The Black Eyed Peas frontman is more than a pitchman. How (and why) the chip maker forged an alliance with the hip hop impresario.
FORTUNE — Celebrity endorsements are commonplace, from Capital One pitchman Alec Baldwin to Revlon “brand ambassador” Halle Berry. Such arrangements are normally simple: company pays celeb to tout its products. Last year, however, Intel came up with a new wrinkle on the formula by hiring hip-hop star will.i.am as its “director of creative innovation.”
The giant chipmaker issued a breathless announcement, describing the engagement as a “multi-year, hands-on creative and technical collaboration.” The Black Eyed Peas frontman, meanwhile, gushed: “Teaming up with the scientists, researchers and computer programmers at Intel (INTC) to collaborate and co-develop new ways to communicate, create, inform and entertain is going to be amazing.”
So how, exactly, is the genial rapper and producer contributing to the development of Intel’s next-generation microprocessors? At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, CEO Paul Otellini announced that Intel was sending will.i.am on a world tour to promote the creative possibilities of the Ultrabook, a line of Intel-branded notebooks designed to compete with Apple’s (AAPL) Macbook Air. Trailed by Intel video crews, will.i.am is using Ultrabooks to communicate with his two million Twitter followers and compose new music with creative help from a local artist in each city. Fans can visit Intel’s Ultrabook Project site to download free tracks and watch video of will.i.am on the road.
All this sounds more like high-concept marketing than chip design. Tellingly, the Intel executive who first dreamed up the will.i.am partnership is senior marketing VP Johan Jervoe, a Dane who previously led global branding efforts at McDonald’s (MCD), where he devised the “I’m lovin’ it” campaign. But Jervoe and other Intel execs strenuously deny that will.i.am is a mere celebrity pitchman. “This is not Will flying around the world with an Ultrabook, smiling and saying ‘Buy this,'” Jervoe adds. “Technology is central to what he does for a living.”
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