Celebrities on boards: Why are they there?

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Actor and producer Zac Efron is known for his work on television and in film, but as of July of this year, he has added another title to his résumé: member of a board of directors.

The Emmy Award winner joined the board of directors for Kodiak, a food company known for its breakfast products like flapjack and waffle mix. It’s Efron’s first time serving on a board of directors, but he is no stranger to the company. In an interview with Fortune, Efron says that he is a longtime fan of the brand, and he personally aligns with the brand’s focus on health, wellness, and philanthropy. He will also serve as Kodiak’s chief brand officer.

To Efron, the partnership feels “super organic,” but for those who view him as a Hollywood heartthrob in movies like Baywatch and The Greatest Showman, drawing a straight line may not be that obvious. What exactly does a Hollywood celebrity offer to a Utah-based consumer packaged goods brand—or any brand beyond the entertainment business?

“There is no inherent upside or downside to the celebrity angle beyond clickbait, which could be great or awful,” says Matt Fullbrook, a governance expert and host of the One Minute Governance podcast. “The real benefit comes if the celebrity is also a great director, and comes to the boardroom with a deep understanding of the organization and genuine curiosity about its future.”

Efron says that good businesses strive to “get into the minds of consumers” in much the same way that he approaches acting: getting into the mind of the person he is portraying. It’s all a form of storytelling.

Since the golden age of Hollywood, big names have been tapped by companies to serve on their board of directors, bringing their perspective to the boardroom. Cary Grant was famously a director for Fabergé, a collectibles company known for its bedazzled enamel eggs, and Joan Crawford was a director for Pepsi-Cola. Grace Kelly served on the board of Twentieth Century–Fox. More recently, actor turned investor Ashton Kutcher has served on the boards of various tech and media companies, including Vox Media, as has Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who just last year added a diabetes nonprofit board to her résumé.

The strategy of adding a celebrity to the board extends beyond cinema stars. Pro athletes from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal to Dwyane Wade have parlayed their on-court savviness to board seats at companies ranging from Oakley sunglasses (Jordan) to Pizza Hut (O’Neal) to Jeeter, a cannabis company (Wade). Musicians, social media influencers, and media personalities all find their way to the boardroom.

Celebrities, obviously, come with their notable names to draw attention to a company, but that alone doesn’t warrant a seat on most boards of directors. Fullbrook explained that if a company is “window-dressing” with a celeb solely for marketing purposes, beware. But most companies are looking for a range of perspectives to tackle challenges associated with growth, and a celebrity could be the right person for the decision-making task.

“Stacking the board only with industry experts is hugely overrated,” Fullbrook says. “One high-impact benefit of a celebrity is access to people, companies, and funding that might not otherwise be available to the organization.”

Manish Chandra, founder and chief executive officer of Poshmark, recruited Serena Williams for his board of directors in 2019 for more than her tennis-driven star power. For him, Williams personified his customer: She is an athlete, entrepreneur, and mother like many of the millions of entrepreneurs who hold established businesses on Poshmark.

“She leads with love,” he says, “and is always breaking new ground and doing what hasn’t been done before. She always brings an unique perspective on how to best empower our community of entrepreneurs.”

It’s easy to see why a company would want to harness the cachet and connections of a celebrity name, but Fullbrook admits that the motivation for the celebrity is often less clear. Working on a board of directors is time-consuming work, with a significant amount of accountability and liability, he says. It takes focus to synthesize vast amounts of information and make sound strategic decisions. While these are paid positions, the money celebrities would make from a board seat is far less than what they earn from blockbusters and advertising campaigns. As he notes, “It’s far from the sexiest job in the world.”

For some celebrities, it’s about diversification and evolution. Jessica Alba famously transitioned from acting to run her natural-goods–focused Honest Company after becoming a parent, and in June, joined Yahoo’s board of directors. Today, she is more likely cited as the founder of a $550 million consumer packaged goods company than for Dark Angel. Singer Ciara has been accelerating her work as an investor, and serves on the board of special purpose acquisition company Bright Lights Acquisition.

For others, it’s about championing causes. Actress Emma Watson is an activist for sustainable fashion. When she joined the board of directors for Kering, which owns Gucci, Brioni, and Alexander McQueen, among others, she also took on the role of chair of the company’s sustainability committee. Efron hosted and produced Down to Earth With Zac Efron, a documentary series highlighting sustainable agricultural processes around the world. Joining Kodiak is an extension of that exploration of his own values.

Though celebrity appointments to a board make news headlines, the actual percentage of incorporated companies with a notable personality as an adviser remains extremely small. It has to be a partnership that works in favor of both parties to even get off the ground.

“Every director is a steward of the organization and accountable for their decisions,” Fullbrook says. “That comes first, no matter how many TikTok followers you have.”

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