While you may not have heard of Susan Ashbrook, you have definitely seen her work in action. Susan is responsible for introducing Monique Lhuillier to Britney Spears and Escada to Kim Basinger, to name just a few of her celebrity/designer match-ups. Now, Susan is revealing how she created these partnerships, plus a whole lot more, in her new book, Will Work for Shoes. We sat down with Susan to discuss the nitty-gritty of product placement, celebrity seeding, and what she plans to do next. Read on!
Can you tell us a bit about your career in product placement and how you got started?
I was working for Los Angeles-based fashion designer Richard Tyler, as his Director of Public Relations. Richard had many big-time celebrities as clients, such as Julia Roberts, Anjelica Huston, and Mick Jagger. What he didn’t have was publicity and name recognition. I started calling fashion editors to tell them about Richard and mentioned his celebrity clients. They started writing about him and publicity followed. At about this same time, I decided to create my own business representing fashion designers—essentially, becoming an “agent” for them—to connect them to Hollywood.
Your first client at your company, Film Fashion, was Ralph Lauren. What was it like to win such a big name as your client and how did your relationship with the brand develop?
Ralph Lauren was a big deal for my budding business. Mr. Lauren is an arbiter of style and marketing, so when I had meetings with other brands and possible new clients and mentioned that Ralph Lauren was a client, people listened and wanted to know more. Unfortunately, I only worked with his company one time. It was the year he launched his women’s evening collection, which featured popsicle-colored column gowns. These were not big hits for the Oscar red carpet, so I wasn’t successful in helping place a gown or two on the Academy Award red carpet. I did help introduce him to some stylish men who wore his tuxedos, though.
Your book is considered a guide to product placement. What would you recommend to up-and-coming designers who want to place their products in the public eye?
I list the steps and tips I learned over 20 years of doing it for many designers, shoe brands, handbag brands, t-shirt brands, jewelry brands, and more. One tip is to put a “target list” together matching your brand with the right demographic of celebrity—in other words, give the match-up some thought. If you are a tattoo-inspired t-shirt brand, Julia Roberts probably isn’t a good match-up for your business! Using photographs and writing a brief introduction letter is important too. What sets your business apart from others?
What effect can a celebrity have on a company if that celebrity is seen with your product? How “big” is the effect?
Here is a story about a striped Express dress that made a big difference in sales for the brand—through celebrity marketing. Sometimes it’s not just about sales, it can be about name recognition and the internet. Kim Kardashian has over ten million Twitter fans—just slightly less than President Obama!—so if Kim writes about your brand, you are reaching ten million of her fans.
Often, the same product is given to several celebrities in a tactic known as “seeding.” How do you ensure this tactic will work? Can you guarantee it?
I’m not a big fan of celebrity “seeding.” There is no guarantee and if your product is pricey, you can spend a lot of money with no measure of success.
You have been part of some big moments in fashion. What would you say is your biggest success story?
I have so many great stories—and I share a lot of fun ones in the book! I’m working with French fashion designer Hervé L. Leroux now and I am enjoying seeing celebrities discover his beautiful dresses. Hervé is the original founder of Hervé Leger, but he sold his company and name to BCBG so he needed to reinvent himself. Katherine Heigl just wore one of his gowns to the New York premiere of One For The Money. She helped bring attention to his brand and we noticed a big upswing in fashion retailers in the United States interested in Hervé L. Leroux.
Are there any particular celebrities who won’t accept free items? Are there any particular celebrities who always accept free items?
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are known to pay for products. Handbag company Jamah sold eight messenger bags to Brad Pitt, who would not accept them for free. Most reality stars accept free items knowing that their “shelf life” is short.
What is the craziest thing you have ever done to get an item into the hands of a celebrity?
I won’t do anything crazy—I prefer to do things in a businesslike manner. After all, product placement is a profession and a business.
Who are the easiest designers/brands to work with?
Anything that can be seen on a celebrity. A celebrity can get photographed going to Starbucks!
Lastly, now that you have published this book, what are your plans for the future?
I love to speak to entrepreneurs and small business organizations and I look forward to more speaking engagements. I am speaking on February 14 at MAGIC Apparel’s seminar in Las Vegas. I also still consult for brands, often using brief phone conversations to offer shortcuts to anyone interested in celebrity marketing. A second book might be in the works too!
Will Work for Shoes ($22.95) is available now at Amazon.com.