In A World of Sponsored Social Media, Do Celebrity Gifting Suites Still Count?

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle
Emmy winner Viola Davis snagged some swag before the ceremony (AP Images)
Emmy winner Viola Davis snagged some swag before the ceremony (AP Images)

The fact that we live in a celebrity culture is hardly debatable at this point, which is why we're still seemingly obsessed with what the stars wear and where they buy it. Come awards season, celebrity gifting suites capitalize on that frenzy by assembling assorted brands to introduce to celebrities in hopes of getting a photo that will help boost sales and introduce the world to a new product. But when sponsored Instagram posts have become all the rage, the trend suggests celeb gifting suites are maybe passe and on their way out… but are they really? And have they lost their effectiveness?

"The suites really are very relevant," Karen Wood, president of Backstage Creations, told Yahoo! Celebrity. "There's no other opportunity I know of where brands can have face time with A-list celebs for the express purpose of promoting their brand. When they come to our suite, they come knowing that there are brands with new products or services, and they’re willing to take the time to listen to the brand rep talk about the product and showcase the line, and then there’s the opportunity to get a photo with that celebrity. I don't see any ebbing in the interest level of consumers in what celebs are wearing, doing, or where they’re vacationing — our culture seems to be more obsessed with celebrity than they were two decades ago."

While there are numerous gifting opportunities all across Los Angeles surrounding any given award show, the one run by Wood and her company Backstage Creations is the only one that's endorsed by the Emmys themselves. Located on site at the actual awards show — and just steps from host Andy Samberg's dressing room — Backstage Creations is the original gifting lounge founded by Wood, who hit upon the idea back when she was a talent coordinator for award shows and found herself having trouble getting stars to the venue on time for rehearsals and show prep.

Jane Lynch (AP Images)
Jane Lynch (AP Images)

"I wish I could say I was a marketing genius, but it didn't start as a marketing concept – it was really something to solve a problem I had as a talent coordinator," Wood confesses. "I was struggling to get celebrities to come to rehearsals back in 1994, in the dark ages before cell phones. So basically I started bringing friends with designer sunglasses to the green room, to give celebrities something to do while waiting for stage time. Word spread that I had access, more companies called wanting to have the experience, and then a light bulb went off that this could be a marketing opportunity."

Sure, it’s a marketing opportunity for the brands, but isn't it also about the orgy of free stuff for celebrities? Not with their attendees, says Wood. "I think for them it's about learning about new products and services," she notes. "These are celebrities who typically can’t just go to a store — many of them can't go out into public freely, so it's a great opportunity to learn about that. And we've curated a special list of products for them."

Wood also wanted to make sure there was more than just brand boosting going on, so she included a charitable effort as well. For this year's Emmys, the fundraising beneficiary is the Television Academy Foundation — to the tune of $150,000.

"We feel really fortunate — this is the second year we were selected as the charity beneficiary, and this gives us the opportunity to share more about the foundation and great education programs," says Norma Provencio Pichardo, the executive director of the Television Academy Foundation. "Day to day, so many people don't know the Foundation does such great work. They all think we're giving money away, as opposed to raising money and doing what we can to affect change with what’s going on in television and educate our future leaders."

But getting back to that list of curated products. At this year's Backstage Creations Giving Suite for the Emmys, nominees and presenters experienced noise-canceling headphones from Bose, Marchon Eyewear, an app-driven smart home security system called Piper, games from EA Sports that haven't even been released to the public yet, ties by Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Tie the Knot line, NuSkin anti-aging supplements, a new all-natural line of Chapstick, a four-night stay at The Lodge at Kinloch in New Zealand, and so much more.

LL Cool J was pretty excited about his free trip to New Zealand (AP Images)
LL Cool J was pretty excited about his free trip to New Zealand (AP Images)

It's safe to say some of the brands won new fans. For example, Crio Bru — a drink made from cocoa beans that is crafted much like coffee, but without the caffeine and with the added bonus of antioxidants — won over LL Cool J, who grabbed everyone he knew to introduce them to the drink (and even roped in some event interns.) Even Hollywood Game Night host Jane Lynch came back to the suite to partake in more, announcing upon her return, "I need to find the cocoa drink people!" Lilyfield Cakes won a new fan in Viola Davis, whose voice lowered with pleasure as she looked on at their samples and cooed, "Oooh, chocolate," before partaking in a nibble of delectable cake. And Blackish star Anthony Anderson made it halfway through the suite before he had to split, then returned to go the rest of the way through, taking his time to meet and shake hands with everyone as he learned about what they had to offer.

For the brands, that kind of access to nominees and presenters was invaluable. But it wasn’t just about connecting with celebrities, and potentially making an impact with them that could translate into a boost in notoriety and sales. For Sam Anderson of Cakes Cove, it was maybe having the opportunity to create a chocolate dress for Lady Gaga, and making new business connections.

"So far I've met a lot of great people," she enthused. "There are some companies I met in the gifting suite that I'll be doing things with later, like different branding on cookies, and some special chocolates and marshmallows. And yes, some of the people coming in, like the media and celebrities, have asked about different events. I want to make a chocolate kaiju for a movie sometime... I want to do more things like that, and so I thought this would be the best place to make the kinds of contacts where I can do that kind of work for them."

OITNB star Ruby Rose hit up a gifting suite (WireImage)
OITNB star Ruby Rose hit up a gifting suite (WireImage)

And yes, social media placement was still the main goal for brands on site. Take Melissa shoes, for example. Though they'd done gifting at events like Guy Oseary's annual Oscar party, the gifting lounges not only afforded them better opportunity to connect with clients and their representatives face to face, it also helps them gauge where they need to be focusing their efforts.

"Gifting products and getting the images out and about is part of it, but so is distributing it to our client list, so people are encouraged to buy certain lines to sell to their customers," says Philip Valles, who does PR for Melissa. "And then we get it out to social media. As an example, we worked with an editor to get placement on Kim Kardashian's website, because we had a little cat shoe that was a lower pricepoint than the Charlotte Olympia shoe that North wore. So it was like, shop us as an alternative. And since that came out and hit social media, people are placing orders because Kim Kardashian put it on her site."

Added his colleague, Lauren Kaufman, "And the closer we get to that social media 'buy button,' the better and more effective it's going to be."

Social media sponsorships may be a big draw for brands looking to make an impact on potential consumers, but it’s largely considered a supplement to – rather than a replacement of – the experience of a celebrity gifting suite.

“We work with brands to do direct marketing through social media, and we also do the gifting,“ says publicist Kari Feinstein. “The lounges are good for companies that want to spend less money and get more for their money. A company that paid $10,000 for a sponsorship at our gifting suite will get, let’s say, 40 to 50 people photographed with their product over two days. But if they paid 40 or 50 celebrities to post on Instagram, that would cost several hundred thousand – if not more. So you definitely get more volume, and you definitely get the guarantee of the photos of the talent with the product.”

Feinstein has been producing gifting suites since 2001 for events ranging from Sundance to Coachella. Her event leading up to tonight's Emmy Awards — the Emmy Style Lounge — took place at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, and featured brands including Modere, Skinny Pop, Indigo Apparel, Mary Kral Designs, Chinese Laundry, and more. Celebrities who attended included Jenny Slate, Teri Polo, Matt LeBlanc, Abigail Spencer, Beau Bridges, Ruby Rose, and David Crane, just to name a few.

Even established brands who are looking to expand in new markets consider gifting suites a viable part of their marketing plan, such as Skinn Cosmetics. Already available in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the company is expanding into Italy, China, Germany, France, the U.K., and Brazil. "Internationally, that Hollywoodization culture to help merchandise our pictures is really good for our business. We've had great press in the States, but the pictures of celebrities with our products really supports that international agency," says publicist Kelly Howard.

Some, like Bible L.A. clothing, had done several gifting suites before, with Feinstein's being their third this year. As company owner Sabrina Machado put it, "We live in a celebrity culture, and people look to their favorites to see what they're wearing and expressing. Gifting suites operate outside of standard marketing. So if celebrities like what they get and post to social media about it, they create a trend fast, and that's what we're hoping for."

DWTS pro Derek Hough posed with a Bible L.A. tee (WireImage)
DWTS pro Derek Hough posed with a Bible L.A. tee (WireImage)

Machado's line saw a boost earlier this year when Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs wore one of her shirts, and was pictured next to Floyd Mayweather. JWoww of Jersey Shore fame is another who discovered Bible L.A. through a gifting suite.

And while the obvious goal is to get A-listers to fall in love and tweet about a brand, don't dismiss the power of even the lower-rung reality stars. Even though she's been marketing and selling her jewelry through Instagram and various social media outlets, Apryl Dawn — the founder and creator of Soul Journey — still thinks there's more to celebrity branding than just getting them to post about you on social media

"You get one or two of those beautiful women from Real Housewives to post about your stuff, and that's a game changer," she says. "But you have to know what you're doing on social media, too. It's a little bit of a game, right? You have to have the followers, you have to know how to sell it, but for me and my business, getting 5,000 new followers off one celebrity tweet would be huge."

So while social media may not be replacing gifting suites, it's still changing the nature of celebrity gifting culture. Over at the GBK Pre-Emmys Luxury Lounge, a cadre of brands converged on the rooftop of L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills to share their wares with a parade of celebrities. Companies involved included elemoon wearable tech, MooshWalks, Urban Golf Performance, JH Design, Jonata Vineyards, LifeCell, Burke Williams, and others. Some of the assembled brands had suggested tweets about their products to encourage giftees to post.

Perhaps Christina Milian was crafting a tweet? (WireImage)
Perhaps Christina Milian was crafting a tweet? (WireImage)

"Celebrities are great, but you have to capitalize on that and take it into your own hands, and I feel like social media is the way," says Will Armstrong, who was there representing Plaque HD and Violet Iodine. "So I make sure our social media handles are visible, and telling people if you love it, find us online. But I'm also standing next to a photographer taking photos that I'm editing right here and uploading in a timely fashion while we're here at the suite, so I'm almost creating a Twitter party that all of our followers can be a part of."

While he says it’s valuable to have the opportunity for brands to get face time with celebrities and media over the course of two days, Armstrong maintains that gifting suites need to evolve to include YouTube, Twitter, and other social media stars if they want to make a bigger impact.

Jenny Slate picked up a bag of goodies (WireImage)
Jenny Slate picked up a bag of goodies (WireImage)

Companies like The Artisan Group have been doing gifting suites for years, racking up 15 appearances — and they say the benefit grows with each successive appearance. As a collective representing Etsy artists from all over the world who make everything from jewelry to handmade soaps to fine art photography, The Artisan Group acts as Hollywood representation for their collective, and can help their artists launch and sustain their businesses with a celebrity endorsement.

"A lot of artists aren't in Hollywood — they're all across the country and all over the world," representative Andi Loo explains. "So the fact that a lot of celebrities get their products and start tweeting about it gives them notoriety and no one else can do that. Each artist has their own individual website — it's not like a big store, these are all Etsy shops and personal websites. So it makes it very effective and personal. You'd be surprised at how influential that can be for some of these artists — especially when you see something on Vampire Diaries."

Which is part of the charitable aspect to some of the gifting suites. Over the years many of them have gotten the reputation of being a bacchanalia of free goodies for people who can already afford everything ten times over, thus leaving distaste in the public's mouth over the whole affair. But in addition to including charities such as the Stray Cat Alliance, the MDA and American Friends of Magen David Adom, GBK founder Gavin Keilly notes that celebrities giving brands their time is part of the charity work.

"The charity aspect of our events is really important to us — it's always in place, and I couldn't do these events without it," Keilly explains. "It's interesting, because I've been doing it for a long time, and a lot of celebrities feel they're giving back in their own way by helping these small to medium businesses. A lot of them are really small to medium sized — they're companies a lot of people haven't even heard of. So if they can lend their face to their product and, you know, take a picture with it, who cares? Especially if they can help that small business grow. And a lot of brands get their spokespeople this way."

Keilly also adds that not only are they choosy about the products they offer at their suites, but they're choosy about the caliber of celebrity they allow to partake in the gifting experience. They have to be award-nominated or in a show that’s award-nominated (being an extra doesn't count), and have a strong social and traditional media following, to ensure that they help support the brands in their bid to gain exposure. Some of the celebrities who visited the GBK lounge include Alan Cumming, Johnny Whitworth, Dule Hill, and Thomas Barbusca, most recently seen in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

The charity aspect of celebrity gifting was also on display at the EcoLuxe Lounge, which had a theme of Christmas in September. Attendees were encouraged to bring an unwrapped toy for donation to Shriner's Hospital for Children as they learned about brands such as Ammanni Jewelry, Burnetie Shoes, Fete Today Wines, Pop Chips, Yoot Tea, Resqme Lifesaving Tools, and others. Celebrity attendees included Beau Bridges and Kevin Sorbo.

For the founder of Infiniti Sweets, the EcoLuxe Lounge was particularly special — and not just because she got to meet Scandal's Khandi Alexander, who took home a box of mini-cupcakes and posed for pictures with her cake pops.

"My daughter got cancer at age two, so we decided to combat that with fun and desserts,” she shared. "So with my history, coming here and knowing I'm helping to support the Shriner's Hospital for Children, I feel very blessed. I'm a single mom with two kids, and I never want people to say, 'Oh, I'm going to buy her cake pops because her kid is sick. But it's my story. I embrace it, and I follow my daughter's lead. She's like, I'm kicking cancer's butt and I'm going to have fun doing it. Seeing her doing it with me, and to be doing it with Shriner's… it's a huge blessing."

It looks like celebrity gifting suites aren't getting taken over by Instagram sponsorships — nor are they in any danger of disappearing… and maybe that's not such a bad thing. While the element of free gifting to the rich and famous seems distasteful, there are elements of the experience that do offset the seemingly unsavory aspects: the support of charities, helping smaller businesses grow and get a toehold in an overcrowded marketplace, and maybe, just the opportunity to have a little bit of fun. As one vendor at an off-site, satellite gifting suite confessed, "Celebrity gifting doesn't do a thing for my brand — I just want to meet famous people."

So maybe celebrity gifting is what you want it to be — you get out of it what you put into it. Is that so bad?