Hannah Harshe: Businesses should learn from Kylie Jenner

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 5:12pm

Where were you when you found out Kylie Jenner had her baby?

I was on a bus full of middle schoolers, on our way back from a winter retreat I led. For a moment, I lost sight of any responsibility I had to be a mature, positive role model and squealed, “Guys! Kylie Jenner had her baby!” Cue the madness.

For the uninitiated, Kylie Jenner’s original claim to fame was being the youngest star of the reality TV show, “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” which premiered when she was only 9 years old. Jenner is the daughter of Kris Jenner and Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and half-sister of Kim Kardashian West. At 20 years old, Jenner is known for her lip injections, rapper boyfriends and alarming rate at which she posts pictures of herself on social media. In September, rumors began to circulate that she was pregnant — a theory that Jenner herself did not confirm until Feb. 4, four days after the baby was born.

The socially accepted view of Jenner is that she is a vapid, tasteless reality star without any real talent to account for her millions of teen superfans. When I ask someone whether he or she has heard about Jenner’s baby, the most common response is, “Why do you even care?”

To which I respond: “Why don’t you?”

The key to success in our world right now is appealing to millennials. Companies are drastically changing their office culture to recruit millennial employees. Chains like Applebees and TGI Fridays are suffering thanks to their inability to attract millennial customers. During her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton infamously tried to win over millennial voters by saying, “I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokemon Go to the polls.”

Further, in a world that is increasingly dominated by social media, an inability to advertise effectively on social media platforms is a serious liability for any business or political figure. The 2008 presidential election is often called the Facebook election, as analysts cite Barack Obama’s strong social media presence as an asset over his opponents. Seemingly every brand, nonprofit, political figure and social movement is spending a huge portion of time and resources to attract views on its social media profile.

And, yet, the most-liked photo on Instagram isn’t any of those things. The most-liked photo on Instagram is the photo in which Kylie Jenner announces that her daughter is named Stormi.

That photo has over a million likes. For someone with no talent, clearly, Jenner is doing something right.

Attracting Instagram likes isn’t Jenner’s only accomplishment. In 2015, she created a cosmetics startup, Kylie Cosmetics, which earned her $8.7 million in its first year alone. Jenner serves as founder and CEO of Kylie Cosmetics, as well as chief marketing officer and chief creative officer (Her mother, Kris Jenner, is the company’s chief financial officer). Kylie Cosmetics is predicted  to take in $1 billion in lifetime sales by 2022.

In addition, Jenner earns money from her endorsement deals with PacSun and Puma. She is estimated to earn $200,000 per post on Instagram, and her Snapchat was the most-viewed account of 2016. In 2017, at age 19, Jenner was listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 for her position as founder of Kylie Cosmetics. She also became the youngest celebrity on Forbes 100, having earned $41 million that year.

I can think of plenty of people who don’t have any talent and also aren’t Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs.

Though Jenner’s position as the sister of a reality TV star certainly didn’t hurt her business, that alone doesn’t account for her astronomical success. There are countless celebrities on television, many of whom reach way more viewers than Jenner. In fact, KUWTK is only the 386th most popular show on television. If the stars of those shows have way more viewers, why aren’t they able to build the fanbase that Jenner has built? Jenner, more than anyone else in the world, has proven to have the business savvy to leverage her position as the sister of a reality TV star to become one of the most successful businesswomen in the world.

In fact, even though all of the Kardashian and Jenner sisters were effectively given the same platform and celebrity status, only the youngest Jenner figured out  how to monetize it to the extent of which she did. Jenner is now worth more than all of her sisters combined. (Her sisters, in case you’ve forgotten, include Kim Kardashian West and model Kendall Jenner.)

Jenner may appear to lack any sort of substance or depth, but underneath the heavy makeup and Instagram filters, every selfie is a researched, calculated business decision. She has the millennial consumer segment under lock and key. So if you didn’t care that Jenner had a baby, perhaps you should reevaluate. Or at least spend some time analyzing why this 20-year-old sister of a reality TV star could draw in over a million likes on her baby name announcement, but brands like Chili’s, which has an entire marketing department that likely focuses on attracting millennials, can’t even draw in 500k followers on Twitter.

"I really do feel like people don't take me seriously as a businesswoman because of my age and my reputation," Jenner said on her TV show “Life of Kylie”, which premiered after the massive success of her cosmetics brand. "But I feel like they're starting to. I like to prove people wrong."

Politicians and business people alike should be asking themselves this $41 million question: What can I learn from Kylie Jenner?

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu