‘Fiji Water girl’ sues the company over use of her likeness

The partnership made big waves at the Golden Globes but has since soured, as the model says she hasn’t been compensated for continued marketing efforts. Fiji calls the suit ‘frivolous.’

The promotion might be the viral marketing hit of the year.

Fiji Water landed a big win when it turned to Kelleth Cuthbert to promote its product at the Golden Globes. Cuthbert was able to drive online conversations with a series of strategic photobombs.

As we previously reported on PR Daily:

“[T]here were more than 50,000 tweets sent out about Cuthbert on Twitter in just a few short hours,” People reported.

Adweek reported:

The numbers confirm that Cuthbert’s photo savvy was a major boon for the brand: Since the start of the Globes, the hashtag #FijiWaterGirl has been used nearly 7,000 times (and counting) on Twitter, earning a whooping 98.9 million impressions on the platform, according to Brandwatch. (And the lesser-used hashtag, #FijiGirl, nabbed an additional 698,000.) And even on a night full of big stars, sentimental speeches and viral moments, the only other hashtag that earned more impressions during the Globes than #FijiWaterGirl was the #GoldenGlobes hashtag itself.

The success has lived on in marketing efforts from Fiji Water, including cardboard cutouts of Cuthbert watching over displays in local supermarkets.

It’s clever to extend an advertising coup, but Cuthbert says she hasn’t been compensated for the continued use of her likeness.

The Blast reported:

Model Kelleth Cuthbert, real name Kelly Steinbach, just sued the Fiji Water Company and The Wonderful Company alleging they created an unauthorized marketing campaign based off the viral sensation she created at the Golden Globes.

According to the documents, obtained by The Blast, Cuthbert claims on January 7 — one day after the Globes — Fiji Water “intentionally created cardboard cutouts of Steinbach for use in a cardboard cutout marketing campaign.”

The lawsuit asserts that Cuthbert has not been compensated as an ongoing spokesperson for the company and alleges the company used disingenuous tactics to buy her support. The story suggests someone tried to reverse-engineer an influencer marketing relationship, without taking the time to build trust between the organization and the talent.

The Blast continued:

She says on January 8, Fiji tried to negotiate an agreement with the model’s agent … but the very next day they were contacted when someone had already seen the cardboard cutout placed in a Bristol Farms in West Hollywood. In fact, it was seen in a paparazzi photograph as John Legend exited the grocery store.

The cardboard cutouts were apparently used to push Fiji Water while capitalizing on the fame from the Golden Globes moment. The documents claim Fiji tried to offer “gifts to entice” the model to sign away her rights.

The suit also claims Fiji “pressured Steinbach into video recording a fake signing of a fake document to simulate Steinbach signing on as a Fiji Water Ambassador.” Her legal team says the document was not an agreement and was later destroyed by the model.

The documents argue that Fiji was aware that no agreement existed but still began using Steinbach’s image and likeness for profit.

Steinbach, who believes she generated more than $12 million worth of brand exposure, wants the company to stop using the cardboard cutouts ASAP, and for Fiji Water to open the floodgates in monetary damages.

Fiji Water issued a strong response to the lawsuit.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote:

A Fiji Water spokesperson responded to the lawsuit with a statement, saying, “This lawsuit is frivolous and entirely without merit. After the Golden Globes social media moment, we negotiated a generous agreement with Ms. Cuthbert that she blatantly violated. We are confident that we will prevail in Court. Throughout our history, we have had a sterling reputation working with talent.”

The figures on what Fiji Water got from the promotion are undeniable—and might be what has pushed Cuthbert to renegotiate a deal.

Yahoo reported:

Thanks to the unexpected virality of a model hired to hold bottles of Fiji Water on the red carpet, the water company notched a Golden Globes record for earned impressions, according to marketing analytics firm Apex Marketing Group. To create the same level of buzz through traditional advertising, Apex says Fiji would have had to spend more than $12 million on advertising.

On social media, many have supported Cuthbert’s suit:

The incident reveals the importance of having all your ducks in a row before launching a viral marketing campaign. Negotiating a deal with Cuthbert after the Golden Globes was too late. An incentive clause with outlines for a continued working relationship from the start could have saved Fiji Water a lot of trouble.

Now, it must face a lawsuit—and potentially the end of the sharpest marketing stunt of 2019 only weeks after its launch.

(image via)

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