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The fame game: Why everyone from Kim Kardashian to One Direction wants to cash in on apps

By Catherine Turner

September 10, 2015 | 6 min read

The world of celebrity is changing, with digital and social media increasingly important to celebrity brand equity as stars look to tap into new commercial opportunities.

When Glu Mobile released its second quarter earnings in July it was immediately apparent how star struck the company has become.

A huge part of its revenues was generated by just one game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood – $113.6m in adjusted revenue as of June. The game, in which players aspire to become A-list celebrities, was something of a surprise hit in the industry last year and has scored more than 35 million downloads to date. Free to play, it makes money via in-app purchases. More than 2.7bn sessions have been logged – a staggering 29,000 total years played.

Glu is staking a large part of its future on more of the same, signing an array of talent including Kardashian’s siblings Kendall and Kylie Jenner, pop stars Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj and, most recently, film action her o Jason Statham.

Little wonder then that other celebrities are vying for the same sort of success, many of them contemplating their own apps. However, Glu says many of them do not have the ingredients to succeed in this space.

Chief executive Niccolo de Masi explains: “Glu is very much part of the trend of celebrity talent going directly B to C [business to consumer] and is very proud to have pioneer ed this new acquisition model for celebrities.”

It is targeting stars with around 100 million social followers because of their ability to generate their own awareness, and has stated a goal to get to a combined one billion social followers by 2020. With almost 650 million through the artists already announced, de Masi says the agency is “well ahead of schedule”. It is also an area where, unlike much of the entertainment industry, women hold the balance of power.

The most successful social operators, such as Kardashian, Perry, Taylor Swift and Shakira, are female. Men who make the ‘best of ’ lists are usually sports stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who don’t, according to de Masi, fit the bill for the types of games Glu develops. David Beckham today transcends football, “but you don’t want to see him release an interior design game”.

Success, both critically and commercially, depends on people first finding the game and then playing it. “You need to ask – will people download the game, and will they spend money to generate revenue,” adds de Masi.

Celebrities such as Eminem and Avicii had released apps before Kardashian, but they proved commercially unviable. Others have launched paid-for apps that have cult under ground status, but none with the level of commercial clout Kardashian enjoys.

It seems that celebrities wanting to make money via such gaming platforms must have a viable digital presence first.

Moreover, a successful social and digital presence leads to other valuable commercial opportunities, perhaps easier to monetise than a gaming app.

Take One Direction. The band grew through social and has possibly the most engaged fan community in the world, though not the biggest.

Its fanbase can make a topic trend “on whim”, says Stuart Avery, managing director of social entertainment agency The Rumpus Room.

This summer it teamed with 1D for Action/1D, part of the global social movement Action/2015 to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change. It premiered to a Twitter audience of 20 million.

“Celebrities today have a direct route into an audience – and we are increasingly seeing that power in social. The scale of a social following, and how engaged that base is, is increasingly becoming part of that celebrity’s value,” he adds.

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton is an example of this. Hamilton, who works with The Rumpus Room, brings a new dynamic to the sport, fusing it with a hip-hop sensibility and social presence that resonates with a younger audience that F1 craves. He might also be looking at a future beyond F1, with sports stars typically enjoying a small window of professional success.

Such attitudes are trickling down the pipeline. Earlier this year the Australian-based Vivien’s Models launched an ‘influencers’ section because of the growing need to accommodate client demand for social media numbers. More brands than ever are demanding that a model has a following of at least 10,000 before contemplating booking them. Brit supermodel Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner are booked as much for their social notoriety as they are for their looks. Their social following generates a ready-made audience, yet another (free) media channel for brands more used to buying space.

Little surprise, according to Avery, who says that his agency also casts on social potency, particularly in an age where behind-the-scenes footage and out-takes are as much a pa t of a campaign as the ‘her o’ work itself. Extra publicity generated by such means can be more valuable than that which is paid for.

Little Dot Studios, a next-generation broadcaster bridging the gap between TV and YouTube, has seen how celebrity can be both made and maintained digitally. Nick Cohen, vice-president of content, strategy and brand partnerships, says digital is becoming increasingly more important to celebrity brand equity.

Yet it takes work and he says celebs who succeed understand the two-way dynamic of social, as opposed to the broadcast-only model of yesteryear. Says Cohen: “The celebrities who win in this space ‘get it’. They know it’s not just a case of signing up to social platforms and expecting their fans to follow.”

Hard work and a solid strategy of engaging and creating content must be the bedrock of a social presence. Taylor Swift does it well, engaging with her fans socially and – on occasion – in real-life too, and in doing so generating yet another swell of social media goodwill.

Cohen also cites celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver who found fame on linear TV, consolidated it with best-selling recipe books, and increased it yet further through digital. Initiatives such as Oliver ’s FoodTube not only increase his fame footprint but also give a platform for up-and-coming stars, something the chef is passionate about.

Ironically, however, as arguably the planet’s biggest social star (who found fame through a leaked sex tape and then a reality show on traditional TV) Kardashian has tanked in one department. Her book, Selfish, which features selfies already showcased on Instagram and Twitter, has sold but 30,000 copies. Oh well, there’s always Hollywood.

This feature also appears in The Drum's relaunch issue, published on 2 September.

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