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Why Brands Are Putting Celebrities in the C-Suite

No longer content to just be the ‘face’ of a brand, A-listers like Jennifer Aniston and Tracee Ellis Ross are striking deals that come with titles and higher stakes on both sides.
Kate Hudson is the co-founder of wellness and supplement brand InBloom
Kate Hudson's latest business endeavor, wellness brand InBloom, launched last fall
  • Diana Pearl

New hires always make for obvious water cooler conversation — but for a slew of companies, their latest appointments are tabloid fodder, too.

Over the past few months, several fashion, beauty and wellness brands have appointed stars to jobs that, at least by the standards of previous celebrity roles such as “ambassador” or “chief fun officer” — sound like, well, real work.

In November, Jennifer Aniston was named the chief creative officer of wellness supplement brand Vital Proteins. That same month, Dakota Johnson was appointed as the creative director for sexual wellness brand Maude and Kerry Washington joined the team at jewelry brand Aurate as an investor and collaborator. Earlier this month, Ulta Beauty designated Tracee Ellis Ross its diversity and inclusion adviser.

The trend isn’t new — Voss water named Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a strategic advisor in 2019, and Polaroid named Lady Gaga its creative director in 2010, a partnership that lasted until 2014. But the sheer number of star-studded job announcements in recent months points to a rapid evolution in the marketing landscape. At a time when any brand can secure a famous face to hawk its products on Instagram, brands that can count a famous face as a member of their C-suite see themselves as having a leg up.

These aren’t always empty titles, either. Often, the roles comes with equity and, if the star wants, real influence over product development and marketing. It’s a win-win: the brands get an instant publicity boost and — if the celebrity invests — more cash, the stars gain more control over the brand now associated with their image.

“Actors have realized that there’s been a lot of people who’ve relied on them to get a quick paycheck,” said Kate Hudson, who founded the leggings brand Fabletics in 2013 with JustFab and recently launched her second venture, the wellness brand InBloom, with Syllable, an incubator. “I’m trusting that they’re going to take my face and this product and actually put the best stuff out there, why aren’t I a part of that?”

A Natural Evolution

A celebrity endorsement has never been more attainable. Virtually any brand can earn a spot on a high-profile Instagrammer’s feed. The sheer number of potential partners has exponentially increased with each new “Real Housewives” spinoff or TikTok hype house.

“Actors have realized that there’s been a lot of people who’ve relied on them to get a quick paycheck.”

The sheer ubiquity of paid sponsorships means the bulk of them are “trite,” in the words of Amber Venz Box, co-founder and president of influencer monetisation platform rewardStyle.

An official-sounding title, or a stake in the business, by contrast, conveys authenticity. And authenticity conveys trust, which is playing a bigger role in driving shopping habits. Last year, Edelman found 81 percent of consumers it surveyed cited trust that a brand would do the right thing was a deciding factor in making purchases.

“When you make a career choice to join a brand, that’s really the most authentic brand endorsement,” said Venz Box.

Brands looking to add a star-powered creative director or advisor often follow the same template as they would to secure the right Instagram Stories mention. While often these deals are struck by agents searching for potential new revenue streams for their clients, “it’s obviously a lot better if it’s a brand that they already know,” said Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment, an entertainment marketing agency that matches brands with spokespeople.

Aniston, for instance, has said she was a Vital Proteins customer for years before striking a partnership. When that’s the case, it makes a deal an easier sell to both the celebrity and the public, Shabelman said.

Gimmick or Glory?

What these roles look like in practice, however, is murky. Venz Box said regardless of their official title, celebrities are usually brought on in an advisory capacity.

“It’s not as we think of a ‘true employment title,’” she said. “It’s a, ‘when we need you, we will pull you in, and you will make yourself and your network available.’”

For example, a brand could tap their celebrity partner to weigh in on a new product launch, or host an Instagram Live session.

There are exceptions. Ulta brought Ross on to help the retailer with “BIPOC brand development, advancement of diverse leadership within Ulta and supplier diversity,” according to Dave Kimbell, Ulta Beauty president. He said Ross’ appointment came from a desire to lean on her expertise and experience in activism with groups like Times Up, rather than her fame. For that, Ulta has Ross’s haircare line, Pattern, which is sold exclusively at the retailer.

Tracee Ellis Ross's Pattern haircare brand is also exclusively sold at Ulta

“The news of her appointment brings an element of clout given who she is …” Kimbell said. “But way more important than that, we just felt like she was the right person with the right intention and influence to help us drive meaningful change.”

Brands will pay a premium to put a celebrity on staff, often offering equity in the company. If sales take off, that can be far more lucrative than a straightforward endorsement deal.

But in rolling out these appointments, brands are raising the stakes for all parties. Once you’ve announced a celebrity as a part of your business, the consumer will want to see their stamp on it.

Ulta was facing scrutiny on its diversity record after several former employees accused the company of encouraging racial profiling, and beauty retailers across the board were called out for carrying few Black-owned brands. Ross is now the face of the brand’s efforts to change.

“I know Tracee is counting on us to continue to drive this forward, and we’ll be leaning on her expertise to help us shape it,” Kimbell said.

The Entrepreneurial Middle Ground

The pandemic has likely driven a few celebrities to seek out new roles, particularly with the film and television industries still ramping back up from last year’s lockdowns.

Some no doubt dream of launching the next Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire that grew out of the actress’s newsletter side gig. But starting a company is a heavy lift, and not every celebrity has the wherewithal to deal with supply chain problems or customer complaints (or the judgment to hire the right people to juggle those tasks). Taking on a role like creative director or adviser at a business sits at the midpoint between founding a company and posing for a sponsored post.

Hudson described launching a fashion business as a second career rather than a side hustle.

“At one point, I was like, I really want to stay home, I don’t want to travel to Toronto for four months to make a movie, I’ve got kids and school. That’s usually when women’s careers ended,” said Hudson. “Now, it’s changing, and we can now have a different take on our creative interests and businesses, and we can still, if the time is right, sign on to do a movie.”

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