Branding Celebrities

The word celebrity has a rich history with roots in the 14th century. It stems from the Latin adjective ”celeber,” meaning famous and celebrated. While the 14th century definition denotes simplicity, the evolution of our media culture has created a modern landscape where the role of the celebrity is anything but easily defined. For a celebrity, navigating a constantly evolving landscape may be likened to a form of modern day Darwinism where only those who know how to evolve with the media (be it print, electronic or social) survive.

In order to gain insight into how celebrities are stepping out of their traditional role as ‘entertainer,’ we turned to our resident expert Susan Novak, who oversees DKC’s Entertainment Division and has guided artists ranging from Sean ”Puffy” Combs to Pete Wentz while also helping align top brands with celebrity partners. In this Q & A, Susan explains how celebrities remain viable by turning themselves into full- fledged brands and circumvent their traditional roles to take ownership of their brand.

1. In today’s world, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and the Olsen twins are considered brands like Coca Cola or Mercedes-Benz. Who was the first major celebrity to turn themselves into a brand? Is this trend a relatively new phenomenon?

In my opinion it was Elvis Presley. His music powered a global fan base and he used that pulpit to usher in everything from the modern era of music and a redefinition of style, to game-changing conversations on race, gender and generational relations. Only after he had achieved a strong fan base and clout could he then expand into other areas: television, movies and Las Vegas night clubs, which transformed him into the consummate entertainer. All of the great music artists since have patterned themselves after Presley at one point or another in their careers.



2. Here’s a quote for you to consider: ”Building a brand out of a client is not necessarily suitable for every client”- Brian Dubin of William Morris Agency (

What do you think? Does this ring true for your clients?

Being a brand is so much more than simply endorsing a product or service, it perpetuates values that act as the foundation for any business venture that a celebrity will take on. The values need to resonate with a consumer; they should be relevant so that the consumer will want to purchase what the celebrity is endorsing. If the celebrity is willing to accept all of this, then he or she can become a brand. However, not every entertainer is willing to go through this, nor should they. This is very hard to accomplish in today’s 24/7 ‘gotcha’ journalism climate.

3. Why have some celebrities decided to develop their own brand instead of attaching their names to an already successful brand? For example, why would Jennifer Lopez choose to create her own perfume instead of attaching her name to a product from a major designer like Chanel or Estee Lauder?

My advice to clients is that true value is derived by creating something original where you have total control. When a celebrity attaches his or her name to an existing product, it’s essentially a licensing deal which can be very lucrative but doesn’t necessarily build brand equity. Celebrities should think of a licensing deal as a temporary assignment of their brand, but it still needs to reflect the values that they want to stand for. What often happens is that celebrities are attracted by the revenue from licensing deals and end up endorsing a strange assortment of things that may or may not tell a cohesive story. This, in the long run, devalues the celebrity name/brand and makes it harder to develop lasting equity.

4. What happens when the character that a celebrity plays (take Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex and the City) becomes entwined with the celebrity’s own brand? Where is the intersection between reality, fiction and the public’s perception?

If a celebrity knows that his or her fans are very attached to a character they play, they may leverage this in order to affix excitement to their own personal brand. In this example, Sarah Jessica Parker embraces the Carrie Bradshaw persona for two reasons. First, she is a very private individual so it is easier to have the focus be on her character rather than herself. Second, so many of her fans are devoted to Carrie that she hopes it can help her perpetuate her own ventures. It’s been successful for her on a personal level, but it’s arguable that it hasn’t yet translated into entrepreneurial success in the form of new products. It’s a very delicate line.

5. How do you reconcile the actions of a celebrity with their brand image? What do you think is the consequence when a celebrity’s action goes against what his or her brand stands for? Do you think it’s a liability?

One’s initial assumption would be that yes, of course, it would have a negative impact. However in a recent Brandweek poll that asked if a spokesperson’s negative, personal actions affected what consumers thought of the brand they endorse, 74% of people surprisingly said that it has no impact. A good example would be Michael Phelps. Although Phelps was publicly embarrassed when a picture circulated showing the Olympic champion inhaling from a marijuana pipe, he still is able to ink endorsement deals with companies such as H2O Audio. With that said, there are certain things that are just non-negotiable, such as someone who has been charged with a DUI fronting an alcohol campaign.