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‘It’s absolutely the best thing that can happen to you’ — what happens when Tom Cruise and Oprah praise your product as a great holiday gift


Sure, you can shop till you drop in search of the perfect holiday gift for friends and family members. But it appears some consumers are finding an easier, if slightly expensive solution.

They’re just following Tom Cruise’s lead and buying a decadent $125 bundt cake from a popular Los Angeles bakery.

The sweet treat in question — a white chocolate-and-coconut affair from Doan’s Bakery, an establishment known for its A-list customers — has become something of a national holiday sensation since word got out that Cruise gifted it to the Hollywood glitterati. Tom Hanks talked it up as worthy of being the dessert for his final meal. Rosie O’Donnell posted on Instagram that Christmas has truly arrived when Cruise’s gift arrives.

But these days, the Tom Cruise cake isn’t the only celebrity-endorsed product that’s become a holiday favorite. There’s the imported-from-Italy olive oil that Kerry Washington has touted — specifically, from the EXAU brand. Or the knit weighted blanket, courtesy of a company called Nuzzie, that Olivia Rodrigo has talked up as one of her “essentials.”

And of course, there are the many products on the ultimate celebrity gift list: Oprah’s Favorite Things. It’s a compilation of dozens of gift items approved by Winfrey, covering categories ranging from food to fashion.

The power of a celebrity endorsement can’t be overstated, brand owners and consumer experts told MarketWatch.

“It’s absolutely the best thing that can happen to you,” said Nick Guillen, one of the founders of Truff, a brand that offers hot sauce and other products made with truffles.

Truff has been featured multiple times on the Oprah list, and Guillen said the first appearance, in 2018, pushed holiday sales to the stratosphere — so much so that the end-of-year business accounted for about 66% of its total sales for the year.

Skyler Mapes, co-owner of EXAU olive oil, reported similar sales success tied to celebrity mentions — beyond the Kerry Washington plug, EXAU has been on Oprah’s list as well.

But just as important, Mapes said, is the fact that smaller companies like hers can’t spend much on advertising, so the endorsements fill that void

“It’s a huge part of being able to market ourselves,” Mapes said.

That is not to say that some companies don’t pay for celebrities to endorse their products — that’s a sizable business, in fact, according to marketing professionals. In other instances, a publicist may be enlisted to promote the company with the right A-listers.

But for smaller and niche-oriented brands, it’s often a matter of just getting lucky and having a celebrity find the product on their own and then subsequently tout it.

Sometimes, the sales endorsements can generate are almost too much to handle. That was especially the case for Salty Seattle, a pasta brand based in its namesake city, that was created by Linda Miller Nicholson. The company’s appearance on the Oprah list last year essentially coincided with its product launch. Nicholson said sales went from 0 to 10,000 orders a month in an instant.

“I barely eked it out,” said Nicholson, who nevertheless added that she was grateful to be recognized.

Similarly, Eric Doan, who’s behind the namesake bakery that offers the cake beloved by Cruise, said he’s challenged every holiday season with the demand. So much so that he may have to expand production beyond his store.

“This is way more than I can handle,” Doan said, though he didn’t have specific sales figures to share.

Beyond the celebrity endorsements are plugs of a different kind, such as when a product is featured on a hit television show. Joe Ariel, founder and chief executive of Goldbelly — the e-commerce platform that offers foods from restaurants and other culinary establishments — said some of his most popular holiday items are in that category.

One example: the cherry pie from Twede’s Café, otherwise known as the pie made famous on the “Twin Peaks” series. But when it comes to dessert, Goldbelly is probably equally known as the place that sells the Doan’s bakery cake beloved by Tom Cruise.

Of course, there are also brands not merely endorsed by celebrities but also owned fully or in part by them. Naturally, they see a holiday sales surge as well. Take Santo, the tequila brand from celebrity chef Guy Fieri and legendary rocker Sammy Hagar. Its fourth-quarter shipments increased by more than 50% compared to the rest of the year, according to Ana Kornegay, Santo’s vice president of marketing.

Kornegay said the celebrity connection is just a natural sales booster, especially come holiday time.

“Some people struggle with finding the right gift for someone in their circle,” Kornegay said. But if they know that gift recipient is a fan of a certain A-lister, the choice becomes simpler, she added.

Still, the celebrity connection isn’t always guaranteed to net a sale. A new survey from Storyblok, a content-management system, found that 24% of consumers are actually turned off by an endorsement. And just 19% said they would be more likely to make a purchase because of a celebrity plug.

“It underlines why brands need to really understand the preferences of their audience and tailor their marketing accordingly,” said Thomas Peham, Storyblok’s vice president of marketing.

Craig Agranoff, a Florida-based marketing professional, adds another wrinkle to the endorsement equation: If a celebrity gets caught up in a scandal or some other controversy, it may ultimately hurt the reputation of any brand they’ve endorsed.

“All it takes is one celebrity misstep to turn this into a PR nightmare,” Agranoff said.

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