Kevin Hart Just Might Be the Hardest-Working Man in Branding

And he's redefining the celebrity endorsement along the way

Kevin Hart has 62.4 million Instagram followers. Photography by Scott Witter for Adweek; Styling: Ashley North; Grooming: John Clausell
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

“Grind time, baby!” Kevin Hart is ready for the day.

In fact, he’s pumped. On this particular morning in early September, Hart’s about to plug the hell out of his new movie, Night School, on morning radio and television in Atlanta. The comedy, which he cowrote and stars in opposite Tiffany Haddish, is about to kick off its promotional tour in earnest ahead of its Sept. 28 release but Hart is getting a head start right now with a post to Instagram Stories, speaking directly to his 62.4 million followers. “You know nobody does the promo like your boy K-Hart,” he says into his phone, his voice equal parts gruff and velvety.

It would be an outright boast if it weren’t completely true. The 39-year-old comedian-actor-producer-athlete-CEO has achieved success far beyond the bounds of ratings or the box office, in large part by putting his own savvy twist on even the most ordinary forms of promotion. And this time he’s not just promoting any film but the first theatrical release from his production company, Hartbeat Productions, so it has to go not just well but off-the-charts amazing. 

He should be comforted, though, knowing he’s on a hot streak. For example, with Cold as Balls, a comedy interview series for Old Spice that’s now in its second season. Hart and his team at his comedy platform, Laugh Out Loud (LOL), had cooked up the concept of hosting a talk show featuring sports stars being interviewed in a locker room, but with him and his subjects sitting in side-by-side ice baths, as if they’ve just played a big game, for the duration of the conversation. Seeing the sponsorship opportunities the concept presented, he and his team reached out to Wieden + Kennedy and Old Spice, and an ongoing relationship was born. (Check out 3 Brands That Enjoyed a Huge Bump on Social Thanks to the Kevin Hart Effect.) You watch the interviews not only to see Hart ask your favorite athletes the tough questions—he’s a surprisingly great interviewer—but also to see how long he could possibly handle sitting in the freezing water. Hart also has a hit on his hands with Lyft Legend, in which he dons an old-man disguise to trick passengers into crass yet intimate conversations (it too is on Season 2).

What sounds like a lot of extra work for an endorsement deal is actually a strategy. Hart is angling for more than one-off deals; he wants to establish true relationships, and not just with one brand. Hart’s ambition is for all of the endorsements to amplify each other and ultimately himself. Because Kevin Hart is a brand, and he knows it.

“I have the talent to make other people feel very comfortable in any environment that I’m in,” says Hart. It’s late August and Hart has phoned from Paris, where he’s getting ready to perform in front of thousands, one of the many European dates on his “Irresponsible” comedy tour. “I’m not threatening, and that’s how I’m able to put myself in front of all audiences, all ages. It doesn’t matter your race, your size, ethnicity, age. I’m comfortable in all of those environments because of the person that I am, which allows me to build my brand even more. That’s the talent of being a likable personality.”

From a business standpoint, there’s definitely a lot to like. During its first season, Lyft Legend garnered more than 50 million views across LOL’s multiplatform network, with over 1.4 million social engagements, and Lyft scored a 33 percent increase in fan growth on social during the series, according to LOL’s numbers. As for Cold as Balls, the first season nabbed over 80 million views, 2.7 million social engagements and 219 million media impressions, per LOL. Meanwhile, Old Spice’s digital engagement went up 86 percent, and its organic conversations saw a 250 percent increase.

“Today, brands want to tap into existing culture and conversations that can propel them forward,” says Valerie Aurilio, executive creative director of brand consulting firm Landor. “Kevin is infectious, and he offers up a powerful fan base that’s already talking. It’s Kevin’s conversation, and it’s funny. If Kevin invites your brand into the conversation, people know it’s authentic and that he genuinely loves the brand.”

‘I learned to do things that literally go hand in hand with what I do, with what I believe. That’s how you make your brand strong.’
Photography by Scott Witter for Adweek; Styling: Ashley North; Grooming: John Clausell

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.