Celebrity Marketing

UPDATED: January 9, 2012
PUBLISHED: January 9, 2012

Editor's note: To our passionate and ardent supporters of SUCCESS magazine, we hear and appreciate the authentic and sincere initial reaction many of you have expressed via social media about this cover story. Thank you for the thoughtful discussion and we hope this furthers the debate about this controversial segment of marketing. 

Ray Bradbury in his 1953 book Fahrenheit 451 predicted a world where we’d watch giant televisions the size of a wall and we’d participate in these shows with the “neighbors,” as he called them. Years later, that’s exactly what people are doing. Reality TV is no longer something out of a sci-fi novel but part of Main Street culture that has changed whom we admire, what we buy and how we purchase it.

Nobody admits to watching reality shows and yet half of the top 10 TV shows last year were from among that category, which includes such entertainment juggernauts as Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, and Millionaire Matchmaker. But the creation of the “famous for being famous” has never been more chronicled, criticized and epitomized than in the No. 1 reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and its No. 1 star, Kim Kardashian.

“I watch that show and others for a mix of things,” says Jacqueline Carly, creator of the popular fitness blog Fitarella.com. “Depending on which show, it is part superficial fantasy—the clothes, the travel, the celebrity life—and sometimes, it’s the ‘train wreck’ aspect of it. And sometimes I find that I actually like the people.”

But even if you’re not watching it, still not admitting it, or even are offended by the very concept of it, you can’t deny the impact that these celebrities have had on marketing, branding and potentially your very own business.


“You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)”

Fortune 500 companies and Madison Avenue used to compete for the most famous celebrities and most successful athletes to lend their names and endorse their products.

Today, advertising agencies are seeking out reality stars, not for a staged endorsement of their brands but a genuine adoption of their products.

Reality stars have become 24-hour billboards for what they wear, what restaurant they visit or what drink they hold in their hand. These celebrities are paid huge sums just for appearing at a hot Las Vegas nightclub or a high-profile New York restaurant. Even online, reality celebs can be paid as much as $10,000 to write a sponsored Tweet.


Would You Like Them to Tweet for You?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyonce Knowles may be paid millions of dollars to film a commercial, but reality stars have millions of captive fans on Twitter or Facebook to spread the word about how great your product, service or company might be.

Reality stars represent a new genre in marketing, where real people can become instant celebrities. Their talent is carefully crafting their celebrity brand, and their business plan is parlaying that fame into lucrative spinoffs and large loyal followings. Their fame is not based on being elite, mysterious or inaccessible. Quite the contrary; it’s built upon their constant connection with their fans.

Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Kim Kardashian turned her 15 minutes into six years, 17 million online fans and almost $65 million last year alone. In 2011, the Kardashian family’s various business ventures are said to be worth $1 billion, and growing, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

From housewives to dancing hunks, there are plenty of people working on being famous enough to become a celebrity endorser. Bethenny Frankel, from The Real Housewives of New York, has gone from reality-star endorser to a Forbes magazine cover success story as she sold her Skinnygirl cocktails line to Beam Global in 2011, with the sale estimated at $120 million.

According to the L.A. Times, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from Jersey Shore made news with the first possible reverse endorsement, when Abercrombie & Fitch asked “The Sitch” to stop wearing its preppy, California-inspired clothes.

There are plenty of others you may have missed as well, such as singer and sometimes actress Jessica Simpson selling edible cosmetics, or our favorite—Paris Hilton selling a line of canned champagne (classy!) named Rich-Prosecco. 

  What Do Reality Stars Mean to Us?

If this were a cover story featuring Tom Brady, you wouldn’t have batted an eye. Sports stars are often the meat and potatoes of any article about succeeding, because we all get to witness their exploits in a very public way (and of course, sports figures have been endorsing products for decades). But there are a lot of similarities in how we think about sports stars and how we think about reality stars.

The question is, should these reality stars earn more respect because they succeeded without the obvious talent of far more accomplished athletes or performers? Or should we realize that it simply takes a different type of talent to promote, brand and market yourself when you will never win an Oscar or compete for a gold medal?

In either case, consciously or otherwise, we use these people as avatars for parts of our lives better left to fantasy. When Tom Brady orchestrates another touchdown, Patriots fans feel a stir of chemicals that mimic the success they’ve witnessed on the screen. Something physical happens when we watch a meaningful sports event.

It turns out that we have similar experiences with reality shows. We feel upset when someone we’ve come to care about on Survivor gets voted off the island. We feel elated when the guy we’re rooting for on Dancing with the Stars wins. (Hooray for J.R. Martinez!)

In essence, people invest the same amount of emotions into their entertainment icons as they do in their sport or celebrity heroes. With superstar athletes, we get to play with them only when they play. But with reality stars, we get to play with them every day and become emotionally attached to their success, failures, talents and shortcomings. Some reality stars know how to capitalize on the opportunity to make an even deeper impact on people, and some become Richard Hatch, the “I won’t pay my taxes” felon from Survivor.

  Can We Capitalize as Well?

You don’t have a reality show and you probably don’t want one. But you have much more in common with your reality counterparts than you realize.

If you have a website or a storefront, then you have a showcase—a show, if you will. If you are the owner, manager or face of the business, then you are a star to your customers. And if you have a Facebook or Twitter page, then you have an audience—to connect, promote and develop a relationship with that goes far beyond a sale or a daily transaction.

The difference between you and a reality star is that these celebs take responsibility for building that relationship and turning that customer relationship into a following.

And this brings us to what matters most—why this kind of marketing works and how you can do something similar to advance your business. Let’s revisit Kim Kardashian, the poster child for celebrity marketing.

Why has she continued to capture the public’s attention when other reality stars disappear before the commercial break? Despite the bad press that the divorce brought, Kardashian herself managed it well—mostly because she was truthful and transparent.

“I honestly feel that I’ve gotten to where I am—with sales of my fragrance, the QVC line, our various products and the success of our Dash stores—because I listen to my fans,” Kardashian tells SUCCESS. “I have such a personal relationship with them. Being very involved in social media, I feel a real connection with my fans.”

  Doing Business with a Little “Reality”

1. Think Big Picture

With a reality star, their connection with the customer starts with the show, moves to social media, and then slides into home with the sale.

You’ve created the showcase, now how do you use Facebook and Twitter to help you improve your business? What do the most successful reality stars do to build traffic and a community?

Simple. They respond.

A quick look into the social media accounts of reality stars such as Kelly Osbourne and Kendra Wilkinson shows that their key is creating a two way street, replying to people much more often than most traditional celebs, and yes, they do their own tweeting.

Spend even 10 minutes on Lauren Conrad’s (MTV’s The Hills) blog and you’ll see she isn’t just blurting out slices of her life. She’s building a community and responding to people. It’s one part doing the work of being fabulous, and nine parts nurturing your community.

Be there before the sale to talk about whatever it is that might interest your buyer. Talk with people about themselves and what they’re into, not what you’re selling.


2. Work Hard, Work Smart

The Kardashian work ethic is the real deal. She’s Type A like her mom, Kris Jenner, and all go. “I swear my friends call me a robot,” Kardashian tells SUCCESS. “I’m up every day at 6 a.m. I get up and I’m motivated. I’m truly your definition of a workaholic. I love working. It sounds so cliché and simply to say hard work is the key, but it’s true. Hard work always pays off.”

You also have to work smart. A retail or online store that builds a brand and a relationship will be far more successful than a businessperson who only works hard at creating a sale.

Amazon paid almost $1 billion to buy Zappos, not because Zappos had the best shoes, but because they had learned how to build the strongest customer relationships.

No matter how hard you work, you can never work 24 hours a day. But your webpage and social media pages will. Your product may speak for itself, but your customers will be speaking to each other. Always build relationships and value, and you will develop a following for your business and not just a product line.


3. Be Everywhere

For you, everywhere can be your own backyard. Your community is your world, and if you are a small-business owner, you need to own your own ZIP code, town and neighborhood. Join the local chamber of commerce, chat up local mom meet-up groups to sample your products, source lead-generation companies that base their data base on ZIP codes or find other ways to make yourself known locally.

“Everywhere” also means taking advantage of the social web. As we said above, use social media tools to brand yourself and build two-way relationships. Take specific steps to be consistent across social media platforms. For example, use the same, good-quality photo of yourself (not your logo; people follow people) and add a catchy tagline for your business for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and other industry-related forums you might read. Respond to all comments you get, and offer more interesting content about your expertise than sales pitches for your products. The more you can build relationships on this platform, the better will be your chances of stretching out your success.

The most successful advertising messages have always been those that emphasized a brand and not a product. Apple sells a culture and not a widget. Kashi creates a community instead of a need.

Start messages with what you can’t do instead of promises of what you can do, and your customers will want to do it with you.


4. Be Transparent and Honest

In today’s world, the only way to keep a secret is not to have one in the first place. Information travels so fast today that people know what we are thinking long before we even have a chance to apologize for it.

Social media sites are the new lie detector tests. Lying to 10,000 people at a time is something you want to stay away from.

People and companies make mistakes—sometimes spectacularly. And there are two ways you can deal with it. You can stay defiant and lose your job or business (BP’s initial “What Oil Spill?” stance), or be honest and remorseful and keep on working (Nike’s “Earl and Tiger [Woods]” commercial).

Customers buy from someone they trust, someone who gives them the right information, no matter what the consequence or inconvenience. You never build that belief by only giving your customers information when it is easy and self-serving. You build it when it is in their best interest, even when it is at your expense.


5. Be Authentic

We’ve seen mainstream celebrity endorsements for a long time. Most recently, watching Jennifer Lopez drive up to the American Music Awards in a new Fiat 500, the response was almost an immediate “Huh?” and then a sudden disconnect. J-Lo doesn’t drive; she gets driven. And hit songs to the contrary, Jenny from the Block she’s not, so the decision to have her driving through the Bronx was a poor one—and when the news hit that it wasn’t in fact the Bronx but a Hollywood set, the ad has been widely ridiculed.

In one blog post we found about this: Suzanne Vara from Kherize5 pointed out that there was a huge difference between J-Lo and her Fiat and, say, Eminem promoting Chrysler for Detroit, where he’s from. We might not believe that Eminem drives around in a Chrysler, but we know that he lives and bleeds Detroit, and that he would be very keen on promoting the city, and so it works.

Know to whom your product speaks. Know to whom you are speaking. And most important, know your own and your product’s limitations. Authenticity begins with setting the right expectations.


6. Be the Brand

Reality stars don’t just sell branded products. They use them, wear them, talk about them and share them with friends. Every public appearance and photo shoot is an opportunity to display one of their products. A trip to a Starbucks becomes a strategic move instead of a cup of coffee.

The most important part of learning from how reality celebrities are parlaying their fame into business success comes down to this: Be your own brand and be it all the time.

There are two ways small-business owners fail to incorporate this advice. One way is that they live the brand silently. You sweat for your company, but no one really knows much about it because you’re modest and quiet. That’s great. Be modest, but don’t ever miss a chance to be helpful to others. For loads of advice on how to do this, see Cultivating Visibility on SUCCESS.com.

The other way small-business owners do this a bit backward is that they sell too hard on the product side and not the side where we make the buyer the hero. It is one thing to show off the products you promote, but to make people want to use the products to tell their own stories: That’s the golden opportunity.

  Is This a Model for You?

Many business owners and professionals might shrug this all off and say, “This wouldn’t work for my business.” You might say, “We’re a bit more traditional than that.”

After all, are reality stars really an appropriate role model for our success? In some ways, it would be easy to dismiss reality stars as people with little talent and a lot of luck.

Just as the popularity of game shows, soap operas and variety shows has faded through the decades, so, too, will reality television. But this marketing genre that reality stars have created is firmly planted among the best practices we know, which stand the test of time.

Reality shows may not always be real life, but then, why let that get in the way of doing excellent business?

For more on the master marketer Kim Kardashian, read Keeping Up with Kim on SUCCESS.com. 

Chris Brogan is the CEO of Human Business Works and a six-time New York Times best-selling author.