Barack and Michelle Obama have decided what will follow their time in the White House, and it has taken many by surprise. On Monday,  Netflix announced that the power couple will be producing content for the streaming giant.

Celebrity endorsement is said to have begun more than 200 years ago, when Josiah Wedgwood & Sons received permission to label its pottery and china as "royalty approved." Wedgwood prospered by marketing his Queen's Ware, endorsed by Queen Charlotte, which helped extend his brand into the mass market while stimulating appeal for his more upmarket products.

So how can small businesses and startups leverage this powerful tool? First you have to understand the why, and then we can discuss the how. 

Why Celebrity Collaboration Matters

In any busy market, it's hard to stand out from the competition. Celebrity involvement is often seen as endorsement of expertise: If it's good enough for Oprah, it must be great.

Further, by leveraging celebrities that are part of your customer segment's key demographic--a celebrity new mom is still a mom--you elevate the customer's sense of self ("I'm using X, and Oprah uses X, so I'm a lot like Oprah"). Remember: most people want to be celebrities.

Then there is the matter of press coverage. Celebrity involvement equals press coverage, which is the best form of advertising (it's low-cost and highly credible). Further, press coverage tends to reinforce your positioning as a "best in class" product: if it's in the newspaper, it must be worth reading about.

8 steps to Landing a Celebrity

  1. Start with your higher calling. No celebrity wants to look like a paid shill. To minimize that perception, start by focusing on the problem you are trying to solve and why it matters. This mission-driven approach both lends your product authenticity and helps narrow the field of celebrities to focus on. 
  2. Find a celebrity that resonates. Now that you know your mission, find a celebrity who shares it. In an age of social media and blogging, many celebrities are quite public with the causes that matter to them. By focusing on why your request matters to their goals, you channel Dale Carnegie's number one rule: "No one cares about you. They care about themselves." Frame everything from their perspective. Use this rule to generate a shortlist.
  3. Eliminate the conflicts. Ideally, your celebrity will be a user--a member of the customer segment whose problem your business solves. The more distance between celebrity and customer, the less powerful the relationship will be. For example, Michael Jordan and Nike Basketball are incredibly synchronous. Michael Jordan and Hanes Underwear, less so.
  4. Find an "in." Despite being on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, few celebrities are open to cold calls. They are often so inundated with offers, propositions, and general requests that it is hard to get through the noise. Instead of reaching out directly, focus on building a relationship with a trusted source.That might be their coach, agent, stylist, or in some cases their business manager. 
  5. Give before you receive. Celebrities are used to getting free stuff, so the next thing you want to do is empower the celebrity (and their manager, coach, stylist, etc.) to use your product or service. Do that by sending samples. Customize the order based on the celebrity's publicly shared information.
  6. Align goals. Unless you plan to pay the celebrity (and they often request that you do) you will need to really align your goals in your proposal. Help the celebrity see why their participation is vital to the success of the higher purpose you've identified. The closer you are to furthering the celebrity's goals and addressing their causes, the more likely they will be engaged and cost less.
  7. Establish a pilot with KPIs. Before trying to convince a celebrity you will be world leaders, create a small test project--something close to home that you can excel at.  Then nail it. By showing the power of the collaboration, you will be able to propose bigger projects next time. Start small. Build credibility through action. Then aim big.
  8. Work the plan. Now that you have planned the pilot, it is time to work the plan. This should be your top priority, since you will only have one chance to make a first impression and generate the confidence needed to convince the celebrity to stay involved going forward.

Whether it is Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, or Queen Charlotte, celebrity endorsements have, for the most part, offered business a different way to reach their audiences. I, for one, can't wait to see what the former President and First Lady create for Netflix.

Published on: May 23, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.