The problem with celebrity creative directorsJanuary 31, 2013: 6:05 PM ET
Celebrity executives only distract from a struggling company's real problems.
FORTUNE -- The week belonged to BlackBerry. New operating system, new phones, maybe even a shot at turning things around. But perhaps the most surprising twist at the company's big Wednesday launch was the appearance by Alicia Keys. The Grammy award-winning pop star wasn't there to simply vouch for the trendiness of the new devices. She is now the struggling company's global creative director.
The appropriate response is probably 'WTF.' Actually, it's a match that makes about as much sense as, say, Lady Gaga teaming up with Polaroid or Jessica Alba hawking Windows Phone. With no offense to Keys, who is clearly an incredibly talented person, this corrosive trend is a distraction that technology companies have to put a stop to.
Keys, who is "fascinated by technology," said she'll work with app developers, content creators, and other areas of the company. She's also taking her new keyboard-free BlackBerry Z10 on tour—a big reversal, given her professed love for Apple (AAPL) iPhone last year.
It's possible she will drum up some refreshing ideas for BlackBerry. But its much more likely CEO Thorsten Heins, who Fortune recently spoke to, sees the partnership as a way to lend credibility to the flailing company, which saw its stock drop 12% the same day it unleashed all its news. (Ironic, given that just six or seven years ago, Blackberry had that in spades.) Keys also sees her presence as a way to pull in more women. "When I think of BlackBerry I think of a more male-dominated space. But knowing how much the (female) demographic is growing and moving, there needs to be that attention there," Keys told USAToday.
A tech company hiring a celebrity as their creative director is nothing new. In theory, they're more involved than spokespeople, who seem to stroll onstage to plug a product they've probably never used and walk off (possibly with a check). Polaroid hired Lady Gaga to spice up its line in 2010. The first product from the collaboration was an outré pair of camera sunglasses with two built-in LCD displays. Will.i.am, profiled by Fortune earlier this year, performs a similar role for chipmaker Intel (INTC). The rapper is tasked with thinking about how consumers will spend their dollars in the decades to come.
Tech companies tapping into Hollywood sounds like a smart idea. Facebook (FB) may crow on and on about the power of recommendations from friends and family, but a celebrity like Keys can genuinely be a universal influencer. Your 19-year-old gum popping niece in Louisiana? Not so much. And if the celebrity genuinely has good ideas, even better. But having an athlete like say, Michael Jordan represent a Nike (NKE) shoe line is more synergistic than giving a celebrity with little technical savvy a role at a company.
Which is to say, don't expect too much out of these so-called celebrity creative directors, or even spokespeople. I don't. I may like Gaga, but care less about the aging Polaroid brand and the outlandish glasses she designs for them. I crank up Will.i.am's latest hit, Scream & Shout, but don't think twice about which quad-core processor hums inside my MacBook Pro. And I may tolerate Jessica Alba, but I doubt she falls asleep at night fervently cradling her Windows Phone. (Even if Windows Phone is the second-most loved mobile operating system out there right now.) With BlackBerry, I might fall outside the targeted demographic, but a tenuous partnership with Keys will not make me love or hate BlackBerry any more than I already do, and I expect many consumers out there to feel the same.
The onus falls on BlackBerry itself, not Keys, which has seen its ownership of the U.S. smartphone market dwindle to less than 3%. Early reviews indicate the Z10 is solid. The sample phones knocking around Fortune's offices are very impressive in deed. Even The New York Times's David Pogue—probably correctly—used words like "brilliant" and "terrific" to describe it. That may not be enough to help BlackBerry recover lost market share, but at least if BlackBerry fails this time, it won't be because its "Hail Mary" included bad hardware.