Gabey Goh
May 24, 2016

Can Michelle Phan's Icon network pass the millennial 'sniff test'?

SINGAPORE - Icon, an online lifestyle channel that is a joint venture between Endemol Shine Beyond and digital entrepreneur Michelle Phan, is set to debut in Asia, with its creators promising a mix of brand opportunities that will prove compelling to desirable young audiences.

Content creators from the region figure strongly in Icon's plans
Content creators from the region figure strongly in Icon's plans

Icon Asia is the latest adaptation of the global digital lifestyle network, which is creatively led by Phan, best known as a YouTube personality, whose beauty channel boasts 8 million subscribers and 1.1 billion lifetime views.

Launched in April 2015, Icon already boasts a presence in the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The network is touted as the “first of its kind” in the region, with a mission to bring “the best and latest in local fashion, travel, lifestyle and beauty trends, combined with a commitment to high production value.”

The Icon channel is produced by Endemol Shine Beyond and launched out of the company’s Asia hub in Singapore. The digital production and distribution studio has locations in nine markets and specialises in premium online content and channels.

Christopher Smith, head of Endemol Shine Beyond Asia, said the network speaks to “a millennial audience that is both digitally native and hungry for information.”

Speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific, Smith said he sees the network’s position in the market as an opportunity for brands to leverage actionable perspectives, explore the latest trends and engage with the influencer community.

Christopher Smith

Asked about what brands can expect in working with the Icon network to achieve marketing goals, Smith said a mix of branded content and product placement is proving more effective than traditional advertising formats.

“Millennials can sniff out forced endorsements," he said. "Unlike traditional TV models, we tend to feature products or brands very authentically. Creators we work with will not use product they are not comfortable with or have not tested. There isn’t an opportunity to just drop a product on a creator’s lap, and we have a large vetting process for matching the right influencer with the right brand.”

Smith said that brands onboard at launch include NYX Cosmetics and Zalora. The company is also in final discussion with the parent groups of other major brands in beauty and cosmetics.

“As we move forward, we hope to work with a large cross-section of popular brands that are established in Asia, such as SK-II and Sephora,” he added.

Another avenue the network is exploring is with smaller beauty brands, especially those from the UK and US that are looking to break into Asia and find their footing.

“There are a variety of brands we are talking to that are looking for their market in Asia, and see Icon as an appropriate place to introduce their products to local communities,” said Smith. “A lot of the content we see is coming out of the US and talking about products that are very difficult to get in Asia. There are exciting opportunities for us to bridge this gap.”

Icon Asia will premiere on YouTube, with support from various social outlets including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

In terms of how the company will promote the new network in the coming months and what the expected audience will be, Smith said that some effort will be put into finding “our audience and fans.”

“It will be based on the influencers we’re working with in addition to co-opting our mutual successes to launch across the region,” he said. “We’re tightly integrating, with the communications plans in place with the brands we’re working with.”

Personalities on board include Thai-Hong Kong beauty content creator SichenmakeupholicMichelle Dy from the Philippines and DMT Stylist, a makeup artist and fashion stylist from Melbourne.

The company will not be executing a traditional marketing campaign to promote the new network.

“One of the big things we’ve committed to is integrating ourselves with the creator community in Southeast Asia, and we will be doing a lot of our marketing on the ground and aimed at creators,” said Smith.

Emphasis will be placed on participating in creator workshops, providing training and education opportunities with aspiring young creators around raising the quality of their craft.

“That’s where we’re going to make stronger investments this year and into 2017,” he added. “That’s more important than a traditional marketing programme that’s about banners and ads to buy eyeballs—for us to be successful, we also have to authentic and participatory, partnering with YouTube, MDA and other platforms to support our mission.”

Smith said that unlike the other markets where Icon is already live, Asia will have a different emphasis when it comes to the metrics of success and growth.

“In Asia, there’s not a lot of effort to drive people toward the subscribe button, so the numbers that will be important are interactions, how engaged viewers are and shares,” he said. “Expectations are high, due to talent we’re working with, and our amazing history of success with other market launches in creating a go-to market playbook to work with.”

The network will feature original new series and content from up-and-coming digital influencers and lifestyle experts from across the region including Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Speaking Local languages

The channel will initially be produced in English, with plans to diversify into the native languages of the featured talent to reach greater audiences.

Smith shared that while content for the next couple of quarters will be English-focused, South Korea and Indonesia are priority markets for the company. Development is already underway on a project in Indonesia involving a 60-person community of beauty creators.

“It will be a content series around beauty through the eyes of Indonesian women, and most of that will be in Indonesian,” he said.

In addition, the company is close to closing a deal for Icon Korea, with a tentative launch for the second quarter or 2017, which will feature Korean-language content and creators.

“These are the first two beginning points for multilingual opportunities for Icon in the region,” Smith said.

Icon's launch comes amidst emerging discourse around the effectiveness and role of influencer marketing in the industry. With the appearance of more formalised guidelines around social-media promotions by personalities and questions around the value garnered from such interactions.

Smith said Icon sets itself apart from the very beginning by not going down the path of a traditional traditional multi-channel networks (MCN).

“We probably have the least number of signed influencers out of any network in the world,” he claimed. “We made the decision to only work with real influencers. It’s not a popularity contest. We did not rush out to sign the most popular person.”

Smith said the company’s process for evaluating potential talent begins with learning about the creator and their work, followed then by their influence, not so much their popularity.

He believes that the backlash is around the state of the media game and the value of popularity.

“I think the industry is waking up to the realisation that popularity does not equal influence," he said. "And so, is it right for a brand to be spending a lot of dollars in a popularity contest? I don’t think so. Brand managers, media agencies and companies like ours do need to take a critical look at what we’ve created as an industry and check ourselves and ask ‘Are we talking to right people about the right things?’”


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