Bentley and Paris Hilton: When Celebrities Damage a Brand Reputation

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Posted Oct 25, 2011
Susan Gunelius

What do you think of when you think of the Bentley brand? What is its brand reputation? What do you think of when you think of Paris Hilton? Do these two brand reputations match? Bentley doesn't think so. While it may seem to be great exposure when a celebrity uses a brand, it's not always a good thing. In fact, sometimes it's a very, very bad thing.

In the November 7th issue of Forbes magazine, Hannah Elliot discusses how Bentley reacted when Paris Hilton started showing up in gossip magazines and websites driving a pink $212,800 Bentley Continental GT.

For many automotive brands, getting a celebrity who has huge exposure to use their branded products would be a big coup. If Paris Hilton had been driving a pink Porsche, I'd imagine that the marketing team would be very happy. However, that's not how Bentley ultimately felt because the Bentley brand reputation doesn't match with the Paris Hilton brand reputation. Let's take a closer look at the discrepancies.

The Bentley Brand Reputation vs. the Paris Hilton Brand Reputation

Bentley is known as a luxury brand for the super rich who have money to spend and no problem doing so. In recent years, the brand has become associated with rich Hollywood actors and musicians. Remember when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez got matching Bentleys? That highly publicized purchase brought a lot of attention to the Bentley brand, which the company gladly accepted. But a brand has to draw the line somewhere, and Bentley did with Paris Hilton and a pink Bentley Continental GT.

While this particular Bentley model was designed specifically to appeal to young, wealthy, and influential consumers, Bentley still wants to retain its reputation as a classy brand -- more in line with the Queen of England to whom the company gifted two Bentley limousines in 2002. Apparently some celebrities are not classy enough and don't appropriately exude the Bentley brand personality. Paris Hilton is one such celebrity.

To Bentley, it's great to have young celebrity influencers buying the brand, but there is still a very separate segment of the Bentley consumer audience who buys the brand because they believe it's a status symbol and a symbol of luxury and class. Bentley wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Paris Hilton is wrong for the brand but to ensure the entire celebrity audience isn't given the cold shoulder, Bentley is hyping what it considers to be more appropriate celebrity Bentley drivers, such as art connoisseurs and fashion magazine editors, who do meet the Bentley definition of influential, classy, high-profile public figure.

The Future of the Bentley Brand Reputation

Bentley is walking a fine line in trying to distance its brand from the celebrities it deems unacceptable while still appealing to a young celebrity audience. Paris Hilton is given the thumbs down by Bentley while other celebrities with similar track records for legal problems and poor decisions are not (e.g., Kim Kardashian, Kobe Bryant and Xzibit have owned Bentleys and had public legal and personal troubles).

Again, the brand needs to determine where it's going to draw the line and enforce it in order to clearly define its brand reputation and brand promise again. It's very confusing to consumers right now, and consumer confusion can be a death sentence for a brand.

Bentley could take a page out of Abercrombie and Fitch's book and publicly ask celebrities it deems to be inappropriate not to use its branded products. It wouldn't be the first brand to take such drastic measures in order to preserve its brand reputation. In fact, that's exactly what Abercrombie and Fitch told Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino of the Jersey Shore earlier this year.

Image: Flickr

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