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What Makes a Successful Celebrity Brand?

In recent years Ryan Reynolds and George Clooney earned more money from selling their liquor brands, Aviation American Gin and Casamigos tequila, than from their movie deals. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, retired from sports, now generate significant earnings through the sale of their apparel and skin care lines, S by Serena and Supergoop. Rihanna and Dr. Dre make millions selling their own brands of cosmetics and lingerie and headphones, respectively.

Celebrity endorsements of existing brands have been a part of marketing strategy for decades. But in a world where celebrities have built enormous social media followings and have become effective influencers, many stars are making a pivot: Instead of endorsing or serving as an influencer for other companies’ products, they are launching their own brands to profit from their renown.

For every juggernaut celebrity brand, however, many more have crashed and burned—even those of some major stars. To be successful, the founders of these brands must identify potential strategic advantages, turn them into competitive advantages, and develop expertise in areas vastly different from the ones in which they earned their fame.

In this article we introduce a framework for building a successful celebrity brand, derived from field research we did while writing case studies about Kim Kardashian’s Skims shapewear and David Chang’s Momofuku Goods line of packaged foods. We also highlight the common pitfalls.

The Evolution of Celebrities as Marketers

Endorsement deals often require a celebrity to make promotional appearances and use or wear the products in public as well as to appear in ads. For celebrities, endorsements provide ancillary income; for brands, they offer an opportunity to raise awareness and attract buyers. The common wisdom, backed by volumes of academic research, is that brands succeed when they attach themselves to an appealing endorser who is credibly expert in a given area and appears trustworthy.

With the rise of social media, celebrities have become influencers as well as endorsers, posting promotional material on their own channels. To be attractive to brands, influencers must have a sizable and loyal audience. Traditionally, the influencers with the largest audiences were celebrities in highly visible fields, such as acting, musical performance, and sports. More recently social media has allowed ordinary people to become influencers by posting engaging content that goes viral. For example, MrBeast (who began amassing followers at age 13 by posting video game content) has more than 241 million subscribers on YouTube, and Khaby Lame (a Senegal-born Italian whose videos mock life hacks) has more than 161 million followers on TikTok.

Influencer marketing has advantages for brands: As more people try to avoid intrusive advertising, those browsing social media are increasingly willing to accept marketing messages from influencers they admire and rely on for advice. Consumers who make purchases as a result may be more committed to the brand because it signals their fandom and their perceived parasocial relationship with the celebrity.

Celebrities shifting from simple endorsement deals to influencer deals must be able to attract millions of followers, create engaging content, mix day-to-day (unpaid) posts with promotional messaging, and recommend the brand in ways that feel unscripted and authentic. Because this work entails higher-order skills and sustained daily effort, brands richly compensate celebrity influencers.

Why have celebrities now begun to imagine, launch, manage, and promote their own brands? First, the ubiquity of social media influencers has led consumers to seek authenticity in advertising—and they perceive more of it in a celebrity-owned brand. Second, social media (particularly with the use of video) has opened a direct line of communication between celebrities and their fans. Third, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands allow much faster development and distribution of new products and thus higher margins. Fourth, while existing brands may use endorsements or influencers as one part of a larger marketing strategy, celebrity brand owners can rely heavily on their own social media, dramatically lowering marketing costs for a cost advantage over existing brands.

What Makes a Celebrity Brand Successful?

Kim Kardashian is a ubiquitous reality-TV star and celebrity. As of the end of 2023 she had 363 million followers on Instagram, 75 million on X (formerly Twitter), 35 million on Facebook, and 9 million on TikTok. She has done traditional endorsements of brands such as Balenciaga and OPI nail polish, and she served as a paid influencer on her social media platforms, promoting Dolce & Gabbana, among others. As she began thinking about creating her own brand, she recognized a market need: Traditional women’s shapewear (the category pioneered by Spanx) didn’t work well for her body type. In 2019 Kardashian launched Skims to fill that need. She serves as the brand’s creative director and aesthetic muse; a cofounder, Jens Grede, serves as CEO. They positioned Skims as a solutions-oriented brand with an eye toward body type and skin tone inclusivity. Since its founding it has expanded into other apparel categories, including underwear, loungewear, sleepwear, and activewear. In 2023 Skims was valued at $4 billion, with the majority of its products sold DTC through the company website.

David Chang is a well-known chef with restaurants in New York City, Toronto, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. He is also a television personality, a podcast host, and a best-selling author. Although Chang’s social media following is far smaller than Kardashian’s (1.7 million on Instagram, 345,000 on X, and 271,000 on TikTok), his followers tend to be serious foodies who are highly engaged with his content. Like Kardashian, Chang has done traditional endorsements (for Audi) and served as a paid influencer (for Impossible plant-based meat substitutes). In the fall of 2020, after months of restaurant closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Chang’s restaurant group, Momofuku, launched its first line of consumer packaged goods, Momofuku Goods, selling sauces exclusively DTC through the company website. Since then Momofuku Goods has introduced a variety of products, including noodles, seasoned salts, chilis, and sauces, which are now also available at retailers such as Target and Whole Foods.

Our in-depth analysis of Skims and Momofuku Goods, along with observation of a range of other celebrity brands, has enabled us to identify four key principles for making celebrity brands successful.

Have a strong social media following.

This is an obvious precondition for success. As we will discuss, it’s not just the number of followers but the depth of engagement that sets successful brands apart. Some celebrities prefer to maintain privacy. For example, the actors Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine, and Emma Stone have no public social media accounts. And some have philosophical objections to social media. Scarlett Johansson, who has no public social media accounts, is a prime example. She has stated that social media is not good for her mental health (“I have enough anxiety”). When Johansson founded the skin care brand the Outset, in 2022, in part because of her own struggles with acne, she realized the importance of creating a digital place for followers to engage with her and with the brand. She began posting content (exclusively about the brand) on the Outset’s social media accounts. The Outset’s Instagram account has 300,000 followers. (Meanwhile, an Instagram account dedicated to Johansson and managed by a fan has more than 4 million followers.) Celebrity founders who eschew personal social media may choose to minimize DTC as a channel and instead rely more heavily on third parties to sell their products. The Outset can be found at major retailers, including Sephora, whereas Skims achieved its success relying solely on DTC distribution.

Craft a good fit between celebrity and product category.

Advertisers have always tried to select endorsers and influencers who feel right for the brand. Those people must seem natural and credible when recommending the product. If the collaboration seems inauthentic, consumers won’t be persuaded to buy.

The same is proving true for celebrity brands. Celebrities typically are known for something: a field of expertise, a clear point of view, a distinct aesthetic, or a particular lifestyle. Harnessing that and transferring it to the brand in a manner that seems consistent with the celebrity is key to success. Momofuku leverages Chang’s culinary point of view to create products that consumers readily and naturally associate with Chang, such as noodles and “chili crunch.” Skims’ designs reflect Kardashian’s minimalist aesthetic and love of earth tones as well as celebrating her famous figure.

Hulk Hogan provides a contrasting case study. Hogan, who wrestled professionally on and off from 1977 to 2003, has experimented (and failed) with several celebrity brands. Some of his early forays were in the food business— where, consumers perceived, he had no specific expertise or point of view. Pastamania was a fast-food restaurant that closed within a year. Hulkster Cheeseburgers were microwavable sandwiches that were discontinued shortly after launch. Hulk Hogan Thunder Mixer was a blender that failed to gain traction with consumers. More recently Hogan launched a health-and-wellness cannabis brand, one he created to deal with chronic back pain that he incurred during his wrestling career. This brand, more in line with his source of fame, may be a better match for moving his celebrity from wrestling to a salable consumer product.

Find or develop a superior product.

Even the most beloved celebrity will have a difficult time supporting a subpar product line. Although the celebrity’s name and endorsement might sell to a consumer once, repeat purchases will be difficult to earn.

Sometimes celebrities and their representatives search existing products to identify a high-quality offering that’s suitable for a partnership and then rebrand it. Aviation American Gin, for instance, was created in 2006 by a team of distillers in Portland, Oregon, who worked with a local bartender. It won acclaim for its unique flavor profile—one that is less dominated by juniper, as English gins typically are, and has notes of French lavender, orange peel, cardamom, coriander, sarsaparilla, and anise seed. The brand was a dozen years old when Ryan Reynolds bought a minority stake and began aggressively promoting it in ads and on social media, turning it into a celebrity brand. Two years later the owners sold it to the liquor giant Diageo for $610 million.

In other cases the celebrity is personally and intensively involved in developing the product from scratch. When launching Momofuku Goods and Skims, Chang and Kardashian invested substantial time, effort, and funds to deliver exceptional products to consumers. Momofuku’s secret culinary lab was established to experiment with proprietary ingredients for the restaurants long before the launch of its consumer products, and Chang leveraged that strategic asset to develop new and exciting offerings for retail sale. The company’s initial product launches sold out quickly, and consumers’ reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, the Skims team carefully studied and tested each product category prior to launch. For example, before releasing the Skims line of bras, designers spent three years developing them and an additional year conducting fitting trials with consumers of various shapes. Kardashian herself tries on hundreds of new products each year to ensure that they are up to her personal high standards. (She often posts images from these try-on sessions on social media, sparking demand.) Skims’ initial products were extremely popular, and currently they have earned more than 115,000 four- and five-star reviews.

David Milan

When a product lacks distinction, however, consumers tend to notice. In 2007 Donald Trump launched Trump Steaks, delivering frozen beef by mail. Consumers immediately complained about the poor value proposition, and within two months the steaks were selling at deep discounts. Although Trump enjoyed widespread awareness and popularity, and his brand had proved successful on real estate and casinos, his name was not enough to compensate for an inferior and overpriced food product.

When thinking about the level of personal involvement they want during product development, celebrity founders should be aware that some members of the public are skeptical about stars’ commitment to their brands—a cynicism that stems in part from a long history of endorsements by celebrities who lacked loyalty to the products. For example, Oprah Winfrey advertised a Microsoft Surface tablet but was seen publicly using an Apple iPad; David Beckham advertised Motorola phones and publicly used an Apple iPhone; and Brad Pitt was featured in advertising for Chanel No. 5 and later admitted that he never wore it. Along with ensuring the quality of a product and investing in its development, celebrities must commit to actually using it.

Be actively engaged with, and listen to, followers.

For influencer marketing to be effective, fans and followers need to be engaged with and feel that they have a personal relationship with the influencer. As noted, a deeply engaged following is as important as a large number of followers. Celebrity brand owners drive this engagement by peppering their social feeds with persuasive messages that deliver resonant and relevant information, emotional value, and entertainment.

Strategy & Execution

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Chang, whose social media includes cooking demonstrations and tutorials, uses Momofuku products in videos and also occasionally promotes new products not of his own design, to help maintain credibility with his followers and earn their trust. For Kardashian, whose social media accounts have always included photos of herself with friends and family, sharing photos of her circle wearing Skims products seems natural. She often wears Skims when she appears in other forums across social media. And she used her followers as a focus group, seeking their feedback before launching the Skims bra line, which enabled her to learn about customers and allowed customers to feel they were a part of the brand.

Creating Momentum

The ability to craft engaging storytelling through their various channels significantly reduces customer acquisition costs for celebrities. That is especially critical in an era when DTC brands are struggling with the high price and declining return on investment of digital advertising on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Chang creates new dishes in his restaurants, touts his expertise on television, writes cookbooks, and translates that content into consumer products. The restaurants, the television shows, and the press allow him to offer a clear point of view to followers all over the country (even in places remote from his restaurants), which made creating a food brand that can deliver to followers everywhere very sensible. His continual engagement in these forums helps increase the momentum.

Kardashian, too, combines online and offline behavior to power her success. She and her family have been reality-TV fixtures for 16 years, and she routinely features Skims products on their show. Although most of its sales are through the website, Skims opened pop-up shops in key locations in 2023, allowing for more-personal engagement with the brand (and with Kardashian) and increasing awareness. Kardashian deeply understands pop culture moments and has found ways to embed them in Skims campaigns: She routinely features well-known celebrities in ads, and she has signed partnerships with the U.S. Olympic team and the National Basketball Association. She posts these offline moments on her social media, creating additional exposure and virality beyond her immediate followers.

These principles also apply to the new version of celebrities—those born on social media, who earn their status by being online influencers and building credibility and engagement with their audiences. They develop branded products to monetize their influence without relying on sponsorships or endorsements. One example is Emma Chamberlain, who started a YouTube channel in high school that amassed more than 12 million followers. Known for her penchant for coffee, she launched a DTC brand in 2020, Chamberlain Coffee, which continues to grow and is now also available at Target and other retail locations.

Fans and followers need to feel that they have a personal relationship with the influencer. A deeply engaged following is as important as a large number of followers.

As a counterexample, consider Beyoncé’s athleisure brand, Ivy Park, which is lagging because it doesn’t observe some of these principles for success. The overall brand aesthetic is sporty, which may seem out of step with the singer’s more glamorous, high-fashion image. Reviews suggest that the product is not sufficiently differentiated from competitor brands. And although Beyoncé’s Instagram account has more than 318 million followers, she posts about Ivy Park less frequently than more-successful celebrity founders do about their brands. Observers speculate that in contrast to Kardashian, Beyoncé is a private person whose appeal comes in part from remaining mysterious. Instead of using her own influence, she sends free products to other celebrities and influencers in hopes that they will wear Ivy Park and engage with consumers. That’s better than nothing, but by limiting her direct engagement and promotion, she’s distancing herself and her celebrity from the brand.

What Can Go Wrong?

Celebrity brands get attention—and that can cut both ways. Consumers may be skeptical about the brands, especially if the stars behind them are controversial or polarizing. Kardashian has millions of followers—but also millions of detractors. Sometimes it seems that people enjoy nothing more than tearing down a celebrity—and if that celebrity has launched a brand, it may get caught in the crossfire.

An example is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop lifestyle brand, which has been a financial success by any measure: It has raised $70 million in venture funding, and in 2020 it was valued at $250 million. At the same time, Paltrow is often ridiculed for promoting what many see as “health quackery”—unproved alternative health practices, energy healing, and other scientifically questionable wellness claims. In 2023 she mused publicly about wanting to sell her Goop stake in a few years, and some argue that the company’s valuation would be higher if it had steered away from promoting health and wellness products that invite skepticism.

Similarly, the model Miranda Kerr’s cosmetic company, Kora Organics, was criticized for the quality of its products, which have allegedly caused skin irritation and breakouts. Tom Brady’s apparel brand, Brady, was launched relatively recently. It has been criticized as overpriced and appears to have achieved little traction. Jessica Alba’s the Honest Company has faced multiple complaints and a lawsuit about the quality of the products, the ingredients used, and claims made by the company. (At the same time, the company now trades publicly, with a market cap of more than $270 million in early 2024, and at one point Alba’s personal stake was worth more than $100 million—far more than she could make from acting.)

In addition to ongoing scrutiny, celebrity brands face the risk that the celebrity will be involved in a scandal or a legal or ethical transgression, reflecting poorly on the brand. For example, Kardashian’s ex-husband, the controversial rapper Kanye West (now Ye), who developed the Yeezy clothing and sneakers line for Adidas and was an influencer for many other brands, saw most of his deals disappear after he made a series of racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

When a celebrity is merely an endorser of a brand rather than an owner and creator of it, such scandals may be more easily overcome, because the tie between the celebrity and the brand is more easily severed. (For instance, many brands moved away from Tiger Woods after his 2009 car crash and sex scandal but carefully reengaged as the controversy receded.) Consumer research finds that brands that respond quickly by detaching from an influencer after a personal scandal show more-positive share performance than do those that respond slowly or not at all. However, when the brand is owned by and deeply associated with the celebrity, it is harder to mitigate this risk. If a brand has grown and can establish meaning above and beyond the celebrity, managers should consider some distancing from the star to avoid any possible future negative impact.

. . .

It’s clear from these examples that if celebrity brands are to soar in the era of influencer marketing and social media, they need at minimum a deeply engaged following, a genuine fit between the celebrity and the product, a superior product, and a strong two-way engagement with fans and followers. Without those, not all the fame in the world will help a celebrity brand fly.

Editor’s note: Matt Higgins is an investor in companies mentioned in this article, including Momofuku, Skims, and the Outset.

Originally Appeared Here

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