In recent years we’ve seen a boom in celebrity-led brands, many of which have been phenomenally successful. But what’s the story behind them? How involved are their big-name front people, and how credible are they as businesses?
A recent investigation by investment website invezz.com found that Kanye West’s footwear and clothing brand Yeezy is the most successful celebrity-owned business, worth an estimated $5 billion. Interestingly, the second biggest hitter is his ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s shapewear business SKIMS, valued at $3.2 billion. Dr Dre’s headphones brand, Beatz by Dre, is in third place, at $3 billion, followed by another Kardashian business, Khloe’s body-positive fashion label, Good American, at $1.6 billion. Fifth is Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, which Invezz lists at $1.4 billion. However, that’s just the figure for the 50% Rihanna owns – the company itself is valued at $2.8 billion.
In all those cases, the celebrities in question are key players in the business. They have put their creativity, money, fame and following behind a venture with spectacular results. But is that always how it works?
Let’s take a look at a few examples of celebrity businesses and how the stars behind them are actually involved.
Rihanna – Fenty Beauty, Fenty Skin and Savage X Fenty
Research celebrity big brands, and the name Fenty keeps popping up. It’s the surname of singer Rhianna, and Fenty Beauty, launched in 2017, was the first of a series of businesses she has founded, all focusing on inclusivity. Having started out providing an unprecedented make-up range catering for all skin tones, she has now branched out into providing skincare for all and lingerie for all sizes and genders.
Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin were set up as joint ventures with Kendo, a beauty business incubator that is part of the luxury conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). Savage x Fenty is a joint venture between Rihanna and TechStyle Fashion Group, the business behind Kate Hudson’s Fabletics.
The Fenty name first emerged in a collaboration with Puma. In 2014, Rihanna became the creative director for their women’s collections under the brand Fenty x Puma. Sales boomed, along with share prices, and the Creeper was declared Shoe of the Year in 2016.
The high-end Fenty fashion brand, launched in 2019, also in association with LVMH, slumped due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and was eventually shelved. However, that was probably a case of unfortunate timing rather than poor business acumen.
Overall, it’s clear that Rhianna’s popular appeal boosts any business venture her name is associated with, and her personal style and ethos are key to the success of each brand.
Ryan Reynolds – Aviation Gin
In 2018, Canadian-born Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds bought a “significant” stake in American dry gin company Aviation Gin from owners Davos, and it suddenly took off (pun intended!)
Reynolds’ involvement helped win new customers directly and secure lucrative deals, such as a partnership with Virgin Atlantic. In fact, some commentators have suggested that this sparked renewed growth in the gin industry as a whole.
It wasn’t just his good looks and Hollywood fame that brought in the customers. Reynolds also brought a quirky touch, for example producing a spoof ‘rejected airline safety video’ to mark the company’s collaboration with British Airways.
Just two years after Reynolds became involved, the company was bought out by Diageo for $610 million. They agreed an “earn-out deal”, which will see the actor remaining the public face of the brand for ten years. He received an initial payment of $335 million, to be followed by further payments based on how well the business performs.
In this case, although the celebrity in question became involved well after the business was founded, there is no doubt that his impact on its success has been enormous.
KSI and Logan Paul – Prime
Headed by two YouTubers, UK-based KSI and American Logan Paul, ‘hydration drinks’ brand, Prime, instantly went viral.
The two initially came together in a very different context, fronting up to each other in the boxing ring in 2018. Both have a huge following, dominated by under-18s, so it’s no surprise that when they announced they were putting rivalry aside to launch a range of drinks together, it was a hit.
The frenzy reached a peak in the UK in early 2023. The drink was initially available only from ASDA supermarkets or through the Prime website, but it quickly sold out and was only available at inflated prices from resellers. A convenience store in Wakefield, Yorkshire, became notorious for its TikTok reels, promoting Prime at £100 a can. A bottle of lemon and lime flavour was even listed on eBay with a starting tag of £5,000.
So when news came out that Prime was being released at the original price at discount supermarket Aldi, the reaction was inevitable. There were queues around the block and people fighting each other to grab their allocation of one of each flavour.
There is now even a dedicated app, Prime Tracker, launched completely independently, to help fans find out where stock is available.
The Prime website includes a joint statement from KSI and Logan Paul, beginning: “We created PRIME to showcase what happens when rivals come together as brothers and business partners to fill the void where great taste meets function.”
While there is no doubt that the YouTube stars are responsible for the brand’s popularity, how responsible are they for the business itself and its output? The pair are reported to “separately own 20% of the company”, but the controlling stake of both the US and UK entities belongs to Congo Brands.
The Congo Brands website lists the YouTubers as the brand’s founders, but states, “Finding out what consumers are looking for is crucial, but the person behind that product has to resonate with the audience”. With KSI and Logan Paul, it seems they’ve hit on a winning formula.
Incidentally, the invezz.com report includes a mention of Logan Paul as a significant celebrity investor. He has invested in five businesses since 2021, the most recent being Metaphysic, the artificial intelligence company behind hyperreal deepfake videos featuring a young Tom Cruise, which went viral on TikTok. So there is clearly more to his business career than just leveraging his popular appeal to entice young consumers.
MrBeast AKA Jimmy Donaldson – MrBeast Burger
We thought this phenomenon was worth a mention, purely because it’s a great demonstration of combining a cult following with an agile model to launch and scale a business quickly.
At just 24, Jimmy Donaldson has netted in the region of $500 million in advertising revenue from his MrBeast YouTube channel, which has 129 million subscribers. He’s known for family-friendly stunts, many of which involve astounding acts of altruism, shocking people by handing out large sums of money.
Donaldson has also launched a sister channel, Beast Philanthropy, from which all the advertising revenue goes to support his mobile food distribution pantry service to provide food for people struggling to make ends meet.
Capitalising on his huge following, in December 2020 Donaldson launched a burger business, MrBeast Burger. However, the twist is that the business is virtual. People can order a Beast Style Burger Combo, featuring a Beast Style smash burger, crinkle-cut fries and a Pepsi through a delivery service like Uber Eats. But the meal will be prepared at a local food outlet by a completely unrelated brand. Only one physical MrBeast Burger restaurant has ever existed, and that was just for a publicity stunt – one of the giveaways MrBeast became famous for.
Donaldson created the restaurant in conjunction with Virtual Dining Concepts, which specialises in this business model. They started with 300 MrBeast Burger outlets and now have more than 600 across the USA, Canada, the UK and the UAE.
All it took to get business booming was a single tweet and a viral YouTube video. The MrBeast Burger app saw more downloads than YouTube and crashed on its first day due to the weight of demand.
In keeping with MrBeast’s altruistic reputation, he announced that a proportion of the proceeds from each sale would go towards feeding hungry families. The burger business is also credited with helping struggling hospitality retailers make it through the pandemic.
The response from fans has been mixed, with complaints about inconsistent quality, which isn’t surprising, given the setup. However, it’s still early days. Quality control may improve and, in the meantime, there are comparatively few overheads to worry about.
In this case, although the venture is a collaboration with an existing business with experience in the virtual restaurant concept, the celebrity is the driving force behind the brand and its success so far.
In all the businesses we’ve looked at here, the key success factor has been the popularity of the personalities involved. Whatever their level of financial, creative and management involvement, a celebrity, whether a Hollywood star or a YouTube phenomenon, can supercharge a business.
Ultimately, these will always be busy people taking a savvy approach to maximising their income. The specifics of the arrangement are immaterial compared to the incredible impact they can have simply by being involved.