Delta, Tom Brady, and the Force of Celebrity Branding

Delta Air Lines just announced a partnership with Tom Brady in the role of a ‘strategic advisor.’ According to the airline, Brady will advise on employee teamwork tools spanning onboarding, cultural familiarity and immersion into the organization, and take part in select marketing campaigns. It comes at a critical time for Delta as it pushes back on a movement by its workforce to unionize (its representation is the lowest among major U.S. airlines) as profits continue to soar. For his part, Mr. Brady emerged unscathed from a recent stint as a pitchman for FTX, the now-bankrupt cryptocurrency company facing massive federal fraud-related charges.

It is likely that none of these negative factors will hinder the partnership. Why? Because Tom Brady has a celebrity glamor that lifts him above the status of ordinary mortals. Apart from being a seven-time Super Bowl champion, he is ridiculously handsome and, arguably, the NFL’s GOAT (greatest of all time). And because celebrity involvement in branding – be it promotion, collaboration, licensing, ownership – appears unstoppable.

In the modern tapestry of commerce and culture, celebrity involvement in branding embodies a gestalt of societal trends that define our era. As a reflection of the collective psyche, celebrity worship has exploded, entwining with the exponential growth of social media. This creates a vortex that feeds and amplifies the allure of stardom, beckoning consumers into a ceaseless dance of admiration and aspiration.

This dynamic intersects with the rising tide of small mass luxury-purchasing, where exclusivity meets accessibility, allowing consumers to acquire a fragment of the opulence associated with their icons. Moreover, in a world seeking self-expression, purchases become more than acquisitions; they morph into tokens of self-identity, catalyzing personal narratives that resonate deeply with individual aspirations and dreams.

As such, celebrity branding has emerged not only as a marketing strategy, but as a phenomenon at the nexus of cultural currents, shaping and reflecting the evolving zeitgeist of contemporary society. Layered on all this is the diminishing attention span of consumers. Missteps are soon forgotten or simply overlooked.

I should mention that business ownership is different from other forms of celebrity involvement. It’s no secret, for example, that actor Ryan Reynolds is a savvy business owner and marketer. He had a minority stake in Aviation Gin, is a majority owner of Wrexham Football Club in the UK, has a stake in Mint Mobile, and owns a successful production and marketing agency named Maximum Effort.

It could be argued that celebrity ownership is simply an evolution. Professional athletes, actors, and musicians have come to realize that it’s more lucrative to obtain equity in a brand rather than get paid for a campaign. Reynold’s Aviation Gin is a good product, but nothing special in a hypercompetitive spirits category that houses over 5,000 brands. There is a reason why celebrity involvement is rampant in spirits, beauty, and fashion, where product differentiation is minimal, but where identity is everything. For his effort, Reynolds reportedly pocketed $120 million when Aviation was sold; not bad for a ‘passion project.’

Although times have changed, the rules that define successful celebrity endorsement remain largely in-tact. First and foremost, brands should not be over-reliant on their celebrities. They must have an integrity of their own based on a clearly defined, compelling, relevant, and differentiated value proposition. Brands should seek partnerships that feel genuine and authentic.

Companies must be prepared to adapt their marketing strategies and allow for flexibility as trends and sentiments shift. Partnership activation must be creative and optimized across all media. And the underlying strategy for the partnership must be clearly vetted, highlighting desired metrics, outcomes, audiences, spend, and timing.

Time will tell if Tom Brady’s new job as a strategic advisor to an airline, working on ‘teamwork tools,’ pans out. It’s a curious choice to pay an A-list celebrity to help with employee engagement while that very workforce is fighting against stagnant wages. Then again, no one ever said celebrity branding is rational.