“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.”
Being authentic is key to Hart’s success and something you’ll hear him mention often. But what does it actually mean? “If you can’t believe it and you don’t see me actually in the situation that I’m putting myself in, then I shouldn’t be doing it,” says Hart matter-of-factly. “If anything ever comes off forced or like I’m trying to get a check, then that’s against my brand and that’s against what I do and how I move. That’s how I learn. 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.”
“There’s something about quality that comes with him and a reach guarantee that comes with him,” notes Thai Randolph, evp and general manager of LOL, which is a joint venture between Hart and Lionsgate.
As with most success stories, having a role model has been essential to Hart’s rise as a deft brander. He cultivated his business skills by studying Ice Cube’s approach to developing, producing and starring in the Ride Along films. “A lot of entertainers have the opportunities to become business partners, producing partners, developing partners,” says Hart. “[But they just put their] name on a piece of paper, and other people do the work. … Ice Cube really busts his ass to do the work within the development of these projects. I saw him understand everything that went on, and I understood that he understood those things because of how long he’d been a producer, a star. He knows every single lane. I said, that’s what I should be understanding and doing. So I took information in from what was shown in front of me. I was a sponge, and I soaked it up.”
Even producer extraordinaire DJ Khaled, who’s known for his work ethic, if not his modesty, admires Hart’s commitment. “Kevin Hart inspires you,” says Khaled, who costars with Hart in a three-part Apple Music spot in which the comedian voices Khaled’s young son Asahd. (The first spot was revealed earlier this year; the other two have yet to be released.) “I haven’t met anybody who works harder than me, and I feel Kevin Hart is one of those people who works the hardest.”
But as focused as he is on his brand, Hart is also intent on pushing others to learn the business like he has. Haddish, Hart’s Night School costar, notes that on set, Hart would multitask between performing for the camera, making deals on the phone—“Kevin is always on the phone,” she says—and coaching her on brand building. “In between takes, they’ll be like ‘Cut,’ and then he’ll be on the phone working out a deal. Then ‘Action,’ and he does the scene. Then ‘Cut,’ and he’ll be back on the phone again, emailing, sending messages. He’s always knocking stuff out,” says Haddish. “He’s like, ‘See, Tiffany? Just made half a million dollars right there. See that? That’s $100,000.’ He’s constantly, constantly in communication with his team and building his brand.”
Haddish wouldn’t go into detail about the lessons she’s learned from Hart, other than to say he’s given her advice on how to procure endorsements and pushed her to post more on social media. “He’s always giving me advice about marketing,” she says. “There’s a bunch of stuff that comes to mind, but I’m not telling. I learned my lesson. You can’t tell everybody everything. He gave me those tips. I would rather save it for my book. He taught me that too: Don’t tell everybody everything unless they’re paying you for it. Hello!”
Hart doesn’t want to be paid by just anyone, though. And he’s certainly not willing to become a caricature of himself just for a paycheck. “I’m at a point in my career where I don’t have to do that,” says Hart. “I’m financially OK. So these things that I’m doing now are all business maneuvers, you know. In order to be successful in business, you need great partners.”
One of those partners is Tommy John. Hart not only stars in campaigns and designs underwear for the brand but has also invested in it. “One of the things he said, he was like, ‘Tom, I don’t want to be a Nascar. I don’t want to have 35 brands plastered all over the hood of my car. I only want to work with a handful of brands I believe in, wear or use,’” says Tommy John CEO and founder Tom Patterson, adding that this selectivity made him much more comfortable with allowing Hart to invest in the brand. The trust has paid off: Hart has starred in three films for Tommy John, delivering over 6.5 million views via Hart’s and Tommy John’s digital channels. The videos also yielded a 270 percent lift and recall on YouTube and an almost 100 percent lift in brand awareness, notes Patterson.
“What I’ve learned about Kevin is how much he understands consumers, how much he understands his audience and what makes his audience tick,” notes Chauncey Hamlett, head of marketing for Mountain Dew. The beverage brand has what Hamlett calls a 360-degree partnership with Hart, sponsoring his tour and LOL content, featuring him in commercials and finding ways to integrate the brand into Hart’s films.
“The greatest part about working with Kevin is that you actually do work with him,” says Hamlett. “So it’s not like he sends a representative to go talk to you and then they go talk to him. We actually collaborate with Kevin on all aspects of the partnership.”
“Kevin thinks strategically about how he can help grow the brand,” notes Aurilio. “He’s not just a face; he’s involved and working to build culture and entertainment around the brand, which is imperative for brand growth. The range of relevance he brings to the table cannot be ignored. A celeb that is edgy and unpredictable enough to feel niche but, in reality, brings with him a huge following and opens up diverse demographics is a very desirable partner.”
Still, there have been some serious bumps along the way, like last year’s scandal surrounding the revelation that Hart cheated on his then-pregnant wife, Eniko Parrish. Soon after, another woman came forward in what Hart described at the time as an extortion attempt designed to capitalize on his infidelity.
The way that Hart dealt with that very public—and potentially brand-killing—crisis might be the key to his seemingly unstoppable success: He was honest.
In October 2017, he took to Instagram to apologize to his family and his fans, letting them know that he had messed up. He even named his next comedy tour after it (“Irresponsible”) and worked with J. Cole on a meta music video that gave viewers a fictionalized look at what his life was like post-scandal.
“You don’t want to fuck up your opportunity, and as a guy that fucked up before, as a guy that, you know, fucked up before and stepped in shit, I know what it smells like,” says Hart. “So right now, it’s literally about me making sure that I don’t do that again. Taking advantage of the opportunity that I have but also taking it seriously. Not taking it for granted.”