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YouTube and Instagram Changed Beauty Forever

As part of our series reflecting on the 2010s, BoF examines how influencers affected the way beauty is sold and trends are disseminated.
James Charles attending a KKW x Mario Dinner in Beverly Hills | Source: Getty Images
  • Cheryl Wischhover

As the 2010s come to a close, BoF reflects on how the past decade transformed the fashion industry — and the culture at large. Explore our insights here.

NEW YORK, United States — The top trending YouTube video of 2019 has it all: glamour, betrayal, a whiff of scandal and… vitamins.

James Charles' 41-minute "No More Lies" monologue, the culmination of a week of online mudslinging between Charles and fellow mega-influencer Tati Westbrook, brought the beauty guru back from the brink of internet extinction. Mainstream media, from Cosmopolitan to CNN, chronicled every twist in the saga, which stemmed in part from a dispute over rival gummy multivitamin brands. "No More Lies" garnered over 48 million views, 400,000 comments and 2.4 million likes.

Charles wasn’t the only beauty influencer to crack YouTube’s annual list. Jeffree Star’s review of Kylie Jenner’s skin-care line came in at number nine. The video was part of a docu-series produced by controversial veteran vlogger Shane Dawson that proved so successful it led to an eyeshadow collaboration. Star claimed on Instagram that they sold one million “Conspiracy Palettes” in 30 minutes, though they were later hit with customer complaints about contamination with hair-like fibres.

Beauty influencers helped define the look and tone of YouTube and Instagram at the start of the 2010s, creating signature content around makeup products and ever-bolder looks that hooked millions of young viewers on the social networks. By the end of the decade, they had broken out of the social media bubble; today, it’s influencers like Charles and Star who set new beauty trends, and brands must hire the right social media stars if they want to court Millennial and Gen-Z customers.

The occasional controversy aside, many see YouTube’s growing clout as a good thing: a diverse, ever-changing group of influencers have democratised the industry, forcing brands to create products that appeal to a more inclusive group of customers. Thanks to the proliferation of 40+ shade foundation ranges and the increasing acceptance of men wearing makeup, more people than ever found a creative outlet.

A diverse, ever-changing group of influencers have democratised the industry.

“What attracted me to YouTube was that it was the first time I saw normal people [onscreen],” said Michelle Phan, who with a 2007 tutorial about natural-looking makeup became one of the platform’s earliest beauty stars. As an Asian American, she said she never saw people who looked like her on TV or in magazines. First through blogging and then through YouTube, she was able to make connections with people who shared similar interests and life experiences.

“People thought I was out of my mind, but I just knew that this was the future,” Phan said.

After several more years of viral videos, in 2011 she co-founded Ipsy, which sold subscription beauty sample boxes, and she later sponsored Generation Beauty, a convention for beauty fans to meet creators and brands. In 2013, L’Oréal tapped her for one of the first influencer makeup lines, Em Cosmetics. It proved too expensive for her followers, and halted production after less than two years. Phan bought the line from L’Oréal in 2015, then left social media, citing burnout. She’s since relaunched Em and posts only sporadically on YouTube.

Others picked up where Phan left off, including PatrickStarrr, Alissa Ashley, Jaclyn Hill, KathleenLights, Jackie Aina, Nikita Dragun and hundreds of others. These stars of YouTube and Instagram helped grow indie brands like Colourpop, Morphe and Anastasia Beverly Hills (the last two reportedly valued at $2.2 billion and $3 billion, respectively), revive older brands like Benefit and spawn their own lines. In November, Kylie Jenner sold a majority stake in her makeup brand, built largely on the strength of her Instagram following, to Coty for $600 million.

What’s less clear is who has the power in this new order: the influencers or the platform. YouTube wreaked havoc in the influencer community when it removed and then quickly returned some users’ verified badges in September. Instagram is hiding the “likes” counter on posts. Constant and opaque tweaks to the algorithm that determines which posts show up in users’ feeds can make or break influencers’ careers. Creators have begun talking more openly about the mental health toll that comes with the pressure to remain in the public eye.

Still, the dominance of social media over the last decade has fundamentally changed the way business is done in the beauty industry. Here’s how it happened and what to expect going forward.

It Made “Influencer” a Viable Career Option

When Phan first started making videos, there was no way to make money from them; she was a college student and worked in a restaurant part-time. The YouTube Partner Program launched in 2008, netting Phan about 20 cents a day at the start from ads that played on her videos. She quit her job a few months later when her income hit $20 a day. At her height in around 2014, she was making $50,000 a month from ads, plus lucrative deals with beauty brands like Lancôme that approached her when they saw her videos were performing better than their own slickly produced content.

The amount of money flowing to influencers has only continued to soar. Where Phan would have been lucky to receive $5,000 per video from a brand in 2010, the top creators now earn $100,000 and beyond for branded content. An elite few can pull in seven figures and even ownership stakes.

These deals have become something of an existential crisis for the beauty influencer community. Marlena Stell, an early influencer and makeup brand owner, publicly revealed the five- and six-figure deals creators were cutting with brands. It led to discussions about whether and how often influencers were disclosing when content was sponsored. US regulators have occasionally cracked down on unlabelled paid content, and some observers see potential for the practice to undermine trust, in a market where the appearance of authenticity is key.

The paydays have encouraged many to pursue the life of an influencer.

The paydays have encouraged many to pursue the life of an influencer. Tribe Dynamics, an influencer marketing platform, tracks 56,000 lifestyle creators in the US. Co-Founder Conor Begley says that about 6 percent go on to get more than 100,000 followers.

“Once they break that barrier, it’s like a rock rolling downhill,” he said.

About 24 percent of that sub-group will break the 300,000 mark the following year, with about a third of those hitting one million fans in the year after that. Brands routinely send samples to thousands of micro-influencers, assuming that a few will someday develop huge followings.

Claudia Soare, president of Anastasia Beverly Hills, has seen this play out since 2014, but there’s a dynamic shift. “The power of one influencer selling has diminished over time because there’s a lot more now. That’s why I think volume is necessary,” she said, noting that ABH sends PR packages to 2,500 creators.

It Caused the Makeup Boom… and Its Bust

In 2012, Kim Kardashian shared a picture on Twitter and Instagram of her face marked up with light and dark coloured makeup in patterns that made her look alien. It was a behind-the-scenes look at contouring, a technique largely limited to professional makeup artists at the time. But the masses were intrigued, and creators started doing contouring tutorials.

Suddenly, there was a market for the products and tools to create looks like contouring, baking, cut creases and elaborate eyebrows, dubbed "Instagram brows." The foundation wars, initiated by Fenty's 40 shades, heated up. Swatching on a variety of skin tones became de rigueur and expected.

Makeup boomed, and indie brands that influencers helped to promote got snapped up by strategic investors. Nyx, which worked with influencers earlier than most brands, was acquired by L'Oréal in 2014. Becca, which rose to fame thanks to collaborations with Jaclyn Hill, was acquired by Estée Lauder in 2016, as was Too Faced.

The cycle turned, and natural looks and skin care became popular.

Then came the great makeup crash of 2019, with brands and retailers across the board experiencing negative sales growth. The cycle turned, and natural looks and skin care became popular.

Those trends don't lend themselves easily to how-to videos, and beauty creators and followers alike now profess they are bored of tutorials. Influencers are looking for their next act; James Charles now participates in Fortnite competitions.

“Boundaries around genre have really started to evolve and blur and dissipate,” said Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends.

It Gave Rise to the Influencer as Beauty Entrepreneur

For influencers with their own lines, the good times never ended. Traditional brands saw their earned media value (a measure of social media engagement) decrease by 8 percent in 2018, but direct-to-consumer competitors, a category that includes influencer-fronted lines, were up 11 percent, according to Tribe.

Phan, Huda Kattan and Star were part of an early wave of influencer-fronted brands. Around the same time, Morphe and Colourpop built their businesses by courting influencers. Their success opened the floodgates, with more influencers opting to sell their own products instead of someone else's. Still, it's far from a sure bet.

But others are trying, with more launching every week. Westbrook, Manny Gutierrez and Hill are just a few of the many who have recently introduced makeup lines, joining those earlier entrepreneurs.

It changed the dynamics of how brands sell and market

Brands used to send products to beauty editors and hire celebrities as ambassadors. While this still happens on a smaller scale, YouTube and Instagram changed that dynamic forever. Brands realised that they could get more reach and feature more products than any monthly magazine could by relying on influencers to spread the word on their social media platforms. Affiliate YouTube links made it easy for people to purchase immediately after watching videos.

The biggest prediction for the future of social media is unpredictability.

Soon, brands were taking dozens of influencers on the kind of boondoggle press trips — Fiji, Australia, Paris — that used to be for a select few upper echelon editors. But these are falling out of favour as brands like Benefit realised that they could get better returns elsewhere.

Anastasia Beverly Hills was one of the first brands to capitalise on influencers, reposting their images when they tagged the brand. This got the creators more followers, which in turn strengthened their loyalty to ABH and encouraged others to post about the brand too. Many brands followed suit, and posting user-generated content is now a common industry practice.

In recent months, Soare has put out public calls on social media in an attempt to surface new creators. Soare says that Instagram is harder to explore than in its early days because its algorithms show users more of what they already like, creating the impression that no one is doing anything new.

ABH is now looking to TikTok, the short-form video platform.

"They don't want to sit through a full YouTube tutorial or even a minute on Instagram," Soare said. This could be a problem for YouTube, which incentivises creators to make longer videos to capitalise on ads.

The biggest prediction for the future of social media is unpredictability, according to YouTube’s Allocca. “That’s part of what makes that community so interesting. There is a constant evolution happening.”

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