To get out the word about their yoga gear, Doreen Hing and Jennifer McKinley, co-owners of $100,000, Boston-based Plank, began by pitching magazine editors. But they kept hearing the same refrain: Come back when a celebrity starts using your products. Hing and McKinley didn't happen to know any stars, so they went to Hollywood. Since January, 2005, the pair have attended many industry gift shows, donated their products to celebrity gift bags, and participated in events that precede big awards shows and festivals. The payoff: Their hip, high-end yoga goods have been mentioned in Self magazine and by Access Hollywood as being used by actresses Natalie Portman and Ellen Pompeo, star of the ABC hit Grey's Anatomy.
In our celebrity-drenched culture, millions of people take their cues on what to wear, where to go, and how to decorate their homes from movie and TV stars. But there's no direct route to getting your product into a celebrity's hands. "Unless you are a big company, you can't buy your way to celebrities," says Marc Gobé, co-founder of New York branding consultant Desgrippes Gobé Group. "It's not easy to get to them and that's why, when you do, it makes it so authoritative." Celebrity ties also may open retailers' doors. "A retailer may already be excited about a product, but a celebrity connection helps sell it to their customers," McKinley says.
Making that connection requires effort and luck. But if your product doesn't have that elusive cool factor, forget it. "You need to be in the know about what the next big thing is," says Gobé. And just because Denzel Washington is your favorite actor, if you're selling tennis rackets and he doesn't play, your odds aren't good. "There has to be a connection between your product and a particular star," says Richard Laermer, owner of RLM Public Relations in Los Angeles.
Reaching celebrities usually means finding their managers, marketers, publicists, and stylists. Ideally, they will pass your product to a star or ask you to donate your goods to gift bags—the infamous swag celebrities receive just for showing up at award shows and other industry events. The downside of contributing to gift bags is that you can't be sure a celebrity used or liked your product. For that, you'll have to follow up with the star's representatives—if you can find them. "No one will give you publicists' names," says Hing. You can scour the media for their names or try sites such as www.whorepresents.com, where you can search for names of agents and managers.
Hing and McKinley have had better luck at events where they can meet people face to face. After spotting a Plank booth at the Los Angeles gift show, the owners of The Silver Spoon, an entertainment marketing company, invited the company to be part of a two-day pre-Oscars event in February, 2005. That's where Hing and McKinley managed to give a tote to Natalie Portman's publicist. A week after the show, they got permission to use Portman's name in connection with the bag in their publicity materials. Since then, Plank has contributed to gift bags for the Emmys and the MTV movie awards.
You can search for similar events online by using terms such as "pre-Oscars" or "gift lounges," or tracking down the names of the entertainment promotion companies that run them. Costs range widely. Plank's founders spent $3,000 on the pre-Oscars event and were invited to participate in the gift lounge before the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, which cost $20,000. In all, Plank has spent about $35,000 since 2004 marketing to celebrities. That includes the value of freebie merchandise, fees to participate in events, and travel costs. The founders say the expense has been worth it. In September, the company was one of 28 invited by the Accessories Council to exhibit during New York's Fashion Week—and to take another shot at stardom.
By Coeli Carr