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Like it or not, Snooki sells, and one Alberta business is trying to tap into her star power

Crapshooting for the Stars: the rewards – and the risks – of celebrity endorsements

Jan 1, 2013

by Omar Mouallem

Jane Walter is on Snooki–watch.

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Illustration Pulp Studios Inc.

Whenever the Calgarian spots the Jersey Shore personality in magazines or while flipping between channels, she has to pay attention. But unlike those of us who can’t resist the reality star’s outrageous antics, Walter is just doing business. The entrepreneur is on the lookout for the custom baby bottle she sent Snooki after her boy was born.

The founder and president of OrganicKidz – the world’s first stainless steel baby bottle marketed as a toxin-free alternative to plastic containers – unwittingly entered the world of niche celebrity marketing in 2009, on her first day of business. She was working a Las Vegas kids trade expo, when a celebrity marketing agency invited her to give away her bottles at the Golden Globes’ “Boom Boom Room,” a kid-focused gifting suite at a nearby hotel.

Walter signed up and watched the celebrity parents come, take what they wanted and, if they were kind enough, sign a guestbook so OrganicKidz had feedback to promote. To this day, the company is benefiting from Tim Allen’s quip about the baby bottle’s thermos-like lid: “It’s a perfect two-ounce shot, too.”

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve used that and how effective that’s been,” says Walter, who also boasts compliments from Tori Spelling and Matthew McConaughey’s wife, Camila Alves. (She did, however, rush to remove the testimonial from Charlie Sheen’s ex-wife after his “winning” meltdown became a liability.) “Those kinds of things obviously put you at a different level.”

Think of it like a product placement ad in tabloids, but at a fraction of the cost and with a fraction of the chance that it will have any impact. But if it does, it creates instant buzz – and credibility. After all, why would someone who has it all choose that? Since starting up, Walter’s used celebrities as her unofficial spokespeople to get around the high costs of traditional advertising. But are her investments paying off, or is she just investing in the business equivalent of a scratch-and-win?

Whether it’s the razor André 3000 holds, the yogurt Jamie Lee Curtis eats or the perfume Penélope Cruz wears, Hollywood’s elite are the most powerful tastemakers in the world. “It’s a little bit voyeuristic, a little bit aspirational and a little bit fantasy,” says Karen Wood of Los Angeles’s Backstage Creations, a company that invites brands big and small to give away their products to the stars. Owning what the rich and famous own, says Wood, “makes people feel like they have caught a glimpse inside the gates or behind the velvet rope.”

Backstage Creations began as an incentive for presenters of the 1994 Grammys to show up to rehearsal. Now, dozens of companies like it are selling the chance to put that velvet rope around your product. Having a table in a celebrity gifting suite can cost anywhere from the price per unit to $150,000, though the average cost to set up a table at one of these events is under $10,000. Business owners can also pay to have their merchandise included in parting bags or send items to celebs directly through companies like Michigan’s Celebrity Chitt, which put a customized OrganicKidz bottle in a baby-shower basket en route to Snooki’s Hollywood home after the birth of her son.

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Terra Frog’s Bobbi Windsor with Yvette Nicole Brown

Walter is the first to admit that there’s no way to know her return on investment. “If [Snooki] mentions it, it goes out to her million of fans, but who knows how many are going to buy our product or even share the fact that it exists?” However, at $75, it’s a low-risk investment compared to gifting suites, which are pricier but guarantee some interaction.

Sherwood Park sisters Bobbi and Cori Windsor of TerraFrog clothing have also tried direct gifting through Celebrity Chitt, but they don’t think it paid off. “We never heard anything for the longest time,” says Cori. “How do we even know if they got them?” Instead, they recently invested in a gifting room.

At the last Emmy awards, the Windsors were invited by Nancy Borgnine, event planner and daughter of Oscar-winning-actor Ernest Borgnine, to give away TerraFrog hoodies made of recycled pop bottles at her party for 50 celebrities and their guests and handlers. Unlike the $25,000 Dancing With the Stars suite invitation they swatted away, this one would only cost the price of airfare and hotel.

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The Windsors were able to interact with TV stars such as Marilu Henner, Community’s Yvette Nicole, and Joe Montegna, who loaded up on clothes for his daughter, actor Gina Montegna. But the biggest payoff could possibly – maybe, if the chips fall the right way – come courtesy of model Nyra Crenshaw, the partner of ER’s Eriq La Salle, who took a yoga top to give to Michelle Obama at an upcoming presidential fundraiser. If the Windsor sisters are lucky, they’ll be the next small business owners to soar with star power.

It’s hard to quantify the impact a celebrity can have on a business. Even if they have a reputation more akin to Adele than Lindsay Lohan, people are far more likely to trust an endorsement from friends and family. In fact, a recent survey on consumer behaviour by Battery Ventures showed that complete strangers can have more influence on our purchases than celebrities. But while Wood won’t – or can’t – quantify the value proposition that she’s offering her customers, she says that small businesses can benefit from this type of marketing. “For one thing,” she says, “traditional TV advertising is expensive, and two, in the age of PVR it is all the more important to become a part of the “content” – a part of the story. Putting your brand in the same photo or same article as celebrities puts you at the centre of the story and builds pop culture credibility.”

You’ve probably heard the story about the unknown label that shot to the mainstream because a celebrity wore it. Or, perhaps you’re more familiar with the Oprah Bump – a simple mention of a product by Oprah Winfrey can make it an overnight success. Just ask the Australian makers of Ugg, whose sales increased in North American by 740 per cent after their now-ubiquitous boots were named as one of Winfrey’s favourite things on her talk show back in 2000. Not long after that, Sarah Jessica Parker was sporting the pillowy boots in a custom ruby red.

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Terra Frog’s Cori Windsor with Joe Montegna

According to Adam Finn, marketing chair at the University of Alberta’s School of Business, what Ugg and other celebrity-branding success stories have in common is their uniqueness. “If you have a really distinct product, there’s a chance that it may get picked up by a celebrity and you’ll benefit from that,” he says. “But you have to have the combination of luck, in terms of the celebrity allowing the story to get out about their appreciation of the product, plus you have to have something relatively unique which will make it stand out and generate some enthusiasm in the first place.”

He says the desire to appeal to the stars can go both ways, too. If your product matches the lifestyle of a star and could improve their image, they may use it for their own purposes. Take the bottle produced by OrganicKidz as an example, he says. “There could be some celebrity out there that wants to suggest they’re aware of BPA [bisphenol-A, a synthetic toxin in plastic bottles] and wants the public to know that.”

In fact, these messages that celebrities send out to the public are exactly what Celebrity Chitt founder Sone’ Tramble is looking for. “Celebrities who are in the media while jogging through their communities are great fits for fitness wear and exercise products,” she says. “A celebrity mom that has expressed her adoration for a ‘green environment’ would be a fit for eco-friendly toys.” Once that happens, she reaches out to businesses that might want to tap the star’s passion.

Unpaid celebrity endorsements aren’t for everyone, though. Yes, they have more influence over the consumer, but they also get way less exposure than traditional advertising. Unless it truly goes viral, one practically has to be a regular tabloid reader to get the message with these micro-endorsements. That’s why he thinks only small businesses can really benefit from it. “If it needs to reach a mass audience to be successful, then it’s probably unlikely that association [with the star] is going to have some lasting impact,” Finn says.

And, ironically enough, if a business is too small, a celebrity bump could easily overwhelm it. When producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show wanted to include Loyal Loot Collective’s “log bowls” on Winfrey’s list of favourite things, the four Alberta designers behind Loyal Loot decided to decline the offer. “There is no way we could do the volume that we assumed would be needed,” says co-founder Carmen Douville.TerraFrog and OrganicKidz do have the manufacturing capacity but, so far at least, no tabloid splashes. No baby bottle cameos on Snooki & JWoww. No compliments to the First Lady’s training outfit. They’re both still hopeful, but Finn says that they need to remember that their odds of getting their products out in front of a paparazzo’s lens are long. Instead, he says, it’s more likely it will end up in the personal collection of whomever their answer is to Entourage’s Turtle. “My guess is that a very high number of that swag that’s put out there goes not to celebrity but to the hangers-on,” he says. “It’s their managers and the personal assistants and the rest that usually end up getting it.”

Playing the Odds

There’s no surefire way to get the attention of a celebrity or to ensure they take a liking to your product, but there are a few things you can do (and not do) to increase your odds of success.

Do

  • Choose a product that’s unique.
  • Scour the tabloids for opportunities, such as new births and weddings to gift.
  • Include a letter of gratitude and contact information in gift baskets.
  • If possible, personalize the product to make it more meaningful.
  • Bring a guestbook to gifting suites for celebrity endorsements.

Don’t

  • Pick a celebrity that doesn’t fit your brand.
  • Give out products they can’t wear or hold in public.
  • Ambush a celebrity with your phone to get the shot.
  • Get in the photograph with a star. It’s about the brand, not you.
  • Take any invitation you’re offered. As are many things in Hollywood, it can be shifty.
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