I've always known it. Anyone who can take on aliens, vampire zombies and Joe Frazier obviously has something going on. But thanks to market research company NPD Group and its Celebrity Influence 2008 study, we now have the cold, hard facts.
According to the study, Smith is the most likeable celebrity, with 83% of American consumers saying they liked him "strongly" or "somewhat." (I'm not sure how you only somewhat like someone, but apparently, people feel that way about Mr. July 4.) Smith is also the second-most trusted celebrity, after Oprah designer Nate Berkus. (Yes, it's still good to be - or be associated with - Oprah.)
According to NPD, the trust factor is a key component of consumer purchasing behavior. The reflected glow of a celebrity's believability shines on the products and brands he or she endorses, according to the group.
But here's the thing. To my knowledge, Smith doesn't actively endorse any products or brands - at least in the U.S. He's not the spokesperson for an insurance company. He doesn't shill for beer. He's not hawking cell phones every five minutes on television. In fact, the brand that Will Smith best stands for is Will Smith.
And maybe that's the lesson. Like most celebrities, Will Smith has been careful about cultivating his image. He's a global movie star who doesn't take himself too seriously. He can be funny or dramatic and still seems like a guy you'd want to hang around with. Most importantly, he hasn't cheapened that image by lending his likeness or voice to any product, believable or not. If you want to see or hear Will Smith, you have to do it in the movie theater.
And judging from the $107.3 million that "Hancock" pulled in over its opening weekend, Smith has a knack for getting people to part with their money, even if the product is considered to be mediocre. There are plenty of marketers who would like to have that cachet. But they're going to have to cultivate their brand's personas as carefully as Smith has cultivated his.
They're going to have to figure out what they stand for, and make every action be about that. They're going to have to increase their likeability and trustworthiness through every action. And they're going to have to find the right places and times to cross over - as Smith did from rapper to sitcom star to Global Movie Star - and be patient that it will all work out.
And they're going to have to work at talking with - rather than at - their audience. Anyone who's ever seen Smith promoting a movie via the talk show circuit knows he's a master at that. He's quick with an anecdote, an engaged conversationalist and appears to be an open book without really revealing anything. Those are some of the reasons people like him, and are willing to trust him.
Plus, he's a badass. Yes, it's good to be Will Smith. And it would be good to be a brand endorsed by Will Smith. But since that probably won't happen any time soon, marketers will likely have to just mimic what he's done.