As collagen brand Vital Proteins gets new products on store shelves this year, the company has one unlikely exec to thank for making them possible: Actress Jennifer Aniston.
Aniston serves as chief creative officer at Vital Proteins, a job that combines elements of being a social media influencer with the more in-the-weeds responsibilities of product development.
Kurt Seidensticker, the founder and CEO of Vital Proteins, said he and Aniston got to know each other after she became a regular user of the company’s collagen products, such as creamer and water. As chief creative officer, she helped craft Vital’s new collagen gummies. “We’ve run early innovation by her, and she’s provided feedback on where she thinks products should go,” Seidensticker told Insider in an interview.
Celebrities have signed on to be the face of brands for decades. But many are now signing deals that give them executive titles at the brands they work with. Along with that comes much more than just appearing in ads for products: Many celebrities that go this route advise on products in development and have a say on the business’s strategy — something that spokespeople don’t get to do.
Besides Aniston, other notable celebrity executives include actress Scarlett Johansson, who became chief creative officer and an investor at a healthy food brand owned by HumanCo in April, as well as chef Martha Stewart, who joined the board of directors at upscale chain BurgerFi earlier this year.
“Instead of a brand going out and saying ‘Will you be the face of my campaign?’ they’re looking for something that’s more of an authentic connection,” said Stacy Jones, CEO and founder of Hollywood Branded, an agency that handles deals between celebrities and brands.
“They are becoming more common, and it’s been something that’s been happening over the last five or six years,” she added.
At Vital Proteins, Aniston’s star power is part of the strategy. Seidensticker said he and Aniston had been talking about a partnership of some kind for years, but it really took form after the actress opened an Instagram account and started posting about her personal wellness routine and how she uses collagen.
From that perspective, the brand’s work with Aniston makes her look like an influencer. “Let’s have Jen explain and educate people about the benefit of collagen, but let’s actually also dig deep into her own routine,” Seidensticker said, explaining the approach. “I think her discovery and wellness is applicable to everyone.”
But she’s also part of the product development. Seidensticker said that Aniston is involved in picking new flavors for new products, and the company is considering a Jen-themed snack bar based around more of her input. “It’s pretty interactive,” Seidensticker said of Vital Proteins’s relationship with Aniston.
Asked whether Aniston’s agreement with Vital Proteins includes an investment in the brand, Seidensticker declined to provide details, citing confidentiality, but said: “Our collaboration goes beyond simply an endorsement.”
Other recent agreements give celebrities a similar say in products. Under the HumanCo agreement, Johansson is contributing “her insights and ideas to product development” for the company’s Snow Days pizza pocket brand. And at BurgerFi, Stewart is chairing the board’s product and innovation committee. The companies did not provide details on their agreements with Johansson or Stewart, though HumanCo did confirm that Johansson made an investment.
While celebrities taking more involved roles at brands isn’t new, their focus on getting in the door at up-and-coming ones is a more recent development, Jones told Insider. Many are interested in getting in on the ground floor of a startup, both with an ownership stake and with some say over how the brand grows. Other recent examples include actress Dakota Johnson becoming co-creative director at sexual wellness brand Maude and Kerry Washington making an investment and taking a role at direct-to-consumer jewelry brand Aurate.
“There’s much more upside for them to carve out percentages and provide these celebrities the opportunity to be a stakeholder because they actually have the ability to truly impact and drive sales for the brand,” Jones said.
But the startup world can be chaotic, and celebrities are likely to seek a royalty payment or other compensation upfront in case the startup goes under, she said. “They don’t know if they’re going to be lending their face to something that’s going to be a colossal failure,” Jones said, adding that celebrities are taking one of these hybrid influencer-executive roles “as an investment decision.”
Brands also have to do due diligence before welcoming celebrities into their C-suite, she said. In traditional endorsement deals, celebrities are used to sticking closely to a contract, such as making a set number of public appearances on behalf of the company.
That approach might not work for companies when the celebrity in question has committed to developing products, building marketing strategies from the inside, or other open-ended projects. “What they have to look at is: Is this a celebrity who is actually going to take it up to that next level and be a true partner?” Jones said.