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When Did Celebrities Go From Being the 'Face' of Brands to 'Co-Owners' and 'Creative Directors'?

The way in which some brands harness the power of celebrity is changing.
Dakota Johnson with Maude founder Éva Goicochea

Dakota Johnson with Maude founder Éva Goicochea

There was one week in November 2020 when four different beautiful movie stars announced they had nabbed powerful new jobs — not in Hollywood, but at wellness and jewelry startups.

On the 17th, buzzy sexual wellness company Maude announced Dakota Johnson had joined as co-creative director. On the 18th, Jennifer Aniston alerted her Instagram followers that she'd become chief creative officer at the popular collagen powder company Vital Proteins. On the 19th, Cara Delevingne joined sex-toy company Lora Dicarlo as co-owner and creative adviser; and Kerry Washington joined DTC fine jewelry brand Aurate as an investor and collaborator.

These were just the most recent examples of a trend that had already been bubbling up of celebrities partnering with brands in new, seemingly more influential ways. In September, for instance, Issa Rae joined clean textured hair-care brand Sienna Naturals not just as a face, but as a co-owner as well. There are other examples that go further back: Marc Jacobs, Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Lady Gaga were all once creative directors for Diet Coke, Blackberry, Puma and Polaroid, respectively, but these PR stunts were brief and few and far between.

In lieu of traditional celebrity brand deals where a brand might pay a famous face to star in its ad campaigns and wear its clothes at public appearances, post on social media or create a one-off collaboration, some brands and celebrities are now linking up in more permanent ways. In these new arrangements, celebrities convey a vested interest in the company, and the company may hand over some responsibilities and even a title to the celebrity (without much regard to their relevant experience level, it seems). 

So are celebrities actively looking for different kinds of opportunities? Or are brand marketers trying to evolve the ways they work with talent? It's a bit of both.

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Most, if not all, of the aforementioned November deals included investments by the celebrities (Vital Proteins hasn't confirmed whether Aniston is an investor, but she probably is). On the celebrity side of the negotiation table, there appears to be growing interest in having equity in the brand projects they get involved in, especially if they don't want to go off and start their own brands, as so many have already done. Marc Beckman, the founding partner and CEO of DMA United, an advertising and representation agency that has brokered countless collaboration over the years, says he's noticed an increase in deals that involve equity — and that market conditions, including those caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, are partially to blame. 

"In the music industry, there's a ton of talent that is willing to be more innovative as it relates to deal formation to find new revenue streams to make up for those lost because they can't perform live anymore," he explains. The same could be said for actors or models who haven't been able to shoot.

Beckman also feels that talent and their management teams are growing more savvy overall. "There's been a shift in the mindset of celebrities right now; they feel that being a hired gun is really not optimizing their earning potential," he says, noting that a celebrity might see a company grow in valuation, get acquired or go public after they were a spokesperson, and not be able to cash in on the bump in brand value that they themselves helped generate. "There's a clear group of management teams who understand the value of longterm plays," he says. "People see what the Kardashians built, what Kanye's built, what Rihanna's built and say, 'I can do that, too.'"

On the brand side of the negotiation table, there may also be strong reasons to engage in a more longterm partnership. Sarah Owen, Senior Strategist, Insight at trend forecasting agency WGSN, sees this as a more impactful alternative to sponsored content on social media, which consumers are starting to see through and grow tired of.

"In some cases, paid partnerships have an adverse effect, forcing brands to revisit their influencer marketing strategy," she says. She's identified a new type of influencer called an advocate. "Advocates are a new whitespace opportunity and should be looked at as more than one-off partners," she explains. "Building a long-term strategy with celebrities is key to ensuring their community's trust is transferred to your brand over time."

The idea is that advocates are more trustworthy and informative than influencers — those hot people who continue to simply post pretty photos and sell you things — and they've also taken on a more important role during this year of social and political upheaval. 

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"The unexpected events of 2020 have catapulted this cohort into influential territory as people look to trusted changemakers for everything from product recommendations to political education," Owens continues. "While these new voices are eschewing highly product-driven narratives for human-centric stories and change agendas, that doesn't mean they can't sell products; they just have to be meaningfully connected to the brand and maintained as a long-term partner to ensure buy-in from followers." This is why you'll see celebrities talking about how a brand "aligns with their values," especially in these longer-term deals, to convince fans and followers of the partnership's authenticity.

"I've always been an advocate for finding wellness from the inside out - and I'm so happy to share the importance of collagen," Aniston wrote in the Instagram caption announcing her role at Vital Proteins. 

"Sexual wellness is a fundamental human right. Maude's ethos is something I strongly support, and is symbiotic with my core beliefs surrounding sexual health," said Johnson in a press statement announcing hers at Maude.

"As an investor, Kerry looks for companies with a vision she believes in — from its core mission to the physical product — and brands that amplify women's voices to celebrate them in authentic ways. For Kerry, Aurate checks all of these boxes," read a press release announcing Washington's new role at the jewelry brand. And so on.

Beckman also sees marketing conditions playing a role in why equity deals are becoming a more attractive option for brands. With the toll this year has taken on retail, marketing budgets were the first to get slashed for many companies. Suddenly, offering equity and a title in lieu of a check feels like a good way to go about things.

An uptick in longterm partnerships could also be a sign that brands are thinking more about longterm health and success, as opposed to just making it from quarter to quarter. "Previously, many brands were laser-focused on short-term metrics — to the detriment of long-term brand health — and leveraged star power to drive quick consumer appeal," says Owen. "But now, consumers are more savvy, skeptical, and seeking more meaning, which has transferred the pressure onto brands to ensure their strategic partnerships, in this case with celebrities, are baked with more substance and built for the long-term."

However, as Beckman, warns, there are risks involved in these types of deals of which brands need to be cognizant when negotiating contracts. For instance, if a celebrity isn't fully on board and planning on living up to their end of the deal, or loses interest over time, it can be detrimental to the brand. 

"It's more than just being passionate and having an interest in the company," he says. "There needs to be an understanding and knowledge and true commitment." The key is in clearly defining the terms, deliverables and usage rights.  Otherwise, a number of things can go wrong. The talent could fall short of their duties, forcing the company to hire another costly executive. The celebrity could garner some bad press, especially in today's era of constant cancellation and calling out, which could then hurt the brand to which they're so deeply intertwined. Hence the importance of morality clauses, notes Beckman. (Of course, these days, brands are just as likely to be called out as public figures.)

Another concern is intellectual property. Celebrities and influencers are notorious for taking a little too much inspiration from other designers and passing their designs off as their own; the brands or manufacturers they work with may be none the wiser. Already, Washington's new collection for Aurate, which launched alongside the announcement of her investment in the company, has been called out on social media for similarities between its carabiner-style link and independent jewelry designer Marla Aaron's signature lock design. (In a statement provided to Fashionista, Aurate said: "At Aurate we celebrate women, and women-owned businesses, in every way that we can—it’s our moral code. As a company born out of both originality and integrity, we can guarantee there has never been any form of plagiarism of design, whether with respect to this specific collection or any other in the history of the company.") And when a collaboration isn't just a one-off, addressing controversy is not as simple as quietly pulling items off shelves and choosing someone else to work with next season.

But when all the details are properly ironed out with a contract that accounts for potential risks, things can certainly go well for all involved. Beckman adds that these kinds of deals can be more effective and authentic with smaller companies as opposed to larger, publicly traded ones. "If it's a privately held business and they have a real innovative brand with core values that align with the talents' and they show a bright potential, it could be very attractive." Hence why all those November deals were with up-and-coming startups.

So let this be a message to those five or six celebrities who haven't already launched a beauty brand: There are other ways to get into the consumer goods business, and you might even be able to negotiate a cool "creative director" title.

Homepage photo: Courtesy of Vital Proteins

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