former American Idol Ruben Studdard, to use the company's signature Toile monogram and Multicolor trademarks without permission in music videos and CD inserts.

Rapper Da Brat bounced a beach ball with the Vuitton logos on it in a music video, Studdard used the trademark in his album's artwork, and Spears drove a car with a dashboard tattooed with the colorful symbols.

And while some may consider this free publicity from pop stars that so many fans want to emulate – a following any brand's bottom line would prosper from – Louis Vuitton begs to differ.

"We believe the terms of this agreement will provide strong protection to our brand worldwide," Louis Vuitton said in a statement.

A company spokesperson even told the New York Daily News, "We don't make dashboards," referring to Spears' music video.

A representative from Sony BMG declined to comment about the settlement.

Branding experts told that while luxury designers like Louis Vuitton may have a point when they sue over the misuse of their logos on items they don't even manufacture, beach balls and dashboards won't be hitting the shelves of upscale boutiques anytime soon.

But that's not the only reason luxury goods makers are upset. The truth is the brands don't want just any celebrity representing their hard-earned image, they want only those they hand-pick themselves.

"High-end companies like Cristal and Petron liquor and Louis Vuitton want to be the gatekeepers of their celebrity affiliations," said Marvet Britto, the head of New York public relations and brand strategy firm The Britto Agency.

In 2006, the company that produces the pricey champagne Cristal came under fire when managing director Frederic Rouzaud told The Economist magazine that he viewed the attention the drink gets from rappers and their fans with "curiosity and serenity," according to The Associated Press.

And when asked if he thought the rappers' adoration for the drink would hurt the brand, Rouzaud replied, "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

Jay-Z, one of the rappers who frequently drank Cristal and offered it in his lounges, backpedaled immediately on the brand, even going as far as to recommend that other artists boycott the expensive bubbly.

"[The Cristal incident] was another example of a luxury brand not appreciating the very segment that was largely responsible for the visibility and support of their brand," said Britto. "Now you don't see Cristal the way you used to."

Brand experts added that even all-American clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger had to deny rumors that he once told Oprah Winfrey that he'd rather minorities not wear his clothes. While the claims were never substantiated, the rumors still swirl.

Britto added that Louis Vuitton's No. 1 problem with Sony BMG was likely the advertisement for goods the label doesn't even produce. But she said that there is a general trend among high-end designers to do everything they can to market their products to the groups of people they really want to see wearing them.

"The brands don't say it, but where they spend their marketing dollars is very reflective of who they want wearing their things," said Britto.

Steve Hall, the editor of a marketing industry blog, agrees, and says that while the brand executives may not come right out and say who they do and do not want photographed wearing their items, they make it clear in other ways.

"They will launch the legal machine just to make headaches because they don't want to be associated with Britney Spears, who shaves her head and has a teen sister who has a baby," said Hall.

"While they can't say that Britney's family isn't allowed to buy their products, they're not happy with the association, so they do try to stop it," Hall added.

Hall said that marketing strategists for these companies work long and hard to develop their image and the last thing they want is someone to "take a crayon and draw all over the brand's clear image."

The approach can backfire, said Hall. A celebrity's endorsement of an item can catapult a brand as high as their disapproval can harm it.