Creators are the new brands

“I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.”

Key Takeaways

  1. If the last decade was about attention, this decade will be defined by curation. Consumers may carve little corners of the internet for themselves, where they can rely on to tailor the content they get.
  2. Instead of a brand leveraging the individual’s aesthetic to reach scale, the individual is now leveraging technology to scale their built-in audience.
  3. Brands must recognize this: creators have built their audiences. They know their niche. Now it’s time to diversify how they monetize the products they share.

Originally published on Banknotes

I still remember going to JC Penney with my dad growing up. He always took his style cues from a catalog in the mail or an infomercial between watching Saturday night football. And then, once a year, he’d wait until everything went on sale, and he’d buy himself a new suit and tie.

Fast forward ten years. It’s 2013. I’m a college student with a style blog on the side, one that just crossed 5,000 followers on Instagram. A shoe brand in Australia gifts me a product so I can talk about it to my followers. It’s a pair of double-monk dress shoes. I’d never experienced anything like it.

You mean you’ll send me free products if I talk about them on the internet? I thought. Sign me up!

These two memories are connected; they show us much has changed over a generation. Both stories speak to where we’ve been, and this next story speaks to where we’re headed.

I’m talking about Creators. And though Creators started as nothing more than billboards for the brands that paid them, Creators are now their own brands. I want to look at how we arrived here, what's evolving for Creators, and how the future might see them become the brands themselves.

A Quick Primer

Historically, being a Creator wasn’t a career path. Creators have influence, but legacy institutions always controlled the influence. Actors moved to Hollywood to chase their dreams; Models relied on agents to book photoshoots; Musicians needed record labels to write; Writers needed publishers for book deals or newspapers for distribution.

Then computers came along. And cell phones. Suddenly, sharing information was democratized, and with it came the rise of new platforms, products, apps, and ways of consuming content, which democratized influence. The 2000s gave us WordPress and Tumblr; The 2010s brought us Instagram and TikTok. Meanwhile, other products came and went (RIP Path, MySpace, and Vine).

As the mediums have changed over the decades, one thing has remained: influence. The rise of influencers on Instagram during the 2010s--who solely relied on affiliate marketing and charging obscene amounts of moolah for a single post about a brand--made them walking billboards. But we’re entering a new chapter with “influence.” People aren’t simply billboards; they’re Creators.

Curation-as-a-Service

In her recent piece, Creators are the new Curators, Gabby Goldberg wonderfully covers the idea that we’ve entered an era on the internet where Creators can earn a living through curating content. We, as consumers, are overloaded on access to content as a result of products and apps that emphasized the discoverability of content. In other words, many options but a scarcity of attention.

But if the last decade was about attention, this decade will be defined by curation. Consumers may carve little corners of the internet for themselves, where they can rely on to tailor the content they get. This feeds into our tribal instincts. We can’t help but look for others who share our tastes and preferences.

And what better way to curate tastes and preferences than having Creators put all their favorite products in one single storefront where you can purchase them?

This is not affiliate marketing. Think about it like Amazon storefronts meets the DTC landscape. We’re talking about curated, tailored landing pages where Creators share all their favorite products with the user-generated content (UGC) they’ve already created.And there’s a handful of startups competing for this space, like SETTR, Storr, and Off Script.

“The fact is that people trust people, not companies,” says Pontus Karlsson, founder of Off Script. “Look back on the most exciting brands in history: Ralph Lauren, Coco Chanel. These brands were built on leveraging an individual's story and individuality. The same concept applies today; only technology enables those same visionaries to more easily reach an entire world, without the need for large overhead.”

Instead of a brand leveraging the individual’s aesthetic to reach scale, the individual is now leveraging technology to scale their built-in audience. Off Script is out to simplify the way that Creators share new products. In a sense, it feels like humanizing the experience for consumers because there’s already a layer of trust with the Creator you support. You click on a Creator’s link, see the products they’re selling, and buy them in 2 clicks.

Karlsson adds, Our ambition is to build the best eCommerce platform for Creators. We want to enable Creators to curate their shops with their favorite products, making it easy for us to support those Creators who eventually build their brands.

Building Your Brand

Speaking of launching products, platforms like CALA and Pietra hope to capitalize on this next wave of Creators being brands. The secret? Handle the boring stuff.

What boring stuff? Building eCommerce stores, handling tech packs and merchandising, supply chain conversations, packaging and fulfillment… you name it. Those who have built a consumer brand before can attest to how challenging it can be to create a quality product and handle the tedious stuff.

“People are the new brands,” says Andrew Wyatt, Founder & CEO of CALA. “You could buy a lipstick, an album, a shoe, and some workout gear from the same person, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional DTC brand whose recommendations you might trust to buy all of those products from.” And that’s where Creators are different from traditional brands today. What CALA is trying to solve is mitigating the risk that’s associated with launching a brand.

“Creators we work with want to launch a great brand without investing millions into a team and resources. CALA helps them execute their creative visions without navigating traditional hurdles.” All so that those Creators can focus on doing what they do best: creating.

Creators Are the New Brands

Of course, (mega) Creators launching their brands is nothing new. In the last decade, we’ve witnessed Yeezy, Skims, Kylie Cosmetics, Golf Wang, the Fat Jewish’s Babe Rosé, and Fuck Jerry’s JAJA Tequila. Moving forward, Wyatt believes all Creators who want to launch successful brands will need to emulate what the above Creators possess: a combination of audience & reach, good branding, and a unique point of view with their product.

If Creators unlock those three components, it could lead to consumer products that target smaller communities instead of fewer (powerful) Creators targeting mass markets. We’ve seen many mid-sized Creators do this already.

One example is Phil DeFranco, who’s got 6M+ Youtube subscribers. After years of vlogging, Phil launched Beautiful Bastard, a grooming and haircare brand for men. Or how about Ankari Floruss, started by two New York-based menswear Creators (OneDapperStreet and Moti Ankari) who rose to prominence during the #Menswear era of tight-fitting suits and pocket squares. Ankari Floruss designs and produces seasonal footwear, both casual and dressy. And there’s even Danielle Bernstein behind WeWoreWhat, a New York-based Creator who’s received loads of criticism as a design “thief,” taking directly from independent designers. Regardless, she’s built an empire around the WWW brand.

Changes Afoot; Where We Are Headed

Things change fast. With Google’s recent announcement to phase out third-party cookies, the way brands can target consumers is evolving. This means Creators are more important than ever to the success of brands and their products. Brands must recognize this. Creators have built their audiences. They know their niche. Now it’s time to diversify how they monetize the products they share.

Creators are becoming more clever. Of course, they have the built-in reach from the platforms they live on, but they’re also capturing emails and phone numbers through private chat groups and newsletters. In other words, they’re not just renting an audience on Instagram. Creators with targeted audiences (that they own) will become exponentially more valuable this decade.

Here are a few predictions about what can happen this decade for Creators as they engage with and become their brands:

  1. People used to raise money on an idea and scale it by paying for customers solely on Facebook ads. That will still exist, but we’ll see those same people launch brands with specific Creators who have loyal, built-in audiences more often. The Creator can be the face of the brand, so the first customers will already trust the aesthetic and direction of that product.
  2. Rather than a thousand brands targeting millions of customers, we’ll see the rise of a million brands targeting 1,000-10,000 customers representing higher order volume.
  3. As more Creators are enabled to own their content and create niche communities around that content, a middle class of Creators will arise, and brands will leverage Creator as the gateway to capturing “middle America,” a market that has traditionally been difficult to capture by coastal brands (Harry’s, Away, etc.).

Much has changed since my dad got his style tips from JC Penney catalogs. Those days feel like an eternity. And as the next decade of Creator brands unfolds, we’ll likely look back fondly on words of the great philosopher, Jay-Z: “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.”