NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As far as comebacks go, Rihanna's return to the pop stratosphere last month was a lot more challenging than it should have been. After the pop princess with a string of No. 1 hits and telegenic good looks appeared on the tabloids battered and bruised following a domestic disturbance with her ex-boyfriend, she couldn't rely on a new album to reboot her career.
But unlike other celebrity brands with image issues, the singer turned to Madison Avenue for some much-needed brand rehab.
When the singer approached Steve Stoute, founder-CEO of music marketing agency Translation, to help her relaunch her image and musical career this summer, there was a lot more at stake than adding another hit single to her repertoire. Mr. Stoute, who has connected celebs like Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Chris Brown with brands in the past, saw a dual challenge in Rihanna's re-entry into the public eye. His first goal was to cement her status as a "global pop diva" with restored brand equity, and then cast her as a role model for young girls despite her initial silence about her violent breakup.
In case you happened to miss one of the year's bigger media stories: Heading into 2009, Rihanna was on her way to becoming the most successful female pop singer of the decade, tying Beyoncé's record for five No. 1 Billboard singles with hits such as "Umbrella," "Disturbia" and "Take a Bow"; selling more than 12 million copies of her first three albums; and racking up nine Grammy nominations from her most recent album, "Good Girl Gone Bad."
A few endorsement deals came her way, too, including a long-term contract with Procter & Gamble's Cover Girl and her own line of umbrellas with Totes-Isotoner as a cheeky reference to her hit single about the rain protector.
But after the night of the 2009 Grammy Awards, the then-20-year-old singer became even more well-known as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of ex-boyfriend Mr. Brown, as an R&B relationship made in heaven went horribly awry in a matter of hours. Rihanna's nearly nine-month silence after the incident lost her long-term fans, positive press attention and even more ability to save face after nude photos of the singer leaked shortly after the domestic dispute went public.
"She has the opportunity, because of her personal issues, to epitomize and work with all people around the world who have personal issues," Mr. Stoute said. "While the spotlight was on her and we watched how she got through it, I think she helped a legion of young girls who look up to her and showed them her strength and fortitude to go through this and move forward with life."
Mr. Stoute said his teaming up with Rihanna is "brand work" rather than standard record-label marketing. "With brand work you gotta run a marathon. You can't just put out a single, sweep an issue under the rug and get out of it through popularity."
There was also the additional task of keeping Rihanna out of the "he said-she said" game the media would inevitably play once she did speak publicly on the matter. "She's facing an interesting circumstance where she is clearly the victim but has almost a villain air about her," said Jason Maloni, who heads up sports and entertainment-marketing crisis PR for Levick Strategic Communications. "The fact that there's so many fans of Chris Brown who blame her for his behavior, I find certainly reprehensible but very challenging for her."
Mr. Stoute teamed up with Rihanna's long-time publicist at 42 West Entertainment, Amanda Silverman, who herself was in hot water with the press for initially describing Rihanna's injuries as the result of a traffic accident before the singer was identified by the police. Determining whose couch on which to place Rihanna for her first interview was a daunting task. Sure, she had a new album, "Rated R" to promote, but her teen-pop tiara was too tarnished for any MTV interview or even a "Today" show sit-down.
"We wanted her to talk and for the music to come so much later," Ms. Silverman said, adding that Rihanna "is her [own] best spokesperson." To that end, the singer was booked on ABC's "20/20" to tell all with Diane Sawyer.
But the musical part of Rihanna's comeback has not been quite as much of an out-of-the-box success. Prior to the release of "Rated R," Def Jam released two singles, "Russian Roulette" and "Wait Your Turn," with only the former charting on Billboard's Hot 100 after an initial flurry of sales on iTunes. A third single, "Hard," was the first to generate a positive response from radio, where it's been in regular rotation among major radio groups such as Clear Channel.
Despite internal predictions among Rihanna's camp that "Rated R" would debut at No. 1, the album instead finished at No. 4 in its first-week sales, moving 181,000 copies amid stiff competition from new titles from Susan Boyle, Adam Lambert and Lady Gaga. The debut tally was still enough to count for Rihanna's biggest sales week ever, but suggests she still has a ways to go to reclaim her pop-princess title.
Expected to still be a part of that run is Cover Girl, which is continuing its relationship with the singer. "Rihanna is a Cover Girl and she continues to represent the brand," said a Procter & Gamble cosmetics spokeswoman. She could not confirm whether any new ad campaigns were in the works with the singer, citing the company's policy on not discussing upcoming ad efforts.
Marcus Peterzell, managing director for Omnicom Group's Fathom Communications, a music marketing agency that, like Translation, pairs artists with brands, said Rihanna's brand equity is as susceptible to endorsement partners as anyone in this increasingly fickle marketplace for celebrity spokespeople.
"With CD sales so quickly declining, artists are way more open to bringing brands in as partners. But it's really a brand's market in terms of having the ability to make those partnerships happen," he said. "Any time there's a reason, no matter how recent it is, not to partner with an artist, they're not gonna do it. But hopefully those brands that have worked with her in the past would maintain that long-term relationship and perhaps see this as a chance to spin the situation in a positive light."
Levick's Mr. Maloni suggested Rihanna could partner with a nonprofit organization to become a spokeswoman for victims of domestic abuse. "I think she has a real opportunity here to not exploit what happened to her but tell her side of the story."
Tell her story she did. Rihanna's Sawyer sit-down not only drew record ratings for "20/20" (attracting 8.18 million viewers, the show's best performance among adults 18 to 49 in almost three years), but it elicited a response among viewers. Calls to domestic violence centers in the days following the interview among women were up 59%, with a 72% increase among teen girls, Rihanna's core fan base. Going into the interview, Mr. Stoute and his team divided Rihanna's audience into three camps -- advocates, indifferent and antagonists. To him, all three showed positive response to the interview.
"It got to moms who were probably telling their daughters, 'Don't support her.' We needed to do something in converting the indifferent viewers with a broad platform and conduct an interview that answered the questions and dealt with the issues. ... A real interview with a 21-year-old girl explaining her point of view," Mr. Stoute said.