Celebrity involvement with brands and commercial enterprises has become so commonplace that there's even a buzzword for it: "star-ups."
From Jay Z and Tidal to Jessica Alba and The Honest Company (not to mention Ashton Kutcher and, well, just about everything!), celebrities love working with companies they resonate with.
But that doesn't mean getting a celebrity on board is easy. Struggling startups, for example, may not be ready. Even well-funded, established companies should have a meaningful reason to partner with celebrities and be able to offer sufficient cash, equity, or something else that's meaningful and incentivizes them to want to participate.
When Celebrity Partners Make Sense
Companies engage celebrities to participate at launch or marketing events, milestones and anniversaries, sales conferences, or other events to honor and celebrate key employees, VIP customer appreciation events, birthday parties for CEOs, fundraising events, and more.
For example, for Cisco's 25th anniversary, CEO John Chambers wanted a big-name comedian to surprise employees, and Jerry Seinfeld was his top pick. Cisco is a well-known, well-established company, but it still took me and key members of the Cisco team 10 weeks of negotiations to get Seinfeld and his team on board in a way that satisfied both parties.
It was worth it, though. Cisco employees are still talking about it, and Jerry saw a nice payday.
Getting Real and Moving Past the Glamor
So what are the next steps to get in on the "star-up" game?
1. Define the rationale. Why are you engaging a celebrity in the first place? (Hint: If it's to stay "relevant," you have the wrong motivation.) Determine whether this is a commercial relationship or a perk for an employee event. Then, think through the mutual benefits. If you can provide the celebrity with more than a paycheck--like exposure from a great event or something that's tied into one of their initiatives--you're on the path to a good deal.
2. Manage expectations. My corporate clients typically start with a list of talent they'd love to engage. I weigh in to help the clients choose a celebrity that's a good fit for the company's goals and offer my experience from working with those celebrities. Then, I ask about the company's budget. After that reality check when I give them feedback on their expectations, we go back to the drawing board and confirm the best talent options.
Remember that cash is king. In select situations, celebrities are open to taking equity in exchange for involvement, but this really only happens for the Apples and Airbnbs of business (or other sexy companies with a strong brand). Without momentum, visibility, and longevity behind your brand, the risk and time commitment may not be worth it for some celebrities.
3. Recruit the right talent. Not every celebrity is right for every event, so make sure the talent aligns with your goals. I once invited Kenny Loggins to play at an Earth Day event held at Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), a hot tech company at the time. It was the perfect match because his music resonated with the environmental theme of the day.
4. Avoid scandal. Like the sponsors that jumped ship when Tiger Woods' scandal broke, you can't put your shareholders at risk by aligning with a troubled celebrity. If you're in talks with someone like Justin Bieber and he gets arrested, for example, it may be safer to consider other candidates until things cool off.
5. Secure a celebrity wrangler. Respected, experienced celebrity wranglers are the middlemen between you and the star's "people." They're knowledgeable, trusted by talent reps as inside peers, and worth their weight in gold. They'll be able to negotiate better deals for an optimal strategic fit and ensure the whole experience runs smoothly. Without a celebrity wrangler, you'll likely end up with the wrong talent for your event--and paying a whole lot more.
How Celebrity Wranglers Work
During this past year, I got Huey Lewis to perform at a private fundraiser event called LymeAid (the Bay Area Lyme Foundation's annual benefit dinner and concert) by reaching out to his long-time manager directly. I told him what was going on and how my friend, the chair of the event, was suffering from Lyme disease herself.
Within 48 hours, we got Huey to confirm, and the foundation raised more than $600,000 at the event. My experience and invaluable relationships with talent and their reps allowed me to create this win. And it's something I've repeated many times over the past couple of decades.
Celebrities can bring loads of fun, energy, visibility, and impact to your company's event, and they can increase your chances of breaking through the noise by helping your company stand out and rise above the distractions we all experience every day. Just remember to sync your goals and vision with your budget to secure a strategic brand match made in celebrity heaven that results in a win for all parties.