Advice for Brand Leaders on Crafting Authentic Celebrity Collaborations

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

You know what they say, if it’s a day that ends in “y,” there’s a new celebrity liquor brand out. Well, maybe that’s not a saying, but nowadays, it should be.

From Nick Jonas to Sammy Hagar to Post Malone to Kendall Jenner, the celebrity-branded liquor space gets more crowded by the day. As each new celebrity-backed brand arrives, though, consumers are less likely to just buy something because they recognize the name attached to the bottle.

The new era of celebrity-backed liquor brands ostensibly starts with Ryan Reynolds and Aviation Gin. After the movie star bought the gin in a surprise acquisition, he not only became the gin’s face, but he took “an active role in the day-to-day business and creative direction of the company,” according to Fortune. Like George Clooney and Casamigos before him, Reynolds eventually sold his gin upstart to a corporate behemoth (Diageo, which purchased both Casamigos and Aviation).

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Reynolds and Aviation Gin rose in prominence likely in part because consumers felt they could make a connection between the star and the brand’s values. Aviation ads and social media messaging featuring Reynolds were cheeky and in line with Reynold’s handsome goofball image. According to that same Fortune article, by the time Diageo purchased Aviation in 2020, the brand was valued at over $600 million.

In just a short few months, more celebrities have entered the liquor space, including Kendall Jenner, who was widely criticized (perhaps unfairly) for debuting a tequila brand. Part of the reaction to Jenner had to do with claims of cultural appropriation, which is valid, although it should be noted that those issues never really arose when George Clooney and his partners started and sold Casamigos Tequila. Still, the attention surrounding Jenner, despite hints of sexism, suggested that some consumers don’t always trust a famous name on a bottle.

So where does that leave liquor brand endorsements in 2021 and beyond?

Companies tapping talent need to train their celebs to be more than just a pretty face. Consumers want to know why they should buy the product; that’s a question that has as much to do with the ingredients as with the brand’s value, from its treatment of workers to a commitment to diversity to socially conscious messaging.

Hollywood producer and actress Elizabeth Banks, for example, recently announced a partnership with a wine brand. More than just a brand ambassador, she, like Reynolds before her, is taking an equity stake in Archer Roose, a wine start-up. (Full disclosure: Author advises for Archer Roose co-founder and CEO.)

Banks is also following the path blazed by Post Malone, whose rosé wine Maison No. 9, was an undisputed success. The wine sold out its first batch and generated $12 million in retail sales, Adweek reported (paywall). Part of the reason for the wine’s success, per Adweek? An authentic connection between the celebrity (Malone) and the brand.

Travis Scott, who convinced a flurry of health-conscious consumers to head to McDonald’s for his signature meals, recently partnered with Cacti, an Anheuser-Busch-backed hard seltzer. The partnership will take the celebrity-backed endorsement into the hard seltzer phase, which is so white-hot in popularity that it all but begs for more celeb-collabs. It is its own feedback loop.

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BeatBox, a ready-to-drink alcohol line, recently tapped Nathan Apodaca, the skateboarder better known as Doggface208, who went viral on TikTok for skateboarding to work while drinking cranberry juice and singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” (Full disclosure: Author advises for BeatBox C-suite leadership.) The brand gets promoted on Apodaca’s now-massive social media presence, while their new ambassador gets a revenue-sharing partnership. The collaboration with Apodaca points to a bright spot in marketing for the post-lockdown age.

Looking ahead, what should brands be prepared to do if they want to design themselves a successful collab?

My advice: Expect the celebrities to earn their money, by you know, actually working. Consumers want to know that a celebrity is invested in brands, literally. They want to know that a celebrity, like Elizabeth Banks or Ryan Reynolds, has put their money into something that matters to them rather than just being paid to talk about a product. Consumers will also hold celeb ambassadors accountable for the company’s work as a whole, from diversity issues to sustainability.

The new celebrity-collab partnership has evolved from merely positioning the celebrity as the “face” of a brand. Consumers now want to know that a celebrity endorsement means that a celebrity has done the research into a company and chooses to align with the firm’s values. The business of modern-day celebrities is all about branding, after all, so the most successful stars with the strongest personal brands know that any partnership has to be additive. They may think of collabs as a merger or a marriage, because in the end, the strongest celebrity partnerships pay off for both the stars and the product firms. (Or just end in heartbreak and lawyers’ fees.)

For brands trying to make moves with the next viral star or emerging rap star, be prepared to be transparent. Share your values and your investor decks (and maybe even your books or your future product ideas). Expect due diligence; expect to be asked hard questions about issues like diversity, work culture and board room representation.

Brands need to know that just as the celebrity isn’t merely “a face,” the new celebrity collaboration is not just about selling products, companies are offering a partnership with an entire work culture. If a celebrity isn’t convinced, it’s likely consumers won’t be either.

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