How to build a brand based on social following: The case of Ipsy and Michelle Phan

How a devoted social following can act as a stable pillar in building a brand and become the foundation of a company...

26 Feb 2019 918 Views

Written by Sandra Juncker

A computer on social media
Photo 1: A computer on social media.
















“It is a story of how ipsy’s founder, Michelle Phan, parlayed a devoted internet following into one of the country’s fastest-growing companies. It is a story of how new modes of marketing continue to outpace and re-write the old-school playbook”

Source (Baker, 2016)


This story is about the powerful reach of social networks, and how a devoted social following can act as a stable pillar in building a brand and become the foundation of a company. But before telling this story, it is worth explaining how social media can be used to build a brand. Because, how exactly do you do it? And what does it take to build a brand based on social following?

The new marketing playbook

The strength of social media is its informal and personal nature which gives the consumers the opportunity to share a like and comment for the different content they like. These interactions are of high value, as they are a vital indicator of what the consumers are engaged by. Creating a broad social following is depending on creating this exact content in which the consumers on social media are interested in (Felix, et al., 2016). Social media is by now incorporated into most companies marketing playbooks. But what is the best approach using these channels? Those brands that succeed share four fundamental qualities (Barwise & Meehan, 2010):

  • Customer promise: This should be clear and relevant.
  • Build trust: Delivering the customer promise should build trust.
  • Continually improving the promise: The market is driven by improving this promise.
  • Innovating beyond familiar: This will help seek further advantage. (Barwise & Meehan, 2010)


Companies can use social media to check that the customer promise is both understood and relevant. Social media should likewise be used as a tool to support the companies brand values. Building trust can be done in several ways e.g. in crisis situations, where it is essential for businesses to keep their customers informed. Especially in situations that is changing in such fast pace that the website cannot keep up (Barwise & Meehan, 2010).

Here Facebook and Twitter is as an essential communication tool to share important information, fast. Furthermore, social media can be used as an opportunity to gather insights and to drive continual incremental improvements. Building a community while doing so, can even help drive trust to the brand. Social media can play an important role in establishing a dialogue as a part of improving the company’s offer.

Latest statistics even show that around 3.4 billion people around the world used social media in September 2018. This number increased by 10 percent compared to September 2017 (Kemp, 2018). Stating that more people are entering the world of social networks. When taking the 7 laws of the web into consideration, the first law of network externality states that networks influence things/people external to the networks, meaning that the more people are participating in a network, the more others are likely to join (Dijk, 2006). This gives a hidden pressure to connect and join. Now, let’s look into the case of ipsy, a company who practiced the fundamental aspect of this law.

The case of Ipsy and Michelle Phan

This is the case of how ipsy grew their business of $10 glam bags through the power of social following and a new movement of creators. Ipsy is a beauty company founded by Michelle Phan, Jennifer Goldfarb and Marcelo Camberos (Ipsy.com, 2018). The story of their achievements leads back to the founder, Michelle Phan, who is considered being one of Youtube’s biggest success stories. She was one of the first vloggers to reach a mass audience with 9 million subscribers and even more views counting (Biography.com, 2018).

ipsy founder, Michelle Phan
Photo 2: ipsy founder, Michelle Phan (Shah, 2017)

















It all started in 2007 where Michelle Phan uploaded her very first video to Youtube gaining more than 40K views the first week. Today that exact video has more than 11 million views. This shows the substantial reach of her social following. She soon became a viral sensation within the field of beauty where thousands of people streamed her videos (Baker, 2016). It was clear, there was a high demand for Michelle Phans expertise that went beyond just makeup tutorials. So, when starting ipsy, Michelle Phan already had a broad and extensive built-in following which turned out to be a game changing element for creating the foundation of the company. She quickly started the movement of creators as a powerful tool to boost the growth of ipsy.

The movement of creators

The extensive reach of Michelle Phans social following has been a key component in building the movement of creators. The strategy was simple: Use the already built-in following of Michelle Phan as vloggers and content creators for ipsy. Ipsy created their own in-house creator program called Ipsy Open Studio which have been one of ipsy’s most effective techniques to broaden the reach of Michelle Phans base. The idea of Ipsy Open Studio is that influencers can gain access to the production facilities of ipsy, networking, mentoring and becoming a part the ipsy community with several activities and benefits related (Su, 2018). Being a part of the ipsy community is an opportunity for the influencers to accelerate their careers as a beauty creator with;


From ipsy open studio webpage
Photo 3: From ipsy open studio webpage (ipsyopenstudios.com, 2018)
  • The latest how-to info and access to private Facebook groups of the community
  • Gaining access to events with personal coaching from other creator and industry professionals.
  • The possibility to create content in a state-of-the-art studio production and editing facility provided by ipsy (ipsyopenstudios.com, 2018).


The Open Studio gives ipsy the opportunity to build an in-house group of creators that are dedicated to the business, saving ipsy for a lot of traditional advertising. The creators are only obligated to make a few ipsy related videos each month. Moreover, ipsy is relying on the creators to be their marketing team, posting and re-positing ipsy related content in front of millions of followers in the field of beauty and makeup every week (Baker, 2016).

“The company’s philosophy is to make sure that we’re supporting the creators by giving them resources and ways to grow their businesses independent of Ipsy so that their audiences are real and their audiences really are following them because of who they are.”

Spencer McClung: (Su, 2018)

5 steps to build a brand based on social following

The way brands build their story content is changing due to the rise of social media which enables one to create user-generated brand content. The content is more and more being developed through co-creation, where brands and consumers create brand stories together – just like ipsy and their creators (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). However, this also results in brands having less control, as consumer-generated brand stories can spread in a rapid pace (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). But if a company manage to navigate the brand through consumer-generated content and ensure that the brand stories remain close to the desired story, great success can be gained. Ipsy is a great example of a company who managed to do so. Here are five tips of doing so, following the insights from ipsy:

  • Narrow down the number of ambassadors being used
  • Choose one ambassador with a social network that matches your target group
  • Integrate this person as a part of your business
  • Develop a community combining the strength of the ambassador and your brand
  • Create an incentive to be a part of this community  


The above tips are based on the success of ipsy. Adapting this approach and the process of narrowing down the number of ambassadors can be helpful. When choosing just one ambassador to focus your business around, it is important to make sure that there is a complete fit with the brand, increasing the credibility and trust in the brand – choose wisely! Hereafter, integrating this person as a part of your business is important, this person needs to be more than ‘just another ambassador’. This can be done through developing a community combining both the strength of your company and the ambassador, making sure there is created a feeling of being a part of something bigger e.g. like ipsy who named the people in the community for “ipsters”. So, follow the above tips and you will be one step closer to use the power of social following to build your brand.

Bibliography

Anon., n.d. [Online].

Baker, M., 2016. Crimsonhexagon.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.crimsonhexagon.com/blog/how-ipsy-beat-birchbox/ [Accessed 21 November 2018].

Barwise, P. & Meehan, S., 2010. Harvard Business Review, December, p. 4.
Biography.com, 2018. Biography.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.biography.com/people/michelle-phan [Accessed 21 November 2018].

Dijk, J. v., 2006. In: The Network Society. Second Edition ed. s.l.:SAGE Publications, p. 38.

Felix, R., Rauschnabel, P. A. & Hinsch, C., 2016. Journal of Business Research, 6 May, p. 121.

Ipsy.com, 2018. Ipsy.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.ipsy.com/about [Accessed 21 November 2018].

ipsyopenstudios.com, 2018. ipsyopenstudios.com. [Online] Available at: http://www.ipsyopenstudios.com// [Accessed 21 November 2018].

ipsyopenstudios.com, 2018. ipsyopenstudios.com. [Online] Available at: http://www.ipsyopenstudios.com/ [Accessed 24 November 2018].

Kemp, S., 2018. wearesocial.com. [Online] Available at https://wearesocial.com/blog/2018/10/the-state-of-the-internet-in-q4-2018 [Accessed 26 November 2018].

Shah, N., 2017. Frostsnow.com. [Online] Available at: https://frostsnow.com/american-make-up-demonstrator-michelle-phan-reveals-the-reason-behind-leaving-youtube [Accessed 24 November 2018].

Singh, S. & Sonnenburg, S., 2012. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 12 June, p. 190.

Su, S., 2018. Reforge.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.reforge.com/blog/ipsy-content-influencer-growth [Accessed 21 November 2018].

Su, S., 2018. Reforge.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.reforge.com/blog/ipsy-content-influencer-growth [Accessed 24 November 2018].

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Students from the International Marketing and Brand Management program at Lund University are the contributing authors for the BrandBase blog.