Depp: Dior’s Sauvage Wild Card
The high-profile Depp-Heard defamation lawsuit battled for over two years in the UK and then in the US, had its latest updates in June 2022 with the ruling mostly in favor of Johnny Depp. However, the ruling is not definitive yet, as Heard has appealed to the last judgement.
Because the claims in the trial were contentious, the companies that collaborated with both players needed to develop countermeasures to avoid a PR disaster and customer backlash.
The controversies surrounding Johnny Depp prompted many firms to terminate collaborations with him. A notable exception was Dior, which maintained Depp as its Sauvage fragrance line ambassador during this period.
In this report, we try to examine the grounds that prompted Dior to keep Depp as the Sauvage brand ambassador.
“Fearless yet human, just like Sauvage.”
In an expected move, many brands rescinded contracts with Depp right after the first allegations. Following the publication of Heard’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post in December 2018, Disney decided to remove Depp from the sixth edition of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise and following the UK court’s ruling in favor of Heard, Warner Brothers chose to recast the forthcoming chapter of the Fantastic Beasts series, removing Johnny Depp from the production schedule.
Dior, however, stood by Depp during the entire time.
Depp’s contract with the premium label’s Sauvage men’s cologne began in 2015, and as opposed to merely featuring Depp’s images in brand communication, a curated tagline was created reading “Fearless yet human, just like Sauvage,” on one of the most recent advertisements featuring Depp.
Given the severity of the controversy surrounding Depp, Dior’s decision can be seen as an exception. Dior has not always stood by their ambassadors. In 2008, Sharon Stone was removed as Dior Ambassador in China following her contentious remarks during the Cannes Film Festival suggesting that the earthquake in southwest China was the result of “bad karma” over Beijing’s occupation of Tibet.
Fast forward to today, Dior’s decision to maintain Depp as the face of Sauvage seems to have paid off.
In 2021, Sauvage became the bestselling male fragrance at The Fragrance Shop and rose to become one of the world’s best-selling fragrances.
In 2022, Google searches for the fragrance surged by 48% – from 823,000 in March 2022 to 1.2 million in April – the month the trial began in the United States. Within the same year, Sauvage became the world’s best-selling fragrance, surpassing blockbusters such as Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle.
Data shows that despite the controversies surrounding him, Dior keeping Depp as the Sauvage ambassador did not negatively impact the premium label. If anything, it popularized the fragrance, significantly increasing the number of searches and purchases for Dior Sauvage during this period.
A Strong Fanbase
Johnny Depp has a legion of loyal fans that showed their support in a variety of ways, including hashtags, social media messages and support on Dior Sauvage ads featuring Depp – all of which contributed to Sauvage’s success during the trial. Two petitions created by fans via Change.org garnered a great deal of online attention. The first petition, titled “We Want Johnny Depp Back as Captain Jack Sparrow”- targeted at Disney executives – has collected over 800,000 signatures in four years, and the second titled “Justice for Johnny Depp”, has nearly 700,000 signatures over the span of two years.
In parallel, several hashtags of support for Depp were trending on Twitter around the time of the US trial. #JusticeForJohnny had over 40,000 tweets in June 2022 and garnered billions of views across videos posted on TikTok.
Fan loyalty wasn’t the only key contributor; numerous celebrities also joined in on support throughout the trial. Depp received many public endorsements from co-stars, ex-partners, and fellow A-list celebrities alike through public statements and/or social media posts.
Contrarily, the negative internet sentiment toward Amber Heard was stark. According to Ron Schnell, head of Berkeley Research Group, an international consulting organization, there were over 2 million negative tweets about Heard between April 2020 and January 2022
#Depp: The Social Media Booster
Taking a deeper look at the premium label’s social media performance, the “DiorBeauty” account saw an increase in likes and reactions to posts featuring Johnny Depp throughout the trial. It is particularly noticeable in June 2022 (post-US trial verdict) with a high spike in the level of engagement– namely in comments – compared to other Dior posts. Depp’s fans even created a hashtag, #thankyoudior, to showcase their appreciation.
In June 2022, six Instagram posts related to Sauvage received an approximate average of 32,000 likes and 900 comments, in contrast to the other DiorBeauty posts, averaging 10,000 likes and 70 comments.
In addition, among these six Sauvage–related posts on the brand’s page, two posts featured Johnny Depp. Here, we can see that although Sauvage-related content performed well, the posts which featured Depp triggered an even higher engagement surge. The first post received more than 4 times more likes and 15 times more comments than the Sauvage post preceding it. The second post – a video – garnered approximately 3 times more likes and 12 times more comments.
Ebb and Flow of Social Media
Nothing is certain as new developments arise in the case that could sway public opinion. Both actors filed appeals– Heard’s team filed a notice of appeal for the decision on July 21, 2022, as her legal team argued that errors committed during the trial prohibited a “just and fair judgement” from being returned. Depp also filed his own notice of appeal on July 22, attempting to overturn the $2 million judgement in Heard’s countersuit. On CBS Mornings, Depp’s lawyer Camille Vasquez stated that they filed this appeal so that the court could have the complete record.
Public opinion could still be swayed
At the end of July 2022, 6,000 pages of records from the Depp and Heard trial were made public, providing new insights into each team’s legal strategy. Some documents allegedly painted Depp and the strategy of his legal team in a negative way. Depp’s legal team tried to submit “nude pictures” of Heard into evidence, and in reaction, the hashtag #AmberHeardDeservesAnApology went live on August 1st and trended on Twitter.
In addition, after the documents were unsealed, many celebrities like Sophie Turner, Bella Hadid, and Orlando Bloom “unliked” Johnny Depp’s Instagram celebration post-verdict post. However, it is unclear if this marked a sustained change in public sentiment toward Depp.
Ultra-recognizable ambassadors increase brand awareness and popularity. However, those collaborations leave brands open to reputational damage in case of controversies. Although ultra-recognizable collaborations ensure consistency in brand storytelling, going all-in on a celebrity might be a dangerous technique since customers might confuse the brand with the endorsing celebrity.
A few success stories from long-standing brand/celebrity collaborations include:
- George Clooney x Nespresso (est. 2006)
- Charlize Theron x J’Adore Dior fragrance (est. 2004)
- Keira Knightley x Chanel (est. 2007)
- Johnny Depp x Dior Sauvage collaboration proving to be a success for now.
In some instances, collaborations led to less-than-ideal situations for brands and resulted in contract termination.
- Burberry and Chanel rescinded the contracts with model Kate Moss due to her 2005 drug scandal.
- Nike, Evian, and racquet manufacturer Head faced the same problem with tennis star Maria Sharapova following doping allegations in 2016.
- The luxury car maker, Jaguar, dismissed their Australian Olympic medalist brand ambassador, Stephanie Rice, in 2010 after a controversial tweet celebrating the Wallabies’ Tri-Nations rugby series victory over South Africa.
- Most recently, both Balenciaga and Adidas cut ties with Ye (Kanye) West following a series of provocative outbursts from the rapper. It was, however, his latest antisemitic comments that broke the camel’s back, causing the two brands to announce their parting with the celebrity officially.
As such, brands are now looking for new strategies to mitigate the potentially damaging repercussions of a PR crisis by appointing multiple ambassadors.
To prevent the indirect association with just one figure, Dior is now broadening its pool of Sauvage ambassadors beyond Depp. The luxury brand signed on PSG’s French football player Kylian Mbappé, fragrance blogger “Jeremy Fragrance”, as well as actor Thomas Doherty. According to CreatorIQ/Tribe Dynamics, the three have already become key generators of earned media value for Sauvage.
Brands are also opting to localize their representational talent. For instance, L’Oréal Paris selects local brand ambassadors for each market in which they operate in addition to global brand ambassadors. For example, the company chose actress and entrepreneur Anushka Sharma as its latest brand ambassador in India for skin care products in September 2022. Comparatively, Oscar and Grammy winner H.E.R. joins stars such as Viola Davis and Celine Dion as the latest global brand ambassadors.
Although controversies surrounding celebrity brand ambassadors are nothing new, the highly publicized Depp-Heard trial served as a looking glass, allowing the public and brands to monitor and track developments in real time. In a digital age where consumer voices are more amplified and more present than before, brands continue to learn and adapt. Dior, for the moment, has decided to take calculated measures in the face of crises, as opposed to jumping the proverbial ship. Depp’s continued success in association with the premium label’s Sauvage is attributed to many factors – the greatest of which is Depp’s vocal fan base. However, Dior’s move to bring on other celebrities to their Sauvage roster could be seen as a precautionary measure. As we await new developments following the actors’ appeals, it is yet to be seen whether this will keep this celebrity brand endorsement afloat.
The author wishes to thank Nicola Rotunno and Yanjiao Qu for their research contributions to this report.