Are the Most Valuable Celebrity Brand Endorsements the Ones Brands Don’t Actually Pay for?

Upstart firm Spotted quantifies the value of 'natural affinity'

Cartier got some free advertising last year when Kylie Jenner couldn’t get her Cartier Love bracelet off her wrist. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Klara

You probably remember the screaming headlines from last year: a distraught Kylie Jenner took to Snapchat to declare that, try as she might, she just couldn’t get her Cartier Love bracelet off her wrist.

Jenner’s was a protracted trauma. The $5,000 bangle in question, which features tiny and clearly very stubborn gold screws, had been imprisoning the 18-year-old reality star’s wrist for “like, four years,” she complained. Not surprisingly, the plight of the unfortunate Kylie—whose forearm in fact sported six Cartier bracelets totaling, like, $41,000—brought out the wags.

“Kylie Jenner has been enduring a real struggle,” said Cosmopolitan.

“We’ll keep you in our prayers,” offered HuffPo.

Kylie Jenner’s bracelet-that-won’t-come-off crisis of 2016 triggered an avalanche of web searches for the pricey bangle—353,000 in a single month. (By contrast, Tiffany notched only 83,000.)
Data: Spotted; Instagram: kyliejenner

But amid Jenner’s ordeal and the internet storm it created was another part of the story few seemed to notice. It was Cartier’s part of the story: the tale of free advertising. Seemingly overnight, Kylie fans besieged the web and made the Love bracelet the most-searched jewelry item online—353,000 searches in a month, to be exact. Indeed, thanks to Jenner, Cartier even unseated the preeminent Tiffany. Cartier doesn’t release sales figures, so we don’t know how many Love bracelets the storied jewelry brand actually sold in the weeks after the event, but odds are it was more than would have sold otherwise.

The link between a celebrity nod and a brand’s performance is well established. A 2012 study by the Harvard Business School revealed that celebrity endorsements generate a 4 percent increase in sales on average for brands. The 2013 book Contemporary Ideas and Research in Marketing found that 85 percent of consumers admitted that a celebrity endorsement upped their confidence in a brand, and 15 percent said endorsements affected their purchasing decisions. In addition, a study released by NPD last year revealed that fans of a given celebrity are 50 percent more likely to buy and use the products that celebrity does.

Companies, of course, know this stuff already. However, while brands have long paid celebrities to endorse their wares, they’re totally in the dark when it comes to “natural affinity,” which occurs when famous faces just happen to buy, wear or use a brand, not because they’re paid to, but because they just like to.

And that’s where Janet Comenos comes in.

When Kate Middleton chose Alexander McQueen to create her wedding gown in 2011 (credit goes to designer Sarah Burton), the brand saw a 27% sales increase.
Data: Spotted; Photo: Getty Images

Comenos is CEO of a fledgling company called Spotted, a diamond-studded version, you might say, of the usual data-research firm. In a nutshell, Spotted watches all the beautiful people, monitors a list of 10,000 different brands and identifies which of those brands celebrities are most fond of. The result, to hear Comenos tell it, is the first-ever way of verifying which brand names are truly on top of the social heap. (We’ve included four examples in the charts that follow.)

“I started this business on the premise that we’d build the largest social database in the world of all the brands that celebrities use and wear and drive,” Comenos said.

In her view, brands that pay celebrities to endorse their stuff have the marketing equation backwards.

“Brands are drastically increasing their investment in celebrity activations, but 100 percent of these activations are all scripted and staged,” she said.

According to Comenos’ research, consumers, especially younger ones, are increasingly tuning out endorsements that are obviously paid for. Yet despite that, “brands are dedicating their efforts to these contrived forms of advertising,” Comenos said.

What’s a brand supposed to do with Spotted’s findings? For example, say a footwear brand discovers that some young movie star wears its sneakers to the gym. So what?

Comenos explained that Spotted “can help the brand understand how relevant [the discovery] is,” as well as “if they’re on an upswing or a downswing.” Plus, if a brand gets a list of the top celebs who like its products, it might be good to send some free swag to those celebs. Finally, since Spotted clears all rights for paparazzi photos of stars wearing the merch in question, brands can use the images in their social-media marketing and target the stars’ social fans.

The trendy, L.A.-based denim maker was spotted on the hips of so many leading actresses this year that Levi's partnered with it on a vintage line and signed Cindy Crawford for the effort.
Data: Spotted; Photo: Getty Images

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.