LOS ANGELES, United States — For the uninitiated, attending The Ellen Degeneres Show is like entering an alternate reality. In stark contrast to the divisive American election campaign, pitting poor against rich, black against white, straight against gay and left against right, Ellen’s set is one where everyone can sit comfortably together, singing and smiling — and dancing.
Welcome to the world of Ellen Degeneres, a uniting force for good and one of the most followed and connected celebrities on the planet. Today, The Ellen Degeneres Show is seen in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Macau, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Sweden. In the US alone, Ellen reaches 5 million adults and a staggering 23 percent of the total television audience. At press time, the Ellen show had more than 130 million followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube combined.
Back at the show, the audience is predominantly female, but diverse in every other way. They come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds, from all across the United States and around the world. Between the recorded segments of the “live-to-tape” show, they participate in dance competitions, gyrating wildly to classic 1990s songs like TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” When Ellen makes her entrance to “Today’s the Day,” the show’s theme song by Pink, dancing up and down the aisles, they leap out of their seats and sing all the lyrics — word for word.
“I just wanted it to be happy, I just pictured Ellen dancing and making everyone happy,” said Pink, when first introducing the theme song for Season 13 to Ellen’s viewers last September.
The show’s success seems to come down to its ability to act as a kind of feel-good cultural barometer, with frequent moments of levity, silliness and musical performances, combined with a fearlessness about discussing important societal issues, head-on.
In the first week of Season 13, which included a pair of episodes for which the Ellen show was temporarily moved from its regular set in Los Angeles to Rockefeller Center in New York, the show included the first talk show appearance by former Olympian and transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner, an interview with Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and appearances by rapper and actor Ice Cube and his son O’Shea Jackson Jr, former secretary of state (and current Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton, pop star Taylor Swift and fellow talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Degeneres has certainly come a long way since her first TV show — the hit sitcom “Ellen,” which ran between 1994 and 1998 — was cancelled after she came out as gay both on TV and in real life, making her the first openly lesbian actor to play an openly lesbian character on television. It also made her a lightening rod for gay rights issues, landing her on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.”
Backstage in her dressing room before the recording of the show, Ellen is a more serious version of her television personality, still funny and self-deprecating but also focused and ambitious. We are here to talk about ED by Ellen, a lifestyle brand built around her world that launched last July in 18 different categories including women’s apparel, accessories and decorative homeware — to much fanfare and, naturally, using her television show as a marketing platform.
“It’s been going on for a long time, Johnny Carson had his own suits,” says Degeneres, referring to the legendary American late night talk show host, when asked about her motivations for creating her own product offering. “It’s just that there are more of us and celebrity is somehow more important than anything else right now. It’s not a good thing but it’s true. The world is more connected and people have fans all over the world and they’re taking advantage of being able to promote something more than just someone else’s business. Instead of just being a movie star, you’re doing your own things.”
On the first day of the launch of ED, after Ellen mentioned the new site on her show and sent out a single tweet — amplified by other celebrities with their own sizeable online followings, including Kanye West, Madonna and Pink, each of whom showed their support for ED on social media — Ellen’s website signed up an impressive 190,000 registered users, with several categories selling out, from indigo striped linens and pillows to white cotton bomber jackets.
“People support Ellen on a personal level, and that’s the difference I would say. It just ballooned and it’s not that we had to pay for it or anything,” says Marisa Gardini, chief executive officer and managing partner of ED by Ellen. “We’ve really created a great ecosystem here where we have a brand and the Ellen show, but there is a lot of interchanging [between them].”
The world is more connected and people have fans all over the world and they’re taking advantage of being able to promote something more than just someone else’s business.
With a wide demographic and socioeconomic reach, the business is positioned as a high-low mix, with a focus on the middle market. “Often we’re asked, ‘Who’s your customer?’ and I’m like, ‘Who isn’t?’ Really, everyone loves Ellen,” Gardini continues.
“Bergdorf’s was really our halo — a marketing initiative — and it was important to lay the foundation of the brand,” explains Gardini, referring to the launch of ED by Ellen at the famed luxury department store in Manhattan. “But overall it’s a mid-tier distribution strategy, similar to what you see they’re doing at Camuto, Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor. Footwear, for example, ranges from $79 to $300, but that’s for, let’s say, a riding boot in leather. Bedding is in the higher end at Bed, Bath & Beyond, so it’s not Frette but it’s definitely where hotel bedding is.”
According to The Audience, a social publishing agency working with digital influencers and brands, influencers like Degeneres have four times the level of engagement on Facebook than even the most loved companies. When compared to fashion brands in particular, their engagement is even higher — 4.7 times higher engagement on Instagram, 14.6 times higher on Facebook and 16.4 times higher on Twitter.
But make no mistake, this is not just about creating buzz or pursuing a passion — it’s a commercially motivated venture too, and seen as an extension of Degeneres’ existing revenue streams. According to Forbes, Degeneres earned $75 million from her television show last year, making her TV’s best paid personality — but now she is looking to extend her creativity into other avenues.
Degeneres’ moves into fashion and lifestyle are part of a wider trend of A-list Hollywood celebrities setting up their own businesses to engage directly with their fans, as opposed to simply promoting other people’s products. Ryan Seacrest, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba have all launched similar ventures.
“Everyone starts out in the celebrity world, with their agents going, ‘How can we make more money?’” Degeneres says of her agent Eddie Yablans of Hollywood agency ICM. “He knew that I was a brand. He knew I had a certain style and of course, he’s my agent — he wants to make money.”
But the idea to pursue her own brand was first seeded after she learned that her fans were actively seeking to learn what she was wearing. “Before we had ED, they would go on and they would ask, ‘What were those shoes? What was that jacket?’” So, Degeneres’ team started listing the credits of Ellen’s clothes out on the show. Now, Degeneres wears her own clothes almost every day, something that is closely orchestrated between her television team and the ED team.
The ED brand was created with founding partner Chris Burch — he of Tory Burch fame — alongside other partners including Gardini, as well as Michael Francis, former chief global brand officer of DreamWorks Animation and former global chief marketing officer of Target, Janet Grove, former chief executive officer of Macy’s Merchandising Group, and Dave McTague, formerly of Cole Hahn, Tommy Hilfiger and Converse, who now acts as chief operating officer and president of ED.
Says Burch about his decision to back Degeneres’ brand: “When you have a person like Ellen that cares so much and has such great taste, I thought, ‘This is a business I wanted to be involved with.’”
Everything at ED begins and ends with Degeneres. “I’ve never dressed for anybody else except, I guess, when I first started the talk show 13 years ago and they were worried about me being gay,” Degeneres recalls. “I really had to like fem it up as much as I possibly could. I wasn’t going to wear a dress, but it wasn’t exactly who I was, and so finally I was just like, ‘I can dress how I want, I can be who I want to be and not think I have to wear certain clothes.’ So that was very freeing to me and that’s when I really started dressing in the way that is exactly me. That is what people were responding to.”
“There’s stuff out there, but it’s not my stuff, you know?” she says. “It’s my take on it, it’s my style, and I think that I’m already a brand. So instead of just being a personality on television, I have a very unique fashion sense that people have tried to emulate. I’ve watched them come to the show and I’ve watched women try to dress like me and I’m thinking, ‘Well that’s close but it’s not really what I do.’”
“So the pants that I buy, normally, are men’s pants, but then I have to alter them because they’re too high waisted or they just fit completely different and I got sick of buying men’s clothes and trying to alter them,” she explains. “And I just thought there are a lot of women who aren’t shaped like that.”
Degeneres had started making her “own stuff,” she says. “And, if I was making my own clothes and people were responding to it then there was probably a whole bunch of other people out there that could benefit from me filling that void. So that’s why. I don’t dress like the women that are photographed for fashion magazines, but that doesn’t mean that I am not fashion oriented.”
Indeed, “Ellen is involved with every single decision,” says Burch, “and she is a true merchant, and she is there. She has her day job and then she has her passion job, and I believe that having someone that is so passionate and so into the product and wants the customers to love it and really enjoys it, it is going to set us apart from other celebrity brands that just put their name on [the product].”
“That’s why I think the product is resonating with the customer. Product is king at the end. And you’ll see Ellen is in her own advertising, wears her brand, and all of that creates the integrity and the true connection between Ellen and the person and the product that is set forth,” Gardini concurs.
Thus far, the company has used a variety of operating models to deliver products across multiple categories — from home and textile, to wood, glass, metal and apparel. “Our company always was going to be a hybrid of licensing, wholesale and direct,” says Gardini. “That was always the intention. Now, in the future, will we take some licenses back? I can’t answer that this minute, but I just know that in this moment we have really strong partners that we want to be partners with for a long time. That also gives us more runway not to use more resources in the startup phase.”
It’s some start-up. According to the company, the ED business is expected to turn over more than $150 million at retail in its first year. Since last summer’s launch, they have been inundated with inbound interest from potential partners. “All these licensees started coming to us,” says Gardini. “We only want to partner with best in class, and when I say best in class, I mean licensees who really understand their space and are the best in their space and this wasn’t going to be a, ‘Let’s try it out.’”
Growth will come from further category expansion. The most recent collaborations to launch have been with Camuto for shoes and with Revman for bedding and bath products available at Bed Bath & Beyond. A new deal has been inked with Petsmart for a pet line to launch in 1,400 stores in the USA and Canada in February 2017, including pet beds, collars, toys, leashes and harnesses and, yes, even ED pet apparel.
The ED team also believes there is an opportunity to grow the business internationally, by leveraging Degeneres’ global fan base, which thus far remains untapped. “If you look at our normal traffic patterns on our web site, over 25 percent of the audience on a daily basis is international — from Canada to the UK to northern Europe to Asia to Australia,” says Dave McTague, president and chief operating officer.
With deals in the pipeline — and the end of her show (it has been renewed until 2020) — Degeneres is balancing her new role with her day job, and thinking about what comes after TV.
“I go out and I talk to people, I have meetings during the day, and I do that and I go home and I have plenty of time and I lay awake at night visualising my next thing that I’m creating,” reveals Degeneres. “That’s what I think about. People think of different things. My focus is on design and what I want to do next.”
This article appears in BoF's latest print issue, A Connected World, a special briefing which examines how growing global interconnectivity impacts the way we create, communicate and consume fashion. To order your copy for delivery anywhere in the world or locate a stockist, visit shop.businessoffashion.com.