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Celebrities are taking endorsement deals to a whole new level by becoming more than a brand's pretty face, but part of its management team as well.
Recent history, however, suggests that these deals are more of an exercise in vanity than a boost to the bottom line.
"This is a relatively new thing," said Margaret Campbell, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who led a study on the downside of celebrity endorsements. "Companies that do this are striving to increase their creativity or innovation credibility."
This week, Nick Cannon became the latest celebrity to move into the C-suite. The host of "America's Got Talent" landed a gig at RadioShack as its chief creative officer, effective immediately. Cannon will work to help develop exclusive products with the beleaguered electronic retailer, which earlier this year was sold to hedge fund Standard General after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. ( "America's Got Talent" is broadcast by CNBC-parent NBC Universal.)
The goal, as RadioShack phrased it in a statement, is to "transform the retailer into the must-visit electronics destination."
"Nick actually came to us," Michael Tatelman, RadioShack's chief marketing officer, told CNBC in a telephone interview. He said Cannon met with company executives a few months ago and delivered a presentation that won over executives.
"He's more than 'America's Got Talent,' " he added.
Cannon, however, is far from the only boldface name to try to revive a faltering brand. Observers point out that the road to corporate redemption has been littered with discarded celebrities, many of whom have enjoyed painfully short tenures as creative officers.
"Making a celebrity part of the C-suite does not guarantee or even increase the chances of endorsement success," said Jeetendr Sehdev, professor of marketing at the University of California, whose specialty includes celebrity branding. Sehdev said one of the factors that must fall into place is that the match-up between celebrity and brand has to make sense to "savvy" consumers.
The goal is to achieve a more authentic celebrity endorsement that can better resonate with consumers, experts say.
Cannon — perhaps best known to tabloid readers as the estranged husband of chart-topping singer Mariah Carey — has developed an executive resume. His experience includes being CEO at teen publication Celebrity High, chairman at Nickelodeon's TeenNick, as well as a consumer electronics entrepreneur who has launched his own brand of tablets and headphones.
Those accomplishments, said Tatelman, are proof that "he's a really savvy guy and has really great instincts from a marketing perspective."
Yet Cannon follows in a line of celebrity creative appointments that ended in fairly short order, or produced less than impressive results.
In 2005, at a time when big brands started bestowing titles on big name acts, Gwen Stefani joined forces with HP, under the then-stewardship of now GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, in a creative capacity with a limited edition line of digital cameras—five years before Lady Gaga was named Polaroid's creative director. Stefani's arrangement ended in 2014.
Separately, Justin Timberlake became a triple-threat marketer at both Callaway Golf and MySpace in 2011, then two years later at Bud Light Platinum. Around that time, Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am went to Intel to become "director of creative innovation," a post that lasted a year. He was followed by Alicia Keys, who became "global creative director" for BlackBerry in 2013, before departing a year later. Just last year, pop singer Rihanna was elevated to a creative director role at sneaker maker Puma.
Marketing experts say that brands benefit from celebrity executives in the form of buzz, while the stars themselves benefit from promotional support and additional revenue streams. Timberlake, for example, has since reportedly stepped back from his duties at the Facebook-predecessor MySpace, and Lady Gaga and Keys have each left their posts at their respective struggling companies.
"I saw Alicia Keys at BlackBerry. I saw will.i.am at Intel," Tatelman said, but insisted "Nick holds the promise of being a very influential creative partner." Cannon is already "really involved" and the two "talk a lot," he added.
Yet brands that "seem to be most successful are those where the celebrity is not just a creative director 'in name only,' " said Denise Lee Yohn, brand consultant and author of "What Great Brands Do."
Yohn, who has written about celebrities-turned-creative directors for Harvard Business Review, added that "without that level of substance, the role seems to lack authenticity and fails to generate sustaining value for either party."
"RadioShack is in dire need of a brand reinvention," said Sehdev, the University of California professor, "and Nick Cannon doesn't seem to be the celebrity that will radically change audiences' perspective of the brand."