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Alicia Keys Ends One-Year BlackBerry Deal: Inside The Troubled Partnership

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By Andrew Hampp, New York | January 02, 2014 6:32 PM EST

Alicia Keys Ends One-Year BlackBerry Deal: Inside The Troubled Partnership

BlackBerry President and Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins ® looks on as the BlackBerry Global Creative Director Alicia Keys speaks at the BlackBerry 10 launch event on January 30, 2013 in New York City.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Alicia Keys was first named global creative director at BlackBerry on Jan. 30, 2013, much derision was made at her expense for tweeting from an iPhonejust days before the announcement  – and maybe even once again a few days after, in an apparent hack scandal.

But Thursday’s (Jan. 2) news that Keys was ending her one-year partnership with the brand comes at a time when BlackBerry is the only party with egg on its face. The company is capping off a tumultuous 2013 that saw the company seeking, and ultimately rejecting, a $4.7 billion takeover bid from Fairfax Financial Holdings, a house-cleaning of its top executives, including CEO Thorsten Heins, chief marketing officer Frank Boulben and chief operating officer Kristian Tear, among others, and the failed launch of the BlackBerry Z10, a would-be competitor to the iPhone.

“BlackBerry and Alicia Keys have completed our year-long collaboration,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “We thank Alicia for her many contributions including providing creative direction for the BlackBerry Keep Moving Project which attracted more than 40 million visits, advocating for women in STEM and launching the BlackBerry Scholars Program. We have enjoyed the opportunity to work with such an incredibly talented and passionate individual.”

In the first few months of 2013, Keys was singled out as the latest in a trend of celebrities – particularly musicians – taking on “creative director”-like roles at major brands like Diet Coke (Taylor Swift), MasterCard and Bud Light Platinum (Justin Timberlake), Intel and Coca-Cola (Will.i.am), Monster Audio (Keys’ husband Swizz Beatz), and just last month, PepsiCo’s Aquafina Flavor Splash (Austin Mahone). But just how meaningful were these partnerships, which were carefully worded so as not to seem like glorified endorsements?

After all, for every Beats By Dre, an entire electronics enterprise successfully built on the backing of a musician, there’s Polaroid’s pact with Lady Gaga, which fell apart in 2011. The latter deal, announced via a splashy appearance from Gaga at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, collapsed not long after Gaga re-appeared at the following CES to unveil products like camera glasses. That’s because the financially unstable Polaroid, which had filed for bankruptcy protection just three years prior, was unable to meet the financial overhead such an ambitious undertaking demanded, and scrapped the product line entirely.

Keys ran into a similar case of the doomed Gaga-Polaroid partnership. According to multiple executives who spoke with Billboard under the condition of anonymity as well as deal terms that were announced last January, Keys had initially signed on to develop ideas and content for the Keep Moving Project, an entertainment program targeted towards musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers and athletes that announced Neil Gaiman and Robert Rodriguez as initial partners alongside Keys. She also participated in weekly planning meetings, often via phone once her tour schedule was underway.

Keep Moving was featured heavily in BlackBerry’s sponsorship of Keys’ Set The World On Fire Tour, but was quickly shelved shortly after Keys’ tour routed through the U.S. in the first half of 2013. Keys nevertheless continued to use her BlackBerry 10 as a prop during a voicemail segment when she performed 2003 hit “You Don’t Know My Name” on the tour.  All remaining executives whom Keys collaborated on Keep Moving and other initiatives are no longer with the company. “She got on a sinking ship,” says a source close to Keys.

With Keep Moving no longer in motion by June, Keys shifted her focus to Women In STEM, a division of the BlackBerry Scholars Program devoted to finding scholarships for females entering the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. Keys was able to reward 10 global four-year scholarships, valued at a collective $2 million, but at a volume that was scaled back from its initial offering, due to BlackBerry’s financial woes.

Such failed pairings are the result of the seemingly rare but actually all-too-common instance of a company, not the celebrity, failing to deliver on its end of the bargain. Pharrell Williams sued liquor giant Diageo in early 2013 for $5 million after the company failed to meet distribution agreements for its Qream liqueur, in which he was an investor and partner. In November, Jay Z caught flak for issuing a line of products with Barney’s New York, a retailer accused of racial profiling.

Even Jermaine Dupri saw one of his own creative director roles, for soy-based 3 Vodka, erode for similar reasons in 2009. “They said to me in the beginning, ‘it’s exciting, you get to be part of a liquor brand,’ and at the same time the brand wasn’t prepared to be involved with me. That’s where the business went sour,” Dupri told Billboard last year. “There’s a lot of things you have to take into consideration when doing these deals. These companies have to be prepared for the next steps.”

Of course, the onus also lies on the celebrity to deliver compelling product ideas – not to mention brand loyalty. Timberlake faced his own version of Keys’ iPhone-gate with his Bud Light Platinum deal when a quote he gave to the New York Postin late 2012 resurfaced about how he should always be seen with a Coors Light in his hand.

That’s where the risk of authenticity comes in. “The perception is that the artist just took a paycheck and didn’t go above and beyond —  their core responsibility isn’t being a creative director,” Todd Jacobs, a music-branding agent at William Morris Endeavor, told Billboard recently. “The real opportunity becomes when an artist is really evangelical about the brand and they support it with the same vigor and passion that they support their own brand to their fans.”

Will.i.am is one of the few artists to have produced tangible results from his creative partnerships thus far, from starting a line of products made of sustainable materials with Coca-Cola and other retail partners in fall 2012 and Eko-cycle’s sponsorship of the Global Citizen Festival in September (where Keys also performed) to a global partnership with Intel’s Ultrabook that’s yielded new music technology products and original songs. And that’s due in part to the musician’s deep involvement with each company, from attending regular Coca-Cola board meetings to having monthly idea exchanges with his colleagues at Intel.

“The goal is to triangluate interest,” Ken Hertz, an entertainment lawyer who helps broker Will.i.am’s brand deals, told Billboard last year, “so that if Coca-Cola wants to greenwash and Will.i.am doesn’t want to do an endorsement deal but both parties believe that doing well by doing good is better than just doing well, then that takes you to a partnership like Eko-cycle.”

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