How Celebrity Endorsers Became Influencers

Manatt Digital

Celebrities have been used to promote companies’ brands and products for years. Brands like Pepsi and Calvin Klein have launched iconic campaigns that saw the likes of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Brooke Shields and Justin Bieber all lend these brands their star status and exposure to their fan bases in exchange for big bucks (Pepsi paid Beyoncé $50 million for an endorsement deal in 2012).

However, as ad spending on traditional forms of media slowed and brands took their ad dollars to social and digital media, endorsement deals were repackaged as influencer deals, with the thinking that influencers signaled authenticity. Given the ubiquity of social media, the barriers to entry for influencers promoting brands and products decreased. People who were not Beyoncé-famous but still managed to develop a large following were able to endorse products as influencers and be paid for it at a cost much less than what a celebrity endorser would demand. But as the validity of some influencers was questioned and the economics did not create a clear, sustainable advertising model, the pendulum swung back to brands’ advertising darlings: celebrities.

This happened as the proliferation of newer digital and social media platforms and features like Snapchat, Instagram Stories and live streaming allowed celebrities to share more intimate details of their personal lives: what they ate, what they drove, where they exercised, what beverage they preferred and more. These authentic and organic posts of their everyday lives, which millions of people saw, made celebrities natural influencers—and brands took notice. Beats by Dre and the Air Jordan brand, among others, began sending well-packaged, ready-to-photograph, complimentary products to celebrities in exchange for promotion via a social media post. Not only did this low-cost model prove to be a win for the brands given the exposure received, but the celebrities involved got the opportunity to promote products or brands they were already using and genuinely like.

Social media was a major driver in celebrities becoming influencers. Perhaps the most notable celebrity influencer to successfully harness the power of social media is DJ Khaled. Khaled’s Snapchat posts garner 3 million to 4 million views per post. And he’s posting all day—but not just any type of post. Khaled shares with his followers the type of pillows he sleeps on, the soap and lotion he uses in the bathroom, and even the type of milk he prefers. As a result, these brands started sending Khaled products in droves, and Khaled would shout them out on his newest posts. This form of promotion gave these brands instant, authentic exposure to millions of viewers at a price tag much less than $50 million.

We’ve seen other clever uses of social media for authentic promotion by celebrity influencers. When Justin Timberlake performed at the Super Bowl earlier this year, he wore brand new Air Jordan sneakers that he helped design. Prior to hitting the stage, he tweeted a photo of himself in the sneakers, and shortly thereafter, the link to purchase the sneakers was posted across Nike’s social and digital media channels. The sneakers sold out immediately. Beyoncé found a way to promote her vegan meal delivery company to her 116 million Instagram followers. Leading up to her Coachella performance, she shared a post of a vegan snack on her profile, let her followers know she was going vegan for 44 days to prepare for the show and directed them to a link where they could purchase her vegan meal plans. Kanye West has even swapped out his elaborate clothing line reveal shows with Instagram posts by his wife, Kim Kardashian, casually wearing Kanye’s latest designs around town. Kim’s 114 million followers see these posts, and it creates a news story that leads to even more exposure. The costs of this invaluable exposure are negligible compared to the upside. Such is the case in all the aforementioned examples, and it’s the reason celebrity influencers can be so impactful.

Will the trend of leveraging celebrity influencers continue? Perhaps the future will be dictated by the evolution of technology and social media. As augmented reality and virtual reality content and platforms become more commercialized, immersive media will create another promotional opportunity for celebrity influencers. The experiences economy and the rise of experiential entertainment will certainly use the power of celebrity influencers to drive revenues at location-based attractions. If brands and celebrities can find ways to create genuine partnerships with favorable economics on both sides, then celebrity influencers will likely continue to be used in the future.