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Digital Celebs

Digital Celebrities: YouTube Stars, Bloggers Enter the Licensing Arena

Update: Oct. 9, 2015

A live version of the Licensed Digital Celebs chart is now available here.

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
—Andy Warhol

Had he lived a couple of more decades, Warhol may have revised his famous prediction. While mass media did, in fact, turn ordinary people into worldwide celebrities, social media has made it possible for them to sustain celebrity status a lot longer than the allotted 15 minutes. Today’s digital celebrities use social media platforms like YouTube, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and blogs to develop loyal followings in cyberspace. And, inevitably, many of those celebrities are now turning to licensing to cash in on their cyber-fame. Here’s an overview.

The Rise of Digital Celebrities

Top YouTube celebrities such as videogame commentator PewDiePie, comedy duo Smosh, comedy series producers The Fine Bros. and vlogger (video blogger) Jenna Marbles are followed by tens of millions of people. The same is true of stars on newer platforms including Vine, where teenager Nash Grier is top dog, and Pinterest.

Not surprisingly, digital celebs carry a lot of weight with teenagers. For example, in a recent survey, Variety asked 1,500 teens to list the American celebrities they considered to be most influential. The top five celebrities among Americans ages 13 to 18 were all YouTubers: Smosh, The Fine Bros., PewDiePie, KSI and Ryan Higa. The YouTubers surpassed mainstream celebs like Jennifer Lawrence, Katy Perry, Steve Carell and Seth Rogen. (To be fair to the Viners and other social media platforms, the survey measures only YouTube and mainstream stars.)

The survey also found that YouTube stars scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities in characteristics with a high correlation to influencing purchases among teens, such as being engaging and relatable—hence their desirability to brands.

“Looking at survey comments and feedback, it appears that teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros,” Variety reported. “Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit; behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.”

Of course, it’s not just teens. Thus, for example, lifestyle blogger Emily Schulman has been called the Martha Stewart of the new generation. Digital celebrities have also established followings among kids, moms, foodies, fashionistas and other segments.

Leveraging of Digital Celebrity

There are a number of ways digital celebrities can cash in on their brand. Examples:

  • Securing a share of platform ad revenues and merchandise sales;
  • Endorsements of existing brands, for example via “brand ambassadorships” and/or appearing in traditional advertising;
  • Sponsored blogs and platforms;
  • Creative consultation;
  • Development of personally-branded products.

Experts estimate that top YouTubers can make anywhere from six-figures to multiple millions of dollars a year solely from their cut of YouTube ad revenues. Brand affiliations can also bring in big bucks. For example, Jerome Jarre, a French comedian and vlogger who has 8 million followers on Vine, reportedly gets paid $25,000 to $35,000 for a single Vine or Snapchat message for a brand. Examples in traditional media include:

  • Vine prankster Cameron Dallas starred in a feature-length teen comedy “Expelled” produced by YouTube network Awesomeness TV which was distributed on digital movies services and is currently working on “The Outfield,” a feature in which he stars with Nash Grier;
  • Viner King Bach and YouTube’s Shane Dawson and The Fine Bros. have scored deals to develop movies and shows for (traditional) television;
  • YouTube’s Hannah Hart, whose primary routine involves cooking while inebriated, appeared with fellow Tubers Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart (no relation) in “Camp Takota,” a feature length comedy now on Netflix; and
  • British fashion and beauty vlogger Zoella, who has more than 7 million followers on YouTube, last year published a novel with record-breaking first week sales. It’s seemingly autobiographical title: “Girl Online.”

Which Digital Celebrities are the Most Marketable

In terms of attractiveness to marketers, all digital celebs are not created equal. An analysis of recent licensing activity shows that drawing power is largely a function of 2 factors: the celebrities’ platform and the interest of their followers. Thus, an aspiring comedian on Vine may attract 5 million followers with his goofy, frat boy humor, while a blogger with a smaller, but loyal following of people passionate about something like fashion, beauty or food may be more attractive to licensees.


Instagram: Enables users to take photos and videos and easily share them on a variety of social networking sites, including Facebook (since 2010).

Pinterest: Encourages users to gather and curate images that are “pinned” to themed “boards” for collection, sharing, organizing projects or events (since 2010).

SnapChat: Photo messaging app in which users set a time limit after which images are hidden from the recipient’s device and deleted from SnapChat’s servers (since 2011).

Vine: Video sharing service on which users post six second looping clips (since 2013).

YouTube: Video sharing site that allows users to upload, view and share video content, much of it user-generated, by channels including PewDiePie, Smosh, Jenna Marbles, etc. (since 2005).

Twitter: Social networking service with which users send 140-character messages called “tweets.” (since 2006).

Comedy—especially profane, adolescent humor often found on YouTube and Vine—may not be the best match for licensees. By contrast, fashion and beauty, home designers and foodie bloggers have been successful in securing licensees.

Who’s Doing Digital Celebrity Deals

Some of the more high-profile digital celebrity licensing deals include:

  • Michelle Phan, makeup demonstrator, parlayed her 7 million followers on YouTube into a personal line called “em Michelle Phan” from L’Oreal;
  • Italian fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, with over 3 million followers on Instagram, pulled in as much as $8 million in 2014, with 70% coming from licensed footwear, according to WWD;
  • Tina Craig and Kelly Cook of the Snob Essential blog parlayed their love of luxury handbags into a mass market line for HSN;
  • Life’s S.o. R.a.d. series on YouTube’s Awesomeness TV network in which teen girls talk about style and shopping, inspired a collection of junior apparel from Kohl’s;
  • Joy Cho of the Oh Joy! Design and lifestyle blog (13 million-plus followers on Pinterest) licensed her name for party goods, diaper bags, children’s furniture and bedding and computer accessories;
  • Maxwell Ryan’s home design blog, Apartment Therapy, spawned a series of books.

Mall-based teen retailer Aeropostale has jumped into digital celebrity licensing with both feet, creating one line with fashionista Bethany Mota and another with a group of young men led by No. 1 Viner Nash Grier. Grier and friends have more than 25 million followers between them, but no particular fashion credentials.

Mota, one of the biggest social media stars among teenage girls, built her brand in part on what the industry calls “haul videos.” Basically, a girl shops, then spreads out her “haul” in her room and talks about it—in Mota’s case, to millions of followers. Mota launched The Bethany Mota Collection of apparel, accessories and jewelry with Aeropostale for holiday 2013. The spring 2015 collection is out now, and the relationship has expanded to room décor and fragrance.

Watershed Change or Flash in the Pan?

Digital celebrity has already outlasted Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes. But its long-term staying power and power to drive retail sales remains unproven. We all know that popularity is fleeting. And considering that it generally takes at least 18 months from the time of signing to develop, manufacture and distribute a licensed product for sale, licens- ing with digital celebrities is risky and requires careful exit strategies. It’s perhaps for this reason that so many social media stars—and aspiring stars—offer their licensed products via on-demand Web sites like CafePress, Zazzle, Skreened, Spreadshirt, District Lines and Redbubble, rather than brick-and-mortar stores.


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