Much like how pop stars have to reinvent their careers to renew their relevance, so too do the original lifestyle influencers — those from the first wave of talent that disrupted the fashion and beauty industries in the early 2010s.
A crop of these OG bloggers (made up in large part by millennial women who have spent the greater part of the last decade hawking products on social media) have started to pivot away from pure influencer marketing to start their own fashion, beauty and wellness brands.
Arielle Charnas first linked up with Nordstrom to launch her Something Navy fashion line in 2018; this year, she's going at it on her own, with investment from Silas Chou. Aimee Song and Camila Coelho partnered with what is arguably the kingmaker in the influencer universe, Revolve, to launch their own brands. Draya Michele also has a brand deal with Revolve, though hers exists in a smaller capacity. (Revolve doesn't break out its sales data by brand in its financial filings, and the company declined to comment on the sales of its influencer brands.)
There are plenty of other examples: Olivia Palermo just launched a namesake ready-to-wear line, Gal Meets Glam's Julia Engel has a collection of dresses, Jenn Im founded Eggie. With these extensions of their brands, they're taking control of entire businesses rather than simply making up a cog in the marketing component of them.
Tina Craig, AKA @Bagsnob, commands an Instagram following of 458,000 and frequently follows the influencer formula for posting #sponsored content from luxury brands like David Yurman and Valentino on her Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook profiles, as well as her own blog. But in the years since she made a business out of posting content, Craig has also created two other businesses: She's the founder of UBeauty, a skincare brand, as well as EstateFive, a boutique digital management agency. Craig is frequently asked to discuss her experience as an architect helping shape the influencer marketing space, as she recently did during a panel at the Coterie retail conference in New York City.
"This whole Instagram thing, I don't know if it's going to implode. I want to do something kind of fun again, and this ignited my excitement and passion," Craig says of starting UBeauty. The added bonus of diversifying away from pure influencer marketing? "[My businesses] are all intertwined. By talking about UBeauty, I have content for Instagram. After a while, it was like, 'How many times can you say, 'Yay, I got a free bag,' or 'Here's a launch for another bag that everyone is talking about and we all have the same bag.' People are sick of that."
For its part, Revolve has helped turned Instagram influencers from content creators and models to household names seemingly overnight, thanks in large part to the company's reach but also the infrastructure it has in place to develop brands and prime them for success. Its proprietary data platform, which the company developed to better understand how influencers operate without relying on another analytics company, is a huge asset to influencers who are better trying to reach their audiences as well as expand them. For the lucky few who partner with the now-public company, the information is a goldmine.
"Marketing is one of the top two reasons the influencers come to us to pitch having a brand together because they know we understand how to really communicate with a customer," says Revolve's chief brand officer, Raissa Gerona. "The other thing, our ability to supply as much data to the influencer as possible, I think that's hugely beneficial for them. Of course, they're giving us information as well, but letting them know what items are selling, giving them guidance on what we think they should be designing — obviously at the end of the day they're going to be the creative director. But having a lot of substantial information backed by real data from real customers is hugely beneficial, and I think that allows them to feel comfortable that we'll be a partner that is supportive on the product side but equally important on the marketing side."
Of course, not every influencer who seeks out Revolve — or any other retail partner, for that matter — gets to start their own brand. Ashley Villa, the Chief Executive Officer of talent management agency Rare Global, says she's witnessed far too many influencers chase the dream of starting their own brand early in their careers, but too often sidestepped the process and ended up with lackluster products that failed to resonate with consumers.
Villa says there are two primary ways influencers can pivot towards starting their own brands: Find an incubator-type company to help you with the finer parts of creating a new business, or look for venture capital money that may seem attractive, but doesn't necessarily come with built-in product development teams or help getting the logistics of brand building in order.
"Anyone can churn and burn brand deals — I could do it all day," Villa explains, speaking to her roster of 15 clients, including YouTube personalities like Stephanie Villa and Chloe Morello, whose careers she helps develop into something with long-term viability. "But what are you doing outside of that to make it worthwhile? What's the long-term strategy?"
While the influencer marketing economy may grow to reach $15 billion in the next two years, even the most popular influencers-turned-entrepreneurs will need to follow a carefully planned expansion strategy — without alienating their faithful audiences — in order to survive the ever-saturated field.
"I would urge young creators to not move too quickly, I would urge them to start by making really great content, and taking the steps necessary," Villa says. "Don't just go launch a brand because you wanted to launch a brand." Instead, Villa suggests seeking a collaboration with an existing brand, learning the business, then launching something of your own later.
"Everyone wants a brand these days, but you have to be ready for it."
And, ultimately, Craig adds, don't forget where you started: "You are only as good as your community and your followers, and if you don't cater to those followers, and you don't continually engage with them and you start to think you're too busy to engage or whatever it is, then that's it, that's your downfall."