By Eric V | on 08/08/16

SurveyMonkey found a key factor to celebrity success, and it’s not talent

When you look at Forbes’ highest paid celebrities list, what’s the first thing that strikes you?

Sure, it’s crazy that David Copperfield somehow managed to pull $64.5 million out of a hat. And yes, it’s inspiring that Queen Bey outearned her beau by half a million (in the year of Tidal, no less).

But really, doesn’t a list like this really drive home one question—how do these people get paid so much? More specifically, what traits do the most successful celebrities have in common? Is there a single attribute that determines whether they’ll be successful or not?

Their talent? Howard Stern may be a lot of things, but most people probably wouldn’t say he’s made $85 million this year because of his talent exactly.

What about raw intelligence? Well, many Americans would point to 51 million reasons why Kim Kardashian should make you reconsider that particular theory.

So the team at SurveyMonkey set out to find out.

We asked 2,500 people across the U.S. about the attributes that they value most in the top 20 celebrities that made Forbes’ list—and for context we asked them about their own values, as well.

People value respect, not wealth

Bottom line: People care about celebrities—how they stack up against one another, how successful they are, and how they got that way. However, wealth is far from a perfect measure for their success.

Comparing stacks of cash to see whose is higher is simple, but a celebrity’s income can change a lot from year to year. It all depends on how many movies they happened to shoot, tour stops they decided make, contracts they signed, etc.

Besides, it’s respect—not wealth—that most Americans say defines success. How do we know? Well, you told us.

More than half of Americans surveyed said respect was the No.1 attribute that best defined success, just under 4 times more than the next likely answer—wealth, which just 14% of respondents singled out.

Are the celebrities on this list wealthy? You bet. Do they have our respect? Not necessarily.

When we asked Americans which of the celebrities on the list they most respect, 3 people won the respect of roughly half the sample of respondents: Ellen Degeneres (28%), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (10%), and Adele (10%). The other 17 people shared the remaining 52%.

That shows that even for celebrities, respect is important, but it’s not necessarily the best indicator for whether people value your other attributes (or whether you’re making money). Take Taylor Swift, for example, who pulled in $170 million in the last year, according to Forbes’ list.

While she earned (far) more than any other celebrity on the list, her scores in the “respect” category were just OK. She was one of the middling folks who won just 5% of people’s vote. On the other hand, she absolutely dominated in other categories—namely brand, business savvy, social media presence, and attractiveness.

So even the celebrities who appear to be the most successful by many measures, including raw cash, don’t necessarily win the respect of everyday folks.

But wait, didn’t these same respondents say respect is the most important attribute for success?

Well, half of them did. But it turns out that the people who value respect have pretty much the same opinions about celebrities as those who valued the other things on the list. Even when it comes to the questions of who they respect most and least.

We compared the responses from people who called respect the best indicator for success to those who singled out other attributes. On the question of who they respected most and least, the differences were negligible.

In both groups, Ellen Degeneres is way ahead on the respect question, with The Rock and Adele battling it out for second place. The rest of the celebrities all come close to a third-place spot.

Data from the other questions we asked looked like that too.

There’s a disconnect here. People may value respect, but their views don’t seem to have an impact on how they perceive this particular set of people. Why?

Is it just that we judge celebrities based on different set of standards than we do ourselves? It seems possible, but it’s likely that there are other factors at work, as well.

Well what about talent?

Celebrities must get so much attention because they’re so talented. Our data supports that this is the most common perception. With 30% of the vote, talent was the No. 1 reason people singled out for celebrity wealth. Notoriety and business savvy followed by 19% and 15% respectively.

But when we look at individual celebrities, the actual value of respect gets a lot murkier.

Take LeBron James. He’s highly ranked for talent, but people also think he’s overrated, overpaid, and they don’t particularly respect him.

Now look at Ellen Degeneres. She’s near the top of virtually every category, except for talent. Taylor Swift is the same way.

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What can we learn from Taylor and Ellen?

First, that success, and the metrics we use to define it, is subjective. Each of them find themselves near the top of most of the categories we studied, even though people value them for entirely different reasons.

Second, that a single trait didn’t elevate these women to fame. It’s really a complex amalgam of several, each enmeshed and embedded deeply in their identities—or in the identities that we ascribe to them.

Therefore, it’s actually fitting that the data we’re looking at isn’t “a source of truth” that definitively answers our questions. Instead, it’s more of a collection of people’s sentiments, impressions, and reactions about people they’ve probably never met.

But it’s these exact types of conceptions that got celebrities to where they are today. They’ve fostered these feelings in the public by building on a set of traits that people use first to identify them, but eventually serve to define them.

In case you hadn’t noticed, what we’re talking about here is brand.

Even the most successful consumer brands—Nike, Apple, Coke—got where they are by finding their strengths, and the positive attributes people associate with them, and amplifying those qualities until they’re synonymous with them.

So is it a coincidence that out of everyone on the list, the two celebrities people most associated with a strong brand also happened to be associated with the most positive attributes? We don’t think so.

What qualities do your customers see in your company’s brand? Ask them.