Opinion

Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star’s YouTube series is a marketing masterclass

A collaboration between two misfit influencers is an absolute masterclass in how to immerse customers in a story, build enormous hype around, and investment in, a product, and ultimately sell (a lot), and make (a lot of) money. Brittney Rigby reveals why Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star's campaign is the stuff of influencer marketers' dreams.

Shane Dawson didn’t know a thing about make-up before the YouTube documentarian filmed a series with beauty mogul, Jeffree Star. Fast forward a year and he’s about to release an entire collection, which could sell out in under an hour, thanks to one of the most clever marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen.

The two make an unlikely pair. Both are YouTubers (Dawson has 23m subscribers, Star 16.4m), but that’s where the similarity ends.

Dawson was one of the first people to rise to fame on the platform, starting with sketch comedy and eventually finding his niche with conspiracy videos. He’s also received enormous attention for his docu-series on personalities like ex-Disney Channel actor and controversial YouTuber, Jake Paul. Star – beauty influencer, brand owner, and, in 2006, the most-followed person on My Space – had a brief music career, during which Akon called him “the next Lady Gaga”, but left the industry in 2013 and turned to beauty.

The idea for Star and Dawson to collaborate on a make-up collection came about during the filming of ‘The Secret World of Jeffree Star’, a docu-series in which Dawson aimed to peel back the glitter of Star’s life – luxury cars, a Calabasas mansion, a lucrative company in Jeffree Star Cosmetics – and get to the grit.

A follow up series called ‘The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star’, documented the whole process of Dawson’s collection, from conception to fruition, from crazy idea to even crazier reality. The campaign images involve Dawson wearing a suit printed to look like money, posing with Star on sets where make-up fantasy and high-budget blockbuster film collide. It’s an absolute marketing masterclass.

The photoshoot scenes prove why the series has been (and the collection will be) an overwhelming success. The slickness, the detail, the outfits, the extravagance, the expense – all say ‘This is a big deal’. But that far-off wealth and glamour (after all, this is the same Jeffree Star who has a custom-built pink vault manned by a security guard to house his handbag collection, some of which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) is juxtaposed by something else – a relatability.

It’s the filming style, the fact it’s a free video on YouTube, the vulnerability of Dawson speaking about his anxiety, self-esteem, and tendency to compare himself (and his finances) to other YouTubers. All of it is subversive, because it makes consumers feel like Dawson’s success is their success, even though he already makes a lot of money and lives a famous, largely unattainable life.

A selection of the campaign images taken on custom-built sets

He’s giving people an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look into a beauty industry worth US$532bn, and the candour with which he documents the process, asks questions about money, and shares his intense nervousness makes the ultimate reveal – of the colours, the design, the boxes, the tissue paper – an experience, not just a(nother) product.

The series is a story, but also a very long ad for Jeffree Star Cosmetics and Dawson’s own make-up collection and merch. Yet it doesn’t feel like an ad at all.

Consumers feel connected to Dawson – even if he’s on-track to make an eye-watering US$10m from this project alone – and so they make the #ShanexJeffree hashtag trend on Twitter and the series trend on YouTube (the first episode has racked up 20m views, and the finale, released on Wednesday, already has 13m).

Fans begged to know when the next episode would be uploaded, viral tweets praised Star’s staff and Andrew Siwicki, the filmmaker, and a make-up artist painted the pair on her face.

It’s the kind of loyalty and passion most brands could only dream of. The social media reaction, combined with the sheer volume of press coverage, mean it’s a success before it’s even hit shelves, let alone reached customers.

This collaboration, between two misfit influencers, is a marketer’s dream. And it’s an absolute masterclass in how to immerse customers in a story, build enormous hype around, and investment in, a product, and ultimately sell (a lot), and make (a lot of) money.

The key is that, in Dawson’s case, the marketing feels unintentional and undetectable, even though it could well be perfectly calculated, given Star’s entrepreneurial prowess.

Both series have done wonders for Star’s personal brand. He is often vulgar (particularly about drugs and sex), and has been the subject of criticism and boycotts for being racist (Dawson also had to apologise in 2014 for wearing blackface in a video).

Last year, fellow beauty influencer Jackie Aina condemned Star, writing on Twitter: “I have not and will not excuse his [Star’s] blatantly racist behavior – not his past references to me in derogatory terms, his continued use of the N word, nor his effort to eliminate spaces and opportunities for people of colour.

“No one in the [beauty] community should feel they are protected enough to continuously say things to make black women feel ugly and ashamed in their own skin.”

The series (and the response to it) is, at worst, an extremely savvy, almost sociopathic, PR move by Star. But if he is just hamming it up for the cameras, he’s doing a damn good job. The docu-series may not have worked as well a few years ago, but it does in this cultural moment, when we’re beginning to grapple with the issues with ‘cancel culture’ and trying to reconcile accountability and forgiveness.

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