Turning Celebrities Into Branded Cultural Currency

New intellectual property models

Public-television purists, look away now: The PBS series Avec Eric which features Michelin three-star chef Eric Ripert was completely paid for by brands like the Ritz Carlton, Cayman Tourism Board and Cayman Airways that were featured in episodes. It also didn’t hurt Ripert that his Le Bernardin restaurant in New York was a prominent part of the Emmy-winning series and spawned a cookbook.

The popularity of that show, created and owned by ad agency Anomaly and Ripert, led to the spinoff of the chef’s On the Table celebrity series which has featured people like actress Drew Barrymore cooking Clams Montecito while just happening to talk up her newly launched wine brand.

The success of the shows, shot partly in Anomaly’s Manhattan agency, has led to the agency’s stake in Uncommon Content, which produces The Reserve Channel on YouTube and makes half-hour series for the Web that it hopes will be picked up by broadcast networks. (Even before encountering The Reserve Channel, Anomaly was charting that course. The agency expects to soon announce a mainstream distribution deal for Avec Eric on commercial broadcast TV.) Sponsors of the show, including Cuisinart and Acqua Panna, get ample exposure, and even big-ticket items from German kitchen manufacturer, Poggenpohl, benefit from the air time. Anomaly just helped to sell 52 of the kitchens, shown in episodes like the Barrymore show, to a real estate developer for a Manhattan project.

Justin Barocas, a founding partner Anomaly, reflected on Avec Eric at the Advertising Week session, “Stars Aligned: Brands & Entertainers Sharing the Spotlight.” He said the initiative underscores the agency’s approach to partnerships amid the changing nature of celebrity cultural currency and emerging distribution channels. The intent, he stressed, is to make “one and one add up to three” for all involved.

“This is an example of new models that are available in original development and (intellectual property). We apply a brand’s sensibility with an original storyline and original development,” Barocas said.

Joining Barocas was John Boiler, founder and CEO of 72andSunny, and Michael Rourke, founder and CEO of New York branded content company hud:sun.

Both had their own compelling case studies. In viral marketing videos, 72andSunny tied the identity of Kenny Powers, a former big league pitcher character on HBO’s Eastbound and Down, to K-Swiss. In the videos, Powers becomes a K-Swiss pitchman, is paid in stock and takes over the company, bringing in athletic celebs like personal trainer Jillian Michaels and fighter Jon "Bones" Jones to get the business in shape. Director Michael Bay and businessman Mark Cuban also make cameo appearances.

“Authenticity is at the center. Entertainment and brands should only come together in an authentic way,” Boiler said, emphasizing the balance of promotional interests. “At the center for us was using free-standing assets of K-Swiss and HBO to get our thing out. When it’s disproportionate, you get pay-to-play, old-school entertainment partnerships.”

One party not benefiting in that loop: Hollywood talent agents. “They’re better at extracting value than building value,” Boiler bluntly pointed out.

For example, when 72andSunny paired Samsung with Jay-Z this summer to distribute advance copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail for Samsung Galaxy smartphone users, it was the artist’s manager who brokered the deal, not his agent. “Our interests were aligned. Samsung is an innovation company bringing out new devices and Jay-Z wanted to distribute his music in a new way.” 

When Mattel relaunched its Ken doll three years ago, it enlisted Rourke’s hud:sun, which created the Bachelorette reality-style Hulu Web series, Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend. Eight male contestants competed to become the "great American boyfriend" and the show’s first season was judged by Whitney Port, from reality series like MTV’s The Hills. 

The show got media attention in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America, and on Hulu, it was the third most-watched program for eight consecutive weeks. Rourke, like others on the panel, said promotional support of this kind of non-network programming has to work as hard as content. In this case, social media played a big role.  

“We got Ken back into the cultural conversation,” he said. “It’s so incredibly crowded out there. We needed to come up with great systems of support for Ken and Barbie and we put a lot of digital influencers in it.”  

The session provided a perfect segue to the next one, an interview with Kardashian momager Kris Jenner, who pointed out that she invented and trademarked that term. The session in the Hard Rock Café was packed with enthusiastic millennials photographing and filming her with their phones.

There were few surprises in the self-promotional shilling from Jenner, the media savvy, architect of the family's branding strategies. She did, however, allow that there is a certain “fragility” to personality-driven brands and that TV shows “come and go.” That's something she would know about after her six-week talk show trial run this summer.

“No, it was not cancelled,” she sniffed, a bit defensively for the indefatigable promoter. “It will take another month before I know if it’s going to be picked up. I was just a summer run.”

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