Retailers tap celebrities

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Retailers are preparing an epic star war for what's expected to be a soft back-to-school season.

From the Gap Inc. to Payless ShoeSource, celebrities will populate the retail-advertising landscape far more than in previous fall seasons. Even Levi Strauss & Co., trying to capture the attention of a young audience, has placed in its advertising an up-and-coming celebrity, Gael Garcia Bernal, a Mexican actor who appeared in the films "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Amores Perros." The commercials are from new agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, owned in part by Bcom3 Group (see AdReview, P. 25).

Competing jeans maker and specialty store The Gap, meanwhile, continues its long-running practice of using celebrities in its ads for fall. Gap, via new agency Laird & Partners, New York, will use Whoopi Goldberg, Sissy Spacek and Christian Slater in its advertising, a company spokeswoman said.

Gap's Old Navy unit has also returned to using celebrities like Morgan Fairchild in its efforts.

Payless ShoeSource is using Star Jones to reposition the store away from price and toward fashion. TV spots breaking July 31, from agency Barkley Evergreen & Partners, Kansas City, Mo., use a split screen with shoes on one side and Ms. Jones on the other talking about the high-fashion shoes now in stock.

being better

The push comes as Payless, with 5,000 stores, last month reported a drop of 3.2% in same-store sales, or sales at stores open for one or more years, as compared with June 2001. Year-to-date, same-store sales were down 5.7% Overall, Payless sales in June were $318 million, down from $322.3 million a year ago.

"Our key is to be better in footwear than the mass merchants or the specialty shoe stores," said John Haugh, chief marketing officer and senior VP-business development.

Oftentimes, he said, marketers turn to celebrities as a last resort. "When people can't come up with something that can stand alone, you borrow an equity," he said. But he said in the case of Ms. Jones, who appears on ABC's "The View" and is known for her love of shoes, Payless is "aligned with somebody consistent with the core values and sense of style" of the repositioned Payless. Ms. Jones also holds the title of Payless "chief of consumer style."

Indeed, retailers are looking for marketing answers, as experts predict the approaching back-to-school season will be soft, according to Peter Dixon, senior partner, retail practice at Lippincott & Margulies, a New York brand strategy and design firm.

The National Retail Federation, in its annual study, reports the average household is expected to spend $442 on back-to-school expenses, down from $457 last year. In about a third of the households, students themselves are estimated to be willing to spend an additional $131 of their own money for special wants. The study found almost three-quarters of parents surveyed believe students have significant influence over clothing and school-supply purchases.

Mr. Dixon said appealing to youth and other consumer audiences through celebrities can be a powerful strategy. "A lot of marketing is aspirational and associative," he said, with consumers hoping a little of the celebrity will rub off on them. But the downside is "the risk of [a brand] being associated with something you don't have total control over."

Heather Mee, managing partner, Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee, New York, says celebrity usage is "a good way to get more bang for your buck, especially at a time when marketing dollars are scarce."

Still, with celebrity use proliferating in every marketing category, "How much more mileage can marketers squeeze out of stars?" she said, adding retailers like the Gap need to focus on "their solution to bring them to the next level."

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