Latest Cutting-Edge Advertising Vehicle: A Rock Star's Face?

Lessons on Marketing, Merchandising and Personal Branding From Rocker Pete Wentz (and Jessica Alba)

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For my money, the definitive paparazzi photo of 2008 has already appeared. Shortly after Fall Out Boy rocker Pete Wentz's recent marriage to his longtime girlfriend Ashlee Simpson, he was photographed on the streets of Los Angeles walking next to her. She was grinning and he was -- well, who knows? Because Wentz's face was entirely covered (save for eyeholes) with a paper plate on which he'd scrawled "YOUR AD COULD BE HERE," along with contact information (a bogus e-mail address).
Pete Wentz: I'm with her.
Pete Wentz: I'm with her. Credit: Anthony Pacific Photo
It was a comment, obviously, on the fact that Wentz's status as a tabloid commodity -- paparazzi bait -- was not so much about him personally but about his relationship with and proximity to a certain notorious pop starlet. Never mind who I am or even my actual face, Wentz seemed to be saying. Clearly, to the media, all that matters is that I'm with her.

In fact, last year when I spent some time with Wentz, he joked that when he's with Ashlee, he sometimes feels like "the handbag to the outfit" -- a mere accessory.

As it happens, he knows all about fashion. As one of a new generation of young stars who are rethinking how to monetize their fame, 29-year-old Wentz has his own fashion label, Clandestine Industries. Lots of stars, of course, have licensing deals with fashion houses, but Wentz owns Clandestine outright (a juniors line is sold at Nordstrom and at Wentz's Clandestine boutique in his native Chicago) and oversees every step of the process, from design to contracting out the sweatshop-free manufacturing to retail deals (he flew to Seattle to personally negotiate with Nordstrom).

On his long path from heartland punk to international stadium rocker -- Fall Out Boy's 2005 breakthrough album "From Under the Cork Tree" went triple platinum, and the band's been a radio staple ever since -- he told me he figured he could either get more and more annoyed about all the people cashing in on his image or he could cash in himself by finding ways to master all the revenue streams that spring from his fame. Other stars get suckered into loading up on fashion swag at industry "gift suite" events and end up as walking billboards for clothing brands. Wentz skips swag giveaways ("I get in trouble for not going to them anymore," he told me), instead wearing his own label. The pesky paparazzi, in providing millions of dollars of free advertising by placing shots of him (and Ashlee) wearing Clandestine clothing in media around the world, become unwitting Clandestine brand ambassadors.

Likewise, he co-owns a "dive bar," Angels & Kings, in New York (why burnish another nightlife impresario's brand for free when you can just build your own?), has a deal with 81-year-old documentary filmmaking legend Albert Maysles -- of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens" fame -- to track Fall Out Boy on the road; and has a booming one-man A & R business through his Fueled by Ramen label imprint, Decaydence Records.

Wentz's success with Decaydence is best represented by the band Panic at the Disco, a group of Las Vegas studio-musician-nerds-turned-rock-stars. In 2004, when they contacted him blind through his LiveJournal, they hadn't yet played in front of a live audience. Wentz listened to a few of their tracks on musician-centric social-networking site PureVolume, flew to Vegas and signed them. Since then they've done multiple global stadium tours and landed on the cover of Rolling Stone.

I was thinking about Wentz and Panic recently thanks to another brand-conscious young celebrity: the actress Jessica Alba. You can hear Panic at the Disco's latest smash hit single, "Nine in the Afternoon," by watching, no kidding, Alba and a seemingly random crew of office workers lip synch the song in its entirety on or on the Ibeatyou channel on YouTube. If you've heard of ibeatyou, it's probably because of another Alba video, in which she engages in a virtual stare-off. (The video basically just shows her staring into the camera for two minutes; more than 4 million people have viewed it on YouTube alone.) Ibeatyou, with its "Challenge the World" tagline, is all about whimsical DIY video competitions. The benefit to Alba is obvious (fans think, Oh, Jessica Alba is not only talented and hot, she's funny) and not so obvious: Turns out her husband, Hollywood producer Cash Warren, is one of the cofounders of Ibeatyou (which has an ad-rev-share deal with YouTube). It's a win-win: Alba broadened her appeal and then immediately monetized that newly broadened appeal. Clearly Jessica Alba and Pete Wentz have more in common than just their taste in music.

Anyway, I spent a couple of days with Wentz in New York and L.A. (for a glossy magazine profile), and came away convinced he's one of the canniest young mini-moguls in the entertainment industry -- a guy who's figuring out how to rethink music marketing, merchandising and celebrity branding itself in a holistic manner. He's simultaneously cracking the code and reinventing it. If he wanted to, he could make a mint consulting for creaky entertainment conglomerates looking to master viral marketing.

"The only thing that we have," Wentz told me, referring to himself and his band mates, "is our brand -- our faces and our ideas, and they're all connected to each other. And you can't let that be watered down" -- which is why he insists on being his own brand steward (which, yes, involves the occasional self-deprecating wink, like the paper-plate stunt). "The minute you let that thing become cheap, the minute you let your mark get weak, that's when people start to lose faith."
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