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H&M vs Bieber: Brands must be wary when touting celebrity products by association

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

22 Dec 2022

Fashion |Opinion

Image: Justin Bieber: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Recording Academy/AFP (Photo by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images North America / Getty Images via AFP)

Future product and licensing managers will take a lesson out of H&M’s playbook, about “how not to release celebrity-branded fashion without full celebrity consent.”

In its latest controversy, Swedish fast clothing retailer H&M launched a capsule range with Justin Bieber-branded merchandise, including a pink hoodie, t-shirts, and accessories such as iPhone cases and tote bags. The company no doubt followed the correct channel protocols when it came to the licensing agreement, however it forgot that behind the contract lies a real person, Mr Bieber, who also happens to be a co-founder of fashion label Drew House, and who may or may not expect to sign off on final design.

H&M failed marketing 101

While contracts are contracts, Mr Bieber has a social media presence of 270 million Instagram followers versus H&M’s 38.4 million. Legal obligations aside, Mr Bieber’s reach vastly surpasses H&M’s, and when celebrity personas can outshine a brand, full implications must be considered by the marketing team prior to high profile product launches.

Mr Bieber was not shy about his antipathy towards the merchandise: "The H&M Merch they made out of me is trash and I didn't approve it. Don't buy it,” he posted on Instagram.

H&M responded by removing the collection from its stores and website, and in a matter of fact statement said: "as with all other licensed products and partnerships, H&M followed proper approval procedures. But out of respect for the collaboration and Justin Bieber we have removed the garments from our stores and online."

The celebrity as asset

In licensing agreements the role of the celebrity is generally as an ‘asset’, where, for example, the celebrity is contracted to make a certain amount of social media posts or appearances wearing the product. Often there are contract protections in place for the brand, that protect the company in case the celebrity fails to meet their transactional end of the agreement.

Celebrity endorsements go wrong all the time, some due to sloppy contracts, others due to companies not having full permissions. In 2015 singer Rihanna successfully sued then high street giant Topshop for 3.3 million pounds for selling merchandise featuring her image, to which she had not agreed.

Another example is a contract between footballer David Beckham and hair product Brylcreem. During the campaign Mr Beckham shaved his head, with the contract failing to stipulate hair length, and as a result could not drop Mr Beckham. Sales of the product tumbled 25 percent.

While the losses of H&M’s Bieber-licensed product may not be huge to the retailer, there may be a significant dent to public perception. When a chain like H&M aims to capitalise on celebrities to sell products it may also hamper future collaborations. Celebrities of a certain stature and income level may not want to be associated with a fast fashion retailer, specifically one dogged with sustainability and human rights issues across its widespread supply chain. And for selling merchandise without one vital approval, that of the celebrity himself.

Justin Bieber