As WhoSay’s Celeb Network Grows, More Marketers Look to Stars for Branded Content

Lexus, Crest and JCPenney test social media partnerships

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

On Oscar weekend, actress Rosario Dawson will open a pop-up store in Los Angeles to promote Studio One Eighty Nine, a clothing line tied to her foundation promoting African culture and content.

Leading up to Sunday's big awards show, Dawson will release five short videos on her social media accounts that will feature her tooling around Los Angeles as she prepares for the store's grand opening—driving not just any car but a Lexus, which sponsors the video series. 

"Quite often, you see sponsorships from big companies at an event­—but not on these other fronts, where you're showing what you're doing [as a celebrity] and collaborating with [a brand]," said Dawson, star of the forthcoming Netflix series Daredevil, adding that she has shied away from more garden-variety endorsements.

In the campaign, Lexus is partnering with WhoSay, the social media service that lets celebrities manage their own social content. Through the service, Dawson's videos will be released on her Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Vine feeds, as well as the Chinese social site Tencent.

Lexus media manager Teri Hill said the campaign is meant to go beyond the standard media placement by letting Dawson showcase a project she is passionate about.

Since it was co-founded by Creative Artists Agency five years ago, WhoSay has amassed 4.8 million unique users, per Quantcast. WhoSay spent three years recruiting celebrity members and building out the product before launching its advertising model in 2014.

"At one point, we thought this would be a more traditional digital publishing business selling display ads," said Rob Gregory, WhoSay's chief revenue officer. "[But] we've caught a wave that is driven by things that are happening in culture."

KFC, JCPenney, Dunkin' Donuts and Crest have also done campaigns via WhoSay.

In December, JCPenney partnered with John Stamos for its #JustGotJingled campaign. Incognito in a beard and baseball cap, the actor surprised JCPenney shoppers in Los Angeles by offering to pay for their holiday gift purchases. The prank—which, according to Gregory, was Stamos' idea—was seen more than 2 million times on YouTube.

Partnering with WhoSay, Crest promoted its new mouthwash via a campaign on Facebook and Twitter. The Procter & Gamble brand tapped Vampire Diaries star Nina Dobrev, Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch and actress Alexa PenaVega to share photos of their morning routines running across three weeks. All told, more than 3,000 pictures were posted by the celebrities and their fans.

Branded content is hardly new, of course. BuzzFeed was one of the first large publishers to go all in on native advertising, its success leading The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Condé Nast magazines, among others, to follow suit. But now, the business model has trickled down to smaller players like WhoSay.

"The prices of display ads are plummeting, display's efficiency is also slipping, and native advertising has really become a must-have," said Altimeter analyst Rebecca Lieb.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.