A collaboration that's been rumored for months between Rihanna and MAC makeup has just been confirmed. The deal — including the rollout of four cosmetics collections over the next year, expected to bring in $15 million at retail — raises an inevitable question. Is there a downside to aligning with a scandalous star like Rihanna, and how do brands reconcile using her as a strong female spokesperson in the midst of her ongoing romantic ties to Chris Brown, the man who assaulted her?
This is how MAC's president John Demsey responded in Women's Wear Daily:
Seemingly everything Rihanna does makes news on an almost-daily basis — including her on-again, off-again relationship with Brown, her allegedly abusive boyfriend. When asked if that coverage was a potential downside for MAC, Demsey didn't skip a beat.
"She's a grown woman, and whatever makes her happy makes us happy. Life's complicated. Far be it for us to judge," he said.
"Whatever makes her happy makes us happy" seems like a frankly gross way to view a 25-year-old pop star's reunion with her physically abusive ex, whose recent achievements amount to getting a battered woman's face tattooed to his neck. Perhaps MAC can afford to be cavalier: The company is marketing to a group of young women who are less likely to care about the seemingly imprudent choices Rihanna makes. But not all brands willing to pay millions for celebrity spokespeople are also willing to overlook a star's personal life. Experts agree that eventually, Rihanna is going to have to better manage the negative publicity she generates if she wants to keep landing lucrative endorsement deals as her career progresses. Because right now, her approval rating is at an all-time low.
And MAC isn't betting on Rihanna's future. The yearlong MAC partnership makes sense because the company is only going after short-term gains, said Jo Piazza, author of Celebrity Inc.: How Famous People Make Money. "If brands are thinking about long-term gains, they want a celebrity who's stable, who reaches the widest audience possible, and who doesn't just appeal to the coast, but who appeals to the mom and the housewife in Middle America, because that's the person who's buying these cosmetics," she said. Think Natalie Portman shilling Dior perfume. But MAC has smartly realized that brand loyalty is harder to come by in today's marketplace, instead opting to sign edgier stars like Rihanna and Lil' Kim, who appeal to 20-year-olds.
"I would never sign Rihanna for a brand that did not have that kind of edge to it because I think it completely turns off consumers who are a little more settled, a littler more stable. I think she turns off the entire over 30 market, but since MAC is trying to galvanize this younger audience she's very intriguing to them," Piazza said. "Despite the fact that her relationship with Chris Brown is a turn-off, to millennials it's not." For evidence of this, just review all those tweets by young women who said they'd let Chris Brown beat them.
"I think for any consumer over the age of 25, your jaw drops, but this 15- to 25-year-old consumer is going to think, 'I'm intrigued by Rihanna, I'm intrigued by Chris Brown, I do appreciate her being a spokesperson for this company,'" Piazza said.
Rihanna also recently signed a deal to do a clothing line with British chain River Island. Though widely panned at fashion week, the line is likely to gain short-term traction with a young consumer in a similar way. The main problem with Rihanna — and why she's not likely to forge any long-term endorsement deals any time soon — is that she's "not relatable," Piazza said. She's fun to follow as an edgy fashion icon but to breed brand loyalty, "you want someone who seems like you," she continued. "She doesn't seem like anyone because she's so far out there." Kate Winslet, who endorses Lancome, for instance, is much more relatable.
Brown has proved to be a big liability in terms of Rihanna's public approval rating, as measured by her Q Score. The Q Scores company measures both a celebrity's level of recognition and her appeal in the marketplace; companies looking to partner with celebrities rely on Q Scores to figure out who would be best suited to endorse their brand. Q Scores has been tracking Rihanna since 2006. Since then, the percentage of the population who knows who she is has risen from 30% to 80%. But the percentage of people who know who Rihanna is and say she's one of their favorite personalities is only at 13%, said Q Scores spokesman Henry Schafer.
The average celebrity today is known by 30% of the population and is a favorite among 16% of those people. The average female musical performer has a 54% awareness score, and a 14 Q Score. While the public's awareness of Rihanna is well above average, her Q Score is now below average — a cautionary sign for brands of her softening consumer appeal.
According to Q Scores' data on Rihanna, her appeal peaked in early 2009 with a 29% Q Score. The Grammys she missed due to the Chris Brown assault took place in February of that year. Over the second half of 2009, Rihanna's Q Score dropped to 22 and eventually landed at where it is now. Compare her to the far more stable Dior face Natalie Portman, whose awareness is at 57% with an Q Score of 18.
Unsurprisingly faring worse than Rihanna is Brown, who Q Scores has been tracking since 2007. His awareness is currently at 66%, but his Q Score is only at 11. (The average awareness level for a male musical performer is 46%, with a 16 Q Score.) Like Rihanna, Brown's Q Score peaked in 2009 and then started falling to where it is now.
"They're both being affected by their relationship regardless of their professional careers," Schafer said. Numbers like theirs are "usually an indicator that they're not addressing their issues publicly properly, and creating a negative perspective with consumers."
Amongst women aged 18 to 34 — the market for her makeup and clothing lines — Rihanna's numbers are better, with 86% awareness and a 14% (or average) Q Score. But that's fallen from the 29% Q Score she hit with that demographic in 2009.
"I would say it's like a cautionary outlook on her consumer appeal right now," Schafer said. "She's very visible, no doubt — she's virtually 80% awareness across demographics, so it's just a matter of resurrecting her appeal."
Piazza thinks Rihanna could salvage her appeal by steering her career in the direction of Madonna's. Madonna is the rare star who's been able to successfully reinvent herself with each scandal — but the difference between Rihanna and Madonna is that Madonna is controlling and manufacturing her scandals. "Rihanna's playing a little too fast and loose with her brand right now," said Piazza. So that bad-girl image, captivating though it may be, "is not necessarily a good business model."