On a recent evening in Los Angeles, Dana Brunetti, president of Trigger Street Productions, the company behind The Social Network and House of Cards, arrived at a celebrity dinner party thrown by treats! magazine editor Steve Shaw. The shindig was hosted at the home of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, with whom Brunetti had become friends after The Social Network. Your typical L.A.-elite event. Or so he thought.
When he arrived at the luxurious house of Winklevii and sat down at his dinner seat, Brunetti remembered what Shaw had told him in the invitation. "They’re gonna give you a phone."
Sure enough, a Samsung representative sat waiting for him with a new Galaxy S3 phone, customized for Brunetti’s carrier and with a background image of Brunetti’s name. A dedicated owner of nearly every variety and generation of handheld Apple product ever, Brunetti politely accepted the gift and sat through the Samsung rep’s tutorial while watching the other celebrities, whose facial expressions echoed his own reaction, Yeah, I’m going back to the iPhone as soon as dinner’s over.
But Shaw was a friend, and the S3 phone felt nice in Brunetti’s hand, so he decided to carry both it and his iPhone with him for a month.
"At the end of the month," he said, "I put the iPhone down."
Brunetti was a victim—or perhaps benefactor—of a Samsung program known as "White Glove." It’s a marketing effort designed to convert Apple-slinging celebrities and business influencers into Samsung evangelists. When Beyoncé whips out her phone on the street in Brooklyn, Korea’s largest business conglomerate wants the paparazzi to see that she’s playing Words With Friends on a Samsung.
The White Glove program is a cross between the social marketing of Tupperware parties (minus the pressure to buy something), the house calls of Mormon missionaries (minus the pressure to give up smoking), and the persistence of Green Eggs and Ham—but for gadgets. A friendly, clean-cut rep shows up to dinner at your friend’s house one night, teaches you all about the "product," and lets you take it home and decide for yourself. At no cost.
"People love things that are free, particularly celebrities," Brunetti said. "They're the last people that need something free, but it's smart. They wouldn't buy it otherwise."
When they do try the phones, they often like them, he said.
"And then the influencers become disciples."
Though Apple has had the largest number of mobile devices in consumer hands since it introduced the iPhone in 2007, Samsung’s market share has been steadily climbing. According to research released last month by JumpTap, while Apple mobile device share remained flat, Samsung has jumped 5% in the last year. Samsung’s clever "Next Big Thing" campaign for the Galaxy S3 and the passing of Apple product visionary Steve Jobs have both contributed to a chipping away of the iPhone’s reputation over the last 24 months as "the only smartphone worth trying." Last year, the S3 outsold iPhone 4s in Q3, and this year the Galaxy S4 is projected to sell 100 million units. However, last month Apple returned to the top of the sales pyramid with the launch of the 5c and 5s, which sold 9 million units in the first week.
Those sales figures, and Consumer Reports' May pronouncement of Samsung Galaxy S4 as its top rated smartphone, are good signs for the Galaxy line. But it’s unclear—and it’ll probably remain impossible to measure—how much of Samsung’s success in shifting perception is the direct result of its celebrity missionary program.
White-gloving is the brainchild of Mitch Kanner, president of an off-the-radar company named 2Degrees. Once named to Advertising Age’s list of "Hottest Rolodexes," Kanner is one of Hollywood’s quietest influencers, a former digital effects creator under James Cameron in the ‘90s and now a superconnector. He makes his livelihood by chopping out middlemen in celebrity-product sponsorship equations. Kanner brokered the deal that led to Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail album release to 1 million Samsung phone owners, and put together the product placement relationship between AT&T and Tim Kring, creator of the Fox series Touch, for an original online branded content series called Daybreak. When I meet with Kanner at the Crosby Hotel in SoHo, New York City, he looks like a version of Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World," but with less hair. He reels off a stream of insider tales, such as eating pizza at Jay Z’s house and how Taylor Swift chooses which brands to endorse. But he prefaces most by insisting that names and details remain off the record.
Kanner has, by all accounts, tried to stay in the shadows of Hollywood. Despite knowing everyone—and everyone seeming to know him—he’d rather play matchmaker and keep his name out of the press release. That's why you don't often see mention of his White Glove program in reports of the endorsements he helps broker, though a few outlets have sniffed around the program.
"When you live in our world, things get pitched that the brand wants to do but they're different than what the celebrity believes in," Jon Liebman, CEO of Brillstein Entertainment Partners, one of Hollywood’s most influential agencies, tells me. "Being able to authentically speak to the needs that all sides have is an important quality, and [Kanner] has that."
Kanner’s whole business—and the White Glove program in particular—is built on the idea of true conversion. More like the Mormons than the Tupperware people.
"Anybody with a checkbook can pick up the phone and buy [a celebrity sponsorship]," Kanner said. "But if it’s going to work, it has to be authentic." Jay Z has to like his Galaxy phone if he’s going to be of any use to Samsung as an evangelist.
Charlie Collier, President of AMC Network, is one of the busiest men in entertainment. His White Glove rep dropped by Collier’s office one day with a Galaxy phone all set up, demonstrated how to use it for video, and gave him a special 800 number at which Collier could immediately get help if he ever needed it. He called it "an amazing look at technology that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise."
"They were incredibly respectful of my time," Collier said. "They took into account who they were targeting, and now I do what they desire, which is spread the word."
And that’s how they get you. White Glove aims to show successful people that Samsung isn’t just "for the masses" like Jobs’s famed "I know what you want more than you know what you want" devices would have you feel. The angle is not design or beauty, but "customizability." And, increasingly, "the new cool."
Dana Brunetti eventually switched his iPad for a Galaxy Tab. He gushes to me about the widgets ("Widgets are amazing!") and otherwise customizable features of the Android Jellybean operating system, which the Galaxy S4 and tablets use. For a man who replies to 300 emails and takes 50 phone calls a day, the little features he’s found with his new devices are, "a huge time saver," he says. "The way they've started to hit my industry has been pretty smart."
Brunetti had become an outspoken evangelist for Samsung products among his circle of acquaintances in Hollywood and often talks about them unsolicited. As more of his friends switched to Samsung, his Apple holdout colleagues slowly watched the text messages on their phones change from blue (iMessage) to green (SMS).
It was no surprise, then, when White Glove approached Brunetti about hosting a dinner party of his own. Soon, E.L. James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey—Brunetti is producing the film version), Jerry Ferrara (of Entourage), Oliver Cooper (of Project X), and a handful of movie producers were dining with Samsung at Brunetti’s home. Kanner’s White Glove reps stood by smiling.
Brunetti followed up with his guests afterward to see if the experience was okay. "If I'm doing a dinner, I'm putting my name behind it," he said. "A large percentage of people actually switched over."
Recently, I got a call from a man named Jose, who said he wanted to give me the "white glove onboarding experience." (Superconnector Mitch was behind this.) Jose insisted on delivering a phone to me. He wanted to come by my apartment, but it wasn’t in the proper state. Plus, this seemed like the kind of thing that should be done in public. So on a recent relaxing Saturday, I found myself sitting on a stone bench in the courtyard of One Worldwide Plaza in midtown Manhattan. Next to me, Jose, a well-dressed young man with perfect hair, opened up a bag of Samsung goodies. As Jose unboxed a phone, he told me that he’d just gotten back from White Gloving rapper/producer/composer Swizz Beatz. But his favorite White Glove encounter was Martha Stewart, he says. "She was really nice." Jose had an AT&T SIM card ready to transfer my phone number from my battered iPhone 4 to my choice of either a sleek Galaxy S4 or a monstrous Galaxy Note II—complete with built-in stylus and a screen that’s a size my grandmother would appreciate. I planned to immediately switch back to the iPhone, so I picked the Note. Check mate.
At first, the main difference in my life after iPhone was that everyone I knew heckled me about my Note's gargantuan screen, then asked to play with it. But I could still do emails and maps and phone calls, which were all I really cared about. The biggest adjustment was getting used to typing on a phone with two hands (I'm convinced that Note is too big for the average human's handspan).
The White Glove support team was cordial and prompt in answering my inane questions about apps and settings, some of which I confess I emailed in simply to test them. They did fine. Over time, however, I started to appreciate the little things about Galaxy's form factor and specialty Android interface that Brunetti raved about: the shortcut swipes, the indestructible exterior, the removable battery. The back button.
A few weeks after Jose and I met up, Samsung surprised me with a present at my office: an extra battery. I kept the battery in its package, certain I wouldn’t need it before this story was done, when I’d be switching back to my iPhone. But about three days later, after I’d forgotten to plug in my Note overnight; I was down to 2% battery with a phone call in three minutes.
I tore open the package.
Despite my skepticism, and my best intentions to return to my beloved iPhone, after two months, my giant Galaxy Note has become an extension of my arm. iPhones feel like children’s toys now when I pick them up. The Note screen is way too big, but in a good way. And the device itself is nice. But mostly, it was the user interface that converted me—the customizability, the speed, the shortcut swipes from every angle.
Against my best wishes, the White Glove program actually worked on me.
Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle. I’m a journalist, so I can’t accept gifts for things I write about. Now I have to call White Glove up and tell them I need to pay them for the phone.
I have the feeling they’re going to say, "Would you like to host a dinner sometime instead?"