Nicolas Maurer is corporate VP of marketing at Beiersdorf’s global face and skincare division, best-known for the €4bn Nivea brand, which turned 100 last year.

To mark that anniversary, and reinvigorate a flagging brand, Nivea chose to sign up Rihanna as the face of a major €1bn marketing campaign. To date, the results of the alliance have been successful, with Nivea sales continuing to rebound, and the campaign delivering a number of eye-catching executions.

The partnership, however, began life as a relatively risky endeavour, given the considerable distance that exists between Nivea’s traditionally sober image and the less conventional stylings of pop star Rihanna. In the interview below, Maurer tells the Holmes Report how he managed the unpredictability in tandem with PR firm PMK*BNC, and why brands must loosen up to engage with today’s consumers.

Nivea and Rihanna is not an obvious match. Why did you go in that direction?

We were looking at finding something that was big, that had the ability to travel across the world, and was engaging for consumers. We decided music was the right field for this programme. Who are the artists that are in the zeitgeist and are relevant for a big audience around the world? We brainstormed, and obviously Rihanna came pretty quickly to mind - she was already a big artist but she was on the verge of becoming something bigger. She has amazing skin and she has a look that makes her special.

So there could be a fit there. That’s how PMK came onboard. Then we looked at the data they had available - we did due diligence, looking at her audience, the attitude of her audience, and matching the profile of our brand with the profile of her audience. What we found out is that mothers and daughters enjoy Rihanna and go to concerts together. So there was a shared passion point that would fit well with the brand. It was clear Rihanna was opening up a completely new world.

How important was Rihanna’s existing affinity for Nivea? Presumably you couldn’t guarantee that?

We didn’t have it in the brief that we needed a celebrity that was a big fan of the brand - you cannot control that. What was imptortant is that whatever happened came across as being authentic. There are many programmes where celebrities went out with brands, but then the moment the shoot is done they behave in a different manner. We were not expecting her to claim it’s her favourite brand. But whenever she was asked the question, she was able to relate personally to the brand. That was a key motivation for us - that this would come across as something authentic.

Authenticity was important, but Rihanna is a polarising figure. It’s not always good news. How big a risk was that?

That’s obviously a risk. As much as you would want to be in control of behaviour, Rihanna is touring, releasing albums, she’s a socialite, she’s got a movie out. Even if they integrate this partnership into what they are doing, sometimes there are conflicting interests. The best place to be is to be aware of what is happening, but management and labels are not really keen on sharing information.

You need to have a relationship where people inform you of things that are happening so that you can get ready. You also need a very strong partner that understands global media and is able to act whenever something happens, and that’s where PMK was very instrumental for us. It’s a real triangle relationship, to ensure whatever happens with the celebrity and brand doesn’t turn into a negative relationship. Luckily whenever reports were happening, they were linked to Rihanna the entertainer, rather than a partner of Nivea.

Were you ever concerned the relationship would alienate your traditional audience?

We were concerned that because she might be perceived as polarising, some people would say ‘we don’t understand’. At the same time, it was very clear that all the buzz was very much happening online. So there was already a first filtering of the audience. What the main audience actually saw was our communications messages with the music. By choosing the right medium we were able to be relevant for the right target audience.

What was your favourite piece of content that you feel really engaged consumers in this campaign?

There were really two. The augmented reality app was great - it helped us to create really relevant content - that was the playful part of the relationship and it was extremely relevant for a huge Facebook fanbase. The second was the tour partnership, which we did with a company called Brand Synergy Group, who were part of the agency team. We called it Skin2Skin with Rihanna, then we had activations with tattoos and pictures - people could experience our brand and hers.

Do you think brands are more comfortable now with the fact that so much information about their celebrity endorsers, not all of it positive, is in the public domain?

There is a difference between the brands that get how the world is evolving and those that are lagging behind. Every brand understands that the game of developing your product, getting your message in a commercial and throwing it at a consumer is something that is penalised by the consumer. They just don’t want to be talked to, they want to be involved. That’s where the public persona can help to engage consumers, in a way that they welcome the brand to part of a conversation, so it’s not just convincing them to buy something.

We all need to learn a different way of working. It’s not the old style, where we sign a celebrity, pay a cheque, they say something and then two years later they are doing it for someone else. It’s not just using them for their audience - it’s something that is crafted together with the person, and is of interest to them.

It requires brands to give up control. How big a shift is that for senior management at the top of these MNCs?

Absolutely. The flipside is it can take 100 years to build a brand and minutes to kill it. Obviously you have to be very careful, and you need very thorough planning. There is so much data available that when you start your strategic planning, you can get a very high level of insurance. At the same time it’s a dynamic world. It’s a philosophy and a statement you are making. When it works it can work wonders. On the other hand you need crisis plans so you are not taken off guard by whatever events happen. What we see more and more is that discussion takes place in different circles and if you don’t want to part of it then you become a commodity.