Branding & Authenticity On Social Media: Conventional Brand vs. YouTube Guru

Authenticity in Branding: YouTube Gurus vs Conventional BrandsThe info-graphic above shows the launch date, subscribers and video views of some very popular YouTube beauty channels. The matching colors indicate a relationship between gurus and conventional brands.

If you were wondering just how the perceived authenticity of your brand impacts traffic, and you are not getting the picture clearly through your social media channels, here’s a cautionary tale about the quest to be a thought leader, sell product, and drive awareness told by the YouTube success of top Makeup Gurus and the partnering, conventional brands who love/hate them.

YouTube Makeup Gurus, vlogging hours of makeup and skincare ‘how-to’, are an Internet sensation. In 2006, a very young Michele Phan started vlogging herself putting on makeup in her bedroom. She has since gotten 760 million video views, over 4 million subscribers and a contract with Lancôme. Professional makeup artists Sam and Nic Chapman (of Pixiwoo), Lisa Eldridge (of LisaEldridgeDotCom) and Marlena (of MakeupGeekTV) also have millions of views and millions of subscribers. They each have developed a way to monetize their success; Eldridge, leverages her relationship with No.7 and has a contract with Chanel; Sam Chapman has a brush line (Real Techniques) plus an e-magazine (TWO); Marlena created MakeupGeek cosmetics (MUG). How does someone become the ‘accidental’ brand, create an obsessive viewership, make the vlogging endeavor sustainable and make that ‘tribal’ connection?

Start Humble. Monetize Carefully.

Many gurus start humble — low lights, poor resolution, awkward demonstrations, but they start with personality, a point-of-view and a story to tell. Eventually these underdogs find themselves with tons of traffic and a challenge — how to monetize in a social media world where any ‘selling’ is abhorrent to most of your audience.

Arguably the ‘accidental’ makeup hero may be genuine, or may be a part the vlogger is playing, but the audience responds with the same positive momentum buoyed by a human connection, and for the early adopters, a feeling that they ‘discovered’ the channel. As viewership grows, (weather the gurus start their own product line or are invited by a very established beauty brand to lend their vlog time), the result is also consistent — if it ‘feels’ authentic, it works. But, if it ‘feels’ ‘sales-y’, it doesn’t. You can observe by watching vlogs how awkward this migration from the individual brand to the conventional brand is. The vlogger/guru feels boxed inside the conventional brand channel. They become scripted and careful, devoid of personality, sometimes, even defensive. The comments turn sour with complaints that the content is “too market-y” and the result may be flaccid momentum or total stagnation. Viewership for the guru inside of the conventional brand never explodes like it does on the individual channel. The data from YouTube illustrates this pretty clearly. (See the info-graphic above).

Arguably, if a guru is using a product in their video, they are ‘selling’ it, but the products can be demonstrated objectively, lending credibility and authenticity. The truth is, no one cosmetics line is perfect across all the products. If a guru slams a brand’s mascara but lauds the same brand’s lip liner – that’s going to be a boost for liner sales, and a valuable insight/opportunity to improve upon the mascara. Audiences see credibility in the positive liner critique because of the guru’s willingness to be critical of the mascara. Allowing for this kind of transparency is brand authenticity and a win-win, weather the products get praise or criticism.

Eldridge and others have been clever enough to add affiliate links to their posts, potentially sending users to all the products they use in the video. On a recent video (PMS Face – Skincare and Beauty Tips (Girl chat!), Eldridge gushed about  MyChelle – Serious Hyaluronic Firming Serum. The product link indicated that the serum was sold out after the Eldridge video had received about 6,000 views – that was within hours of posting.

Michelle Phan has recently seemed to drift from Lancome to launch her own beauty brand. She’s opening a brick-and-morter store in NYC this October. Does she have the traction to migrate from guru to aspirational brand?  — To launch herself over any jeers of ‘sellout’ to ‘must-have’? I for one, will be checking out her new SoHo digs.

It’s not quality, quantity, or stature, but authenticity that makes the difference.

The most striking fact in the data is that being an established, iconic and conventional brand, weather you are a savvy content provider on YouTube or not, amounts to not much when it comes to viewership and momentum. Even having an older channel on YouTube, or more videos on YouTube, also does not make the difference. The makeup gurus who reign, keep it real and relatable. They do this by speaking naturally and anecdotally. They tell stories, i.e. Eldridge’s ‘Meeting the EX’ video. They start with bare faces and apply makeup to themselves (most of the time), and they don’t ‘sell’ anything, but they do opine about what ‘works’ for them, and suggest that perhaps it will work for you.

By contrast, what works on the individual channel is often totally abandoned on the conventional channel. When Phan does a Lancôme vlog or Eldridge does a Chanel vlog – they start partly made-up and look more ‘done’. They seem to read from a monitor. They offer no strong point-of-view or anecdotal comments — they don’t connect their experience with the products to their actual, relatable, human experience. The only story is the product(s), so they lack credibility and fall flat. To make it worse, the commenters are not afraid to say so.

The same applies for a guru’s own product line.

Sam Chapman and Marlena vlog their own products on some of their uploads and /or on alternate branded channels (and on alternate social media venues) of their own creation. They are often much more careful and self-conscious in these moments and venues, even though they have no partner/brand relationship to uphold. Their words suggest that they are acutely aware of the scrutiny, (and sometimes vitriol), the YouTube community will fling at a ‘sales person’. Sometimes, Marlena even apologizes for talking about her own hard work on her cosmetics line, before there are comments. However, a vlog that mixes the guru’s products and a bunch of outside products will succeed in viewership and subscriptions. Otherwise, the same stagnation may occur.

The mistake of ignoring your comments.

For the big, established, iconic, conventional brand, the temptation here may be to decide that “We are brandX, and we don’t care if everyone likes us. After all, not everyone can afford us, and our brand position depends on this exclusive, lux club.” Luxury brands must remember that they have loyal tribes whose interest is fueled by how aspirational the brand is to everyone. If you don’t respond to your comments, you distance your brand from that aspiration on social media — If you don’t respond, a huge audience sees an automaton bordering on hegemon. Not only does engaging prove you are ‘human’ (and therefore authentic), but being human/authentic is the gateway drug to tribal — that sweet spot where coveted customer loyalty lives. If you are wondering how a big brand becomes ‘human’, look at Apple during Steve Jobs tenure.

Conversely, being engaging may convert the unlikely brick-and-mortar buyer — there’s a unique opportunity in Social Media to make a new customer that might otherwise dismiss your brand outright, solely based on price point. Authentic brands potentially give conventional brands a broader audience via social media, if those established brands will get out of the authentic brand’s way.

Read requests, and give them what they want.

The comments also tell you what your audience wants. Offering the requested content makes your channel even more relatable, sticky and ultimately, tribal. Savvy makeup gurus know this. For instance, requests come in large numbers from the (very approximately) 2 billion women on earth with hooded eyelids or mono-lids. This physical characteristic poses an eye shadow challenge, especially with regards to the trendy ‘smoky-eye’. Requests for eye shadow tutorials addressing this type of eye shape, abound. Savvy gurus, like Eldridge and Pixiwoo, have created vlogs on this subject, though the vloggers do not themselves posses these physical characteristics. They also bring the same earnest intention to these videos they do to any other, and while they don’t have hooded or mono lids, the audience still watches, in huge numbers.

Phan, on the other hand, has physical characteristics that match more humans on earth than her counterparts. It may explain her exceptional lead in views and subscribers — she’s the most relatable to the most humans, of all.

A few things to vlog by on YouTube.

To be authentic as a brand on YouTube you must adhere to the following:

1. Don’t ‘sell’ anything. Tell a story.
2. Be relatable, i.e. real women have imperfect skin and apply their own makeup. You should show and do the same.
3. Monetize by demonstrating, having a point-of-view and being objective. Speak to the broader subject as a thought leader/advisor — don’t make it all about your product alone.
4. Respond and engage. Your audience needs to connect with you to feel that you are authentic — be human.
5. Give them what they want.

Do you have a YouTube channel that you subscribe to because you think it’s authentic? Please share.

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