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Celebrities as Social Entrepreneurs: What the Trend Means for You

L-R: Action Against Hunger CEO Andrea Tamburini, This Bar Saves Lives co-founder Kristen Bell | and This Bar Saves Lives CEO Paul Yoo | Image credit: Action Against Hunger

A growing roster of celebrities are no longer satisfied with endorsing corporate products, instead creating (or at least investing in) their own. Think George Clooney, Dr. Dre, Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jaden Smith, Pharrell Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon … the list goes on. (It even includes Susan Sarandon’s burgeoning ping pong empire.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some celebs are marrying their business interests with a cause and launching their own mission-driven organizations. We’ve taken a look at the trend, and what it means for you.

First, some context. Although we wouldn’t have called it that at the time, celebrity-led social entrepreneurship first took off with Paul Newman, the granddaddy of them all, in 1982 (notably one year before the iconic American Express Statue of Liberty campaign). Since then, the Newman’s Own brand has generated more than $515M for worthy causes.

Yet, it has taken a generation for a notable number of Newman’s A-list peers to move beyond telethons and commercials (for NGOs or sponsoring companies) to generate their own market-driven impact. Today’s best-known examples range from Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company to Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man Coffee. Both companies were born of an authentic desire to change an aspect of the world – whether through nontoxic baby and beauty products, or by selling coffee for the sole purpose of changing the lives of those that farm it.

These efforts are laudable. They are improving lives. Now, a new effort aims to go even further and change the way global development operates. It involves a partnership with star-powered social impact brand This Bar Saves Lives and  Action Against Hunger*, the world’s hunger specialist.

Co-founded by actors Kristen Bell, Ryan Devlin, Todd Grinnell and Ravi Patel, This Bar Saves Lives recently announced a partnership with Action Against Hunger, a nonprofit creating better ways to deal with deadly malnutrition. A third key partner is the UK's Department for International Development, which is working with the NGO to create a new "pipeline" for treatment of malnutrition. This Bar Saves Lives will fill that pipeline with life-saving hunger supplies, with no cap on the potential donation amount or reach.

This effort launches in January 2019 in parts of Somalia, where hunger is more common than the flu, and far more deadly. It will scale a solution to malnutrition that has proven 90 percent effective in saving lives — when kids can complete treatment. Current plans will reach up to 250,000 kids in the next three years. And, this model can save even more lives if new corporate partners come on board — which brings us back to what all this might mean for you, whether or not ending hunger is part of your purpose.

Here are four take-aways from the celebrity-as-entrepreneur trend:

  1. Have a clear “why” why does your brand exist? What problem do you solve? From the Clooney’s quest for a hangover-free tequila to This Bar Saves Lives promising a better-for-you snack bar that gives ("Buy a bar. Feed a child. We eat together."), the best brands can clearly articulate why they matter to people.
  2. Be authentic — the public is increasingly skeptical. And expectations are even higher as growing ranks of celebrities don’t just sell their likeliness to sell a product — they actually own the companies. So, these days, you should be especially wary of paid spokespeople, particularly those with a flimsy connection to your brand or cause (if you’re not sure how you’ll break through, remember to lead with the issue, not yourself).
  3. Experiment — to its credit, This Bar Saves Lives was willing to pilot a public-private-nonprofit partnership, a leadership position traditionally reserved for larger companies with more experience in global development. If they can take dramatic leaps, so should you (if you don’t, it’s worth asking yourself how long your brand will remain relevant and sustainable).
  4. Be second — the flip side of experimenting is having what wise philanthropic leaders have called “the courage to be second.” Invest in proven models from others. Amplify what works. Use your resources to elevate and scale. Just as celebrities can rise to fame with someone else’s song or by popularizing an existing trend, so too with purpose programs. The ones that get the credit aren’t always the first — they’re the best.

Follow this advice, and you should be well on your way to claiming a minor celebrity status of your own.

*Carol Cone ON PURPOSE client


Carol Cone is CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE (CCOP), a 21st-century consultancy whose mission is to move purpose to the center of business and brand strategy. At the core of CCOP is The Purpose Collaborative, a collective… [Read more about Carol Cone]


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