Decoding Michelle Phan

I always enjoy learning about how brands are born and continue to grow. Back when I was in the beauty industry, running a startup and working with beauty bloggers, I got wind of Michelle Phan. At the time, she was solely a beauty and cosmetics YouTube personality who was already known within the industry but who hadn’t yet taken over the world.

I was impressed by her approach to beauty and the YouTube platform. She didn’t follow the rules, which was what was so interesting about her. She was just doing her own thing, being a little quirky, never worried if there was a pimple on her chin. Even as she played with her look, by being bold enough to show her own physical imperfections she encouraged others to embrace their own.

This in itself was ahead of its time. In the last few years, the rise of Glossier and RMS has shown that many gravitate toward a more authentic, natural look, though for a long time the only brand you could look to was Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.

While many may say that Phan is no more than a content creator, I would argue that she’s a true innovator. As Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” and Phan has certainly been a leader in her field.

As Phan’s audience continued to grow, realized that her fans wanted an affordable way to try out different looks and products. The solution: Ipsy, essentially showing Birchbox how it’s done — first, create a community, then sell to them, all the while capitalizing on the subscription business model.

Almost in tandem with co-founding Ipsy, Phan joined forces with L’Oréal to launch her cosmetics line, Em. Thanks to her fame, the product launch got worldwide attention, but it never delivered financially. People complained that there were simply too many products, and the price point wasn’t one her YouTube subscribers could abide by. While I always tell clients to wait until the product is proven before getting the word out, that’s not really an option when you’re already a household name. And during this time, while Phan was not only maintaining a successful YouTube channel and managing Ipsy, she was also publishing a book, and exploring ventures in comics and the music industry. I think she simply bit off more than she could chew.

So in 2016, Phan decided to take a step back. In her last video, posted June 2017, she tells the story of her metamorphosis from art student to one of the most sought-after people in beauty, illustrating the toll it took on her mental health. After taking a break, she re-released a simplified version of Em Cosmetics (when the contract was up, Phan bought the line from L’Oréal). Now Em sells eye liners and lip glosses, which, apparently, is all the makeup Phan wears these days. The products are getting rave reviews, showing that innovators can learn from previous incarnations to find success later on. Phan said in 2017, “I’m actually happy that Em didn’t do well, because I’m happy that I own it. It is my makeup brand, it’s not L’Oréal’s makeup brand. It’s not for me; it’s for my viewers who have been there since the beginning.”

As a vlogger, Michelle Phan was ahead of her time, finding a way to be genuine on screen even as she was turning herself into Barbie. Though she never conceived of her YouTube channel as a business, that’s what it became, first through ad revenue, and then as a fanbase to whom she could market her own products. In doing so, she pulled herself and her family out of poverty, showing that the American Dream is still attainable — all because she keyed into what women really want from beauty products: to experience transformation or simply to feel good.

Jeannette McClennan

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President of The McClennan Group, Serial Entrepreneur, Digital Businesses, Co-Author Innovators Anonymous, #IA