Russian Editor, Ambassador is Embroiled in a $1.6 Million Brand Exclusivity Battle with Samsung

A Russian editor and brand ambassador is in hot water for using an iPhone. According to a budding legal battle initiated by Samsung, it enlisted Ksenia Sobchak – the editor-in-chief of L'OFFICIEL Russia, a prominent television presenter, and politician, and the rumored goddaughter of Vladamir Putin – to promote its phone by using it during public outings, but things went south when the famous figure was spotted in public using Apple’s iPhone X in violation of her contract with Samsung.

After Sobchak was caught with an iPhone on more than one occasion, including on camera while filming a television interview earlier this month in Moscow (despite her attempts to hide the phone behind a sheet of paper), Seoul-based Samsung reportedly initiated discussions with Sobchak’s counsel about the damages in connection with the alleged contract breach, which are being reported at $1.6 million.

Despite reports that Samsung filed suit against Sobchak, the company denied such a filing in a comment to the BBC. It refused to confirm or deny that it is seeking damages from Sobchak. Representatives for Sobchak have not commented on the pending discussions. 

The mess comes after a string of Samsung ambassadorships gone awry. For instance, Samsung hired model Kate Upton to promote the Galaxy Note 10 at an event in 2012. Upton made headline when she was photographed at the Korean mobile giant’s event with her iPhone. Thereafter, “Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine [was enlisted to] promote the launch of Samsung’s Milk Music service” in 2014, telling event attendees from the stage that he was "going to have a ceremonial iPhone burning after this." However, just one week later he was caught tweeting about an appearance on the Ellen Show “via Twitter for iPhone.”

Unlike Sobchak’s established and ongoing contractual relationship with Samsung, it is unclear whether Upton or Levine were explicitly restricted by contract not to use competitor phones in a public capacity.

In reality, the terms of various brand ambassadorships tend to vary quite significantly. In fashion, ambassador duties typically include appearances in a brand’s ad campaigns, and may require that individual ambassadors give up some rights in the use their name, likeness, image, voice, and/or any other indicia of identity in connection with the marketing of the brand – or specific product, such as a fragrance – at issue. 

Such contracts may also require the individual to participate in the brand’s major events, or show off the brand’s wares at major appearances. Consider Paris-based brand Louis Vuitton’s roster of stars, which includes actresses Léa Seydoux, Alicia Vikander, Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Williams, and Doona Bae, among others. These stars have appeared in Louis Vuitton ad campaigns and at the brand’s shows. More than that, though, it is widely understood that being the face of a given brand is a role that translates onto the red carpet, as well. As noted by the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman last year in connection with brands’ dressing of A-listers, “There is no doubt that Mesdames Williams, Connelly and Vikander … who dutifully show up at the ready-to-wear collections, have been paid by the brand for their work and their appearances.” 

And still yet, depending on the specific terms, companies may require that their individual refrain from being photographed carrying, using, or wearing competitors’ products. Such a high level of exclusivity  would, of course, come with a strict time frame and in exchange for a sizable sum.

From contractually obligated ad campaigns to “organic” brand shout-outs in articles featuring the ambassador or paparazzi imagery of a star wearing a certain brand, there are significant benefits to be garnered by brands in connection with hiring a celeb ambassador. But as indicated by a seemingly growing array of instances – whether it be tussles with the law, public declarations of controversial political beliefs, or outright contract breaches – these relationships come with downsides.