The video for Usher's latest single, "Love in This Club," begins like any other: The singer sits alone in an ambiguous place with moody lighting.
Suddenly, Usher reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Sony Ericsson W350. A beautiful woman's photo appears on the screen. A few seconds later, she materializes in person. The rest, well, proceeds like a typical music video.
How did Sony Ericsson nab a starring role in a high-profile video? In a word, money.
Cell phones are beginning to rival cosmetics and fashion in their pursuit of celebrity star power. Sony Ericsson has Usher and tennis star Maria Sharapova. Motorola has David Beckham, Danica Patrick, Wyclef Jean and Fergie. Samsung has soccer studs Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba. And that's not counting the corps of Bollywood, Cantopop and K-pop stars the companies employ in Asia.
Motorola has used brand ambassadors for about two years. The celebrities "help elevate and build credibility for the Motorola brand and products," says Jeremy Dale, vice president of marketing for Motorola Mobile Devices.
The trend is growing as more people around the world acquire cell phones -- 3.5 billion and counting -- and phone makers realize they need to work harder to sell their wares. Brand marketers say the matchups make sense. "As the market gets more saturated, success is increasingly tied to retaining users and stealing other companies' consumers," says M:Metrics analyst Jen Wu. "The challenge for handset manufacturers is that the meaningful differences between one handset and another are small," says Allen Adamson, a managing director at San Francisco-based brand consultancy Landor Associates and author of "BrandSimple." "If you can't differentiate on a product level, you need to do it on an image level."
That, unsurprisingly, is where celebrities come in. Sony Ericsson tapped Usher to represent its Walkman line of music phones based on his musical ability, mass appeal and youthful fan base, says Karen Morris, the company's vice president of marketing. Besides flashing Sony Ericsson in his videos, Usher will pose for in-store ads and provide exclusive photos and videos to AT&T, Sony Ericsson's U.S. carrier. In turn, Sony Ericsson will sponsor the singer's North American tour later this year.
Musicians, in turn, see phone endorsements as a respectable way to earn money amid sinking album sales. "At the rate the industry is turning, cell phones will matter more than any other mobile device [in terms of music sales]," said Usher at the press conference announcing his Sony Ericsson deal.
Sony Ericsson isn't the only phone maker that recognizes the power of pairing musicians with music phones. Motorola employs Wyclef Jean and Fergie to talk up its Rokr phone. Samsung drafted singer Rain -- often called Asia's Justin Timberlake -- to be its "Olympic brand ambassador" and enlisted Lebanese singer Elissa to publicize its F400 music phone in the Mideast. In Hong Kong, singer-actor Andy Lau plugs LG Electronics' Shine phone. In China, Taiwanese R&B singer Jay Chou hawks Motorola.
Über-entertainer Beyoncé even launched her own limited-edition Samsung phone, the B'Phone, in 2007. Analyst Wu calls such phones risky ventures. "Even if the celebrity has a huge fan base, there probably aren't many hard-core fans," she notes. "And within those, only a limited number will be in the market for a new phone." Samsung says it has no plans to launch another celebrity-branded phone in the U.S.
Celebrity athletes are equally in demand as public faces for cell phones. Tennis player Maria Sharapova, formerly the inspiration for Motorola's hot-pink Razr, now serves as Sony Ericsson's global brand ambassador. Soccer star David Beckham frequently promotes Motorola's Razr2 while competing abroad. In February, he made a pit stop in Seoul, where Motorola has struggled to unseat Korean rivals Samsung and LG. One local newspaper that covered the event noted, "Beckham Comes to Rescue Motorola."
Though the practice permeates the U.S., Europe and East Asia, India is the global capital of celebrity cellphone promotions. The country is blessed with two unique characteristics: the world's fastest-growing cellphone market and a plethora of home-grown superstars. That has phone makers competing to snap up the most bankable Bollywood stars, hoping their legions of fans will follow. Motorola recently signed Abhishek Bachchan, whose celebrity stems from his own acting career; the legacy of his actor father, Amitabh Bachchan; and the fame of his actress wife, Aishwarya Rai. As recently as March, Bachchan had been the face of LG in India.
Samsung has actor/director Aamir Khan, whose work, the company says, mirrors its brand's "qualities of innovation, change, discovery, self-expression and excellence in performance." Even Nokia, which abstains from celebrity marketing elsewhere in the world, has a partnership with Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan that includes TV commercials and sponsorship of Khan's cricket team.
Not every celebrity wants to be associated with a phone, even the latest, coolest models. Some endorse phones on the sly, limiting endorsements to companies based abroad. Actor Chris Noth -- of "Sex and the City" and "Law & Order" fame -- represents LG's Secret phone in Australia, halfway around the world from his New York home.
Adamson approves the use of celebrities to promote products that mesh with their own images -- musicians for music phones, for instance. But he warns, "Using celebrities for any brand-building is tricky -- the risk is that the consumer remembers the celebrity, but not the brand." The other challenge: Celebrities handily sell fashion-focused products but usually fumble when promoting more functional goods.
That has led BlackBerry maker Research In Motion to feature glamorous entrepreneurs, such as fashion director Nina Garcia and hotelier Jason Pomeranc, in its ads, rather than traditional celebrities.
And it's one reason mobile operators don't use celebrities in their ads, focusing instead on the quality of their networks and the breadth of their services. Notes Adamson, "A hip, young star telling me about my carrier wouldn't be as persuasive as an engineer telling me that my phone will never drop a call."