Millennial Think Tank: Entertainment and the Cult of Celebrity

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This week’s Millennial Think Tank found us discussing the impact of celebrities, and their relationships with brands and fans.

Our panel included:

  • Samantha Estoesta, a young Millennial working in Public Interest Research
  • Albert Qian, a young Millennial working in Silicon Valley
  • Tiffany Daniels, an older Millennial working in Government & Community Relations
  • Kayvon Asemani, a younger Millennial, musician, intern at HERCO & class of 2018 member at the Wharton School of Business, UPENN
  • Salina Mendoza, younger Millennial, social media brand manager and social entrepreneur
  • Kiernan McGinnis, young Millennial and 2nd year student / English Literature Major at Lehigh University
  • Joe Cardillo, an older millennial who works in technology and startups / entrepreneurship

Video of the full hangout is embedded below along with a recap of the discussion, and insights.

We started by asking each participant if they follow celebrities / famous people.

Kiernan dived right in and noted that while he doesn’t follow celebrities many people he knows do. He referenced the ongoing social media exploits of Kim Kardashian, prompting an immediate sidebar chat about physical appearance, and how b0th positive and negative impressions of her have included racial undertones.

Kayvon, who is a talented hip-hop musician, noted that while he doesn’t follow a lot of famous people he does keep tabs on people who are inspiring — in his case Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West — and suggested that the larger point is that people follow celebrities for inspiration / because it fulfills something in themselves.

Since he lives in Silicon Valley and works in technology, Albert mostly pays attention to people like Mark Zuckerberg, Robert Scoble, Elon Musk who building or covering business innovations. If he had to choose between a selfie with Elon Musk and Kim Kardashian, the former would easily win out.

Hessie suggested that with the web and access opened up we’re seeing more attention paid to business leaders as people to emulate whereas in the past movie stars and other entertainers got most of the attention.

The famous people that Samantha pays attention to are mostly reporters (who compromise the vast majority of her Twitter feed), and researchers / academics or great writers / artists.

Tiffany mostly follows comedians, musicians/songwriters, and music producers, often the people who work behind the scenes or near extremely famous celebrities / artists.

Is there a difference between famous and internet famous? And does direct access / authenticity matter?

Since he’s at the younger end of the panel, Kayvon has grown up with the web and doesn’t make a distinction between internet vs. traditional exposure of celebrities. He also pointed back to the idea of aligning with people who make you laugh / entertain you, regardless of whether they have massive mainstream success or not.

Albert doesn’t care how personal celebrities get on social media, and takes everything with a grain of salt. He sees most of it as a branding play (and wouldn’t want a selfie with Justin Bieber, either =).

Hessie asked about celebrities like George Takai and Will Wheaton who were less famous but are now enjoying a resurgence due to social media, as well as people like Ashton Kutcher. Kiernan, Samantha and Albert were skeptical about the influence level, and Albert mentioned that while he’s aware of Kutcher’s marketing for Nikon cameras, it wouldn’t replace his normal research when buying a product.

Kayvon felt strongly that direct access between an artist and fans does matter, and that learning from an artist comes not just from what they product but how they relate to people. He gave an example in Drake and his team, and said “you can be the best musician in the world and never sell a record if you don’t know how to promote yourself and put the time in.” He felt that famous people have a tougher challenge, but that they are also a model for other people doing the same work.

That reminded me of an example, Mac Lethal, a hip-hop musician who’s released records the traditional way but also developed a strong presence and relationship with fans via social media. Even though he’s now well known in the music world, he still talks directly with fans and responds to nearly every email. Because of that I periodically check in with what he does, and buy his records / recommend him in to other people.

Samantha pays attention to and enjoys commenting on blogs of authors, researchers, and journalists, and since she has some credibility in that world she likes the opportunity to check in, so she can see what people are doing and they can have a conversation about what’s she’s been up to. For more famous people, she enjoys the opportunity to ask questions and learn from them…on one occasion Neil Gaiman responded to a question she had about his Sandman series, something that she geeked out on for several days. The opportunity to see celebrities as humans with similar needs

What’s the difference between a celebrity interacting vs. someone on their team or a brand they represent?

Samantha also pointed out the Tumblr trend of celebrities posting handwritten notes as a way of proving that they’re real / interacting with fans, and Tiffany pointed out in chat that there’s plenty of ghostwriting going on that people are unaware of.

Kayvon felt that when a famous musician like Taylor Swift takes the time to bypass their PR / marketing team it says more about the artist’ personality than their music does, since so much of what they do is carefully crafted by a team and not just the individual.

Do you care if a celebrity’s values match yours / are they responsible for being role models?

Tiffany took a realistic approach, noting that while she would love to say it matters all the time, she does enjoys things created by people who have values / actions that she disagrees with and sees it as a case by case for each individual person. She wondered if examples like Chris Brown and Michael Vick create an all or nothing dynamic that simply doesn’t make sense… “I love animals, my dog is sitting next to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think Michael Vick is a talented football player.” She sees a difference between setting our own personal standards vs. setting lines for others, and is cautious about setting lines that make us hypocritical.

Kayvon agreed, and pointed out that you can’t always see into what someone is doing just by looking at what they create, and that there is a split between the content and person.

Kiernan came from a different place, and flatly stated he wouldn’t listen to, purchase, or have anything to do with Chris Brown or his music, and same goes for Michael Vick. He felt that there is a line that cannot be crossed, and that when we follow / consume content from someone who we completely disagree with there’s no way to avoid endorsing the actions that person takes.

Samantha mentioned the Jian Ghomeshi situation in Canada, and how hard it was to grapple with having enjoyed his show in the past but completely disagreeing with his abusive and violent actions against women.

Hessie brought up Tiger Woods, asked what people thought about the fact that his wife forgave his indiscretions, and wondered — as Amy had suggested last week— if it was really anyone’s business given that he worked things out privately with his now ex-wife Elin Nordegren.

Albert felt famous people are as infallible as anyone, but they’re under the microscope…he referenced Tiger and former President Clinton, and thought that some benefit of the doubt is necessary but it’s a balance. If you choose to become public figure you’re somewhat obligated to put your best self out there.

Kiernan saw a difference between Vick / Brown and Tiger Woods, and suggested that without breaking laws or doing anything patently destructive to the fabric of structured society Wood’s and Nordegren’s situation was their own business.

Tiffany played devil’s advocate and brought up redemption. She challenged the panel to think about the possibility that regardless of how you feel about something, once it is handled in a celebrity’s personal life, there isn’t any easy way to decide if they are good / bad or deserve redemption. She feels that when it comes to celebrities we should be voting with our money, and that it will always be a personal choice when it comes to things like Vick, Chris Brown, or the Dixie Chicks.

Where is the line drawn when brands are affected by a celebrity / musician / athlete’s actions?

I asked about morality clauses, and what responsibility brands had to be fair to stars, audiences, and their own reputation.

Albert felt that morality clauses were fair and that brands had a right and obligation to consider the trade-offs in situations where unethical and/or illegal actions were at play. Kayvon pointed out that from a business perspective it is really the responsibility of the brand to make decisions that are best for the business… “Nike knew that they could drop him for moral reasons or keep him and continue to keep to make money and be profitable.”

Hessie suggested that a key point brands have to consider is the difference between making a profit and aligning values, and pointed out that once the Tiger Woods controversy settled down some sponsors returned.

Tiffany nailed that moment, saying a brand like Nike approaches it as “we publish you publicly and now we can get back and say that we’re working with you because you’ve apologized and agreed to work on yourself…whether that’s true or not.”

One of the things I noticed with the Chris Brown and Rihanna situation was how critical brands / people in brand marketing were of Rihanna, and I wondered if it was fair of them to judge her for her decisions in that situation, as well as how undertones of race and gender affected the way those opinions played out in public.

Kiernan felt that in a situation like Brown/Rihanna that involves domestic abuse, brands were playing a dangerous game and sending messages to fans of both artists.

Kayvon pointed out the situation had incredibly complex dynamics worthy of a complete other think tank session, and that there isn’t any easy way to navigate it. Kiernan had a good followup point about how people who are being abused simply need to not be in those situations, and I was left struggling with the reality that while brands have a right to be critical due to words and actions representing them, there’s no easy solution, particularly when both people in a situation like that are significantly influential.

Salina noted that a brand does need a moral identity, and felt they have to make tough decisions that require them to understand and see into how athletes and other famous people work and offer a chance for them to make changes.

Do we care about celebrity products and/or endorsements?

Tiffany gave an example of a celebrity endorsed product called Save Your Do, which makes it easy to wrap your hair when doing a gym workout or other exercise. That’s one of the rare cases where she bought a product that wasn’t directly related to the famous spokesperson pitching it.

Her perspective was echoed across the panel — Albert was skeptical about the money paid out, particularly to teens who are newer stars, and Samantha felt that alignment between what brands stand for and what stars stand for is really important, pointing out that something like having a Red Bull sponsor more socialpreneurship oriented events and ideas was jarring. She is also fairly critical in watching how celebrities use charitable / philanthropic ends to promote themselves without necessarily walking the walk.

Kayvon was similarly skeptical, and defined the need for alignment by using Beats headphones as an example, saying that “what gets my attention is something like Beats by Dre, when it came out he was endorsing it because it was a product made from his skill and had utility and they are great headphones…he’s using a skill he has to give something to the world.”

Samantha pointed out that you don’t need to split, saying that “you can be authentic and make a brand play…[but] the second you become someone who is in the public spotlight, you have to start to understand how that influences your decisions and what happens.”

Human brand vs. company brand

We wrapped up the hangout by returning to something everyone seemed to agree on: regardless of the alignment, there was a sense that connecting to individual people — whether internet famous, nerd famous, or traditional celebrity—was more important than relating to a particular brand.

Samantha: “I would follow some reporters to the death…if Anderson Cooper joined some sort of right wing television show I probably still watch it until he said something stupid.”

Kayvon: “I follow the artist or whoever more than I follow the brand”

Albert: “It’s nice to see someone who’s transparent and open and you realize they are living a life that’s a lot like the one you have, and that you relate to.”

Salina: “I definitely think that having that personal connection really ties in with the brand experience for any consumer or someone that likes the product…it puts that next step in the relationship, hey they are paying attention, there is someone behind the brand engaging with someone.”

All participants felt that the human aspect was critical, and I was left wondering how many brands still don’t get that point and / or truly understand how social media and the web have changed the way we communicate.

Tiffany noted that it varies by industry / company type…she’s had experiences trying to convince older, less social media savvy executives and knows it can be scary for them. She suspects it’s a problem that isn’t likely to change for a while.

We finished up the hangout with Kiernan’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Jack LaLanne juicer, and a full panel endorsement of the George Foreman grill, leading me to suspect if the Foreman brand releases anything else they have a good shot of selling a high volume of the product.


There were a number of interesting threads in this week’s hangout, among them:

  • Social media and the web continue to break down who gatekeeps influence. As brands get into new mediums (Instagram, Snapchat, etc…) and buy the latest stars, finding and aligning with the right people may be more difficult than it looks.
  • When it comes to famous people there isn’t an easy way to distinguish between content and person. Brands have to keep a clear moral / human identity and be willing to weigh profits vs. values alignment. Not doing so is dangerous.
  • Balancing empathy and recognizing the humanity and flaws of celebrities and other influential people isn’t easy. As above, companies that don’t have a clear brand identity and aren’t willing to make tough decisions will probably find themselves judged harshly by all sides.

Next week

Next week’s hangout finds us looking at Millennials’ habits around money.

The future of banking will look very different, yet it is one industry in which many of the big players don’t understand how consumers actually want to pay for things. The recent Apple Pay launch certainly brought this home as consumers quickly embraced it despite the backing out of a few major retailers. Join us to hear directly from our panel about how they prefer to pay for things.

0 thoughts on “Millennial Think Tank: Entertainment and the Cult of Celebrity

  1. ArCIntel says:

    joecardillo As always, awesome – Susan

  2. joecardillo says:

    ArCIntel It was totally interesting. It wasn’t so much #MTT b/c that’s always great…but b/c celebrities are not really my jam.

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