Brands of the Year 2016: Superwoman Singh

How YouTube star Lilly Singh built a global brand by making videos from her Toronto bedroom.

Lilly Singh

It’s that time again. We’re rolling out our 2016 Brands of the Year, so make sure to check back during this week as we take a look at the brands that had a big impact on Canada this year.

This article appears in the October 2016 issue of strategy.

Flying first class to Singapore, posing for a selfie with the First Lady, hanging out with Olympians in Rio — there’s no denying Lilly Singh lives a life less ordinary.

The Scarborough native is a YouTuber, a touring performer, comedian, rapper, actor, dancer and soon-to-be-author. She requires a team of agents, assistants, publicists, lawyers and so forth. And each week, once on Monday and again on Thursday, she vents to more than 9.7 million people in, mostly, home-shot videos.

The Indo-Canadian has, in just six short years, created a mini digital empire through her ||Superwoman|| brand. She’s closer to being a household name, thanks to a partnership with Google that currently has her prominently featured on billboards in cities from Toronto to New York City, to promote its YouTube creator channels.

Since 2010, Singh has made hundreds of videos, starred in a semi-biographical film, toured the world, made Hollywood cameos, partnered with big-name brands like Coke, Skittles and TD, the list goes on. Last year, she reportedly took home $2.5 million and change. This year, she took home two Teen Choice Awards, and joined the likes of Selena Gomez and The Weeknd in Forbes’ 2016 list of “30 Under 30″ self starters.

Naturally, one might imagine the 28-year-old in a scene from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but Singh is surprisingly more relatable than her Instagram posts of celebrity friends and international travels make her seem.

Scroll through comments on one of her videos and you’ll find proclamations, ranging from flabbergasted (“OMG this video is basically my life, hahaha”) to frank (“So relatable. On so many levels”), from fans who find it uncanny how much they have in common with Singh. She faces similar life issues and family dynamics, and deals with them just like everyone else — which she illustrates in videos that occasionally show her dressed up and play-acting as her parents, complete with mom’s head scarf and dad’s thick (makeup) beard.

“When we see traditional celebrities, there is this infatuation,” says Singh. “I want to be this person. I wish I looked like this person. There is this idea of reaching. So when I’m doing videos in my bedroom, talking about my period, or a fight I had in a relationship, [people] think, ‘That’s me! She’s not perfect and she’s not super unattainable, but she is successful.’ And I think that’s what’s cool about the brand and what I do.”

Singh’s journey to global fame hasn’t been easy. She’s come a long way since her first spoken-word piece, which she admittedly pulled down in fear of anyone finding it today. “It was so bad,” she says, laughing. “In the beginning, I didn’t have a brand or groove… I was just doing anything, because I was overwhelmed by the idea that I could have a creative voice.”

She stumbled upon the idea to create YouTube videos while completing her degree in psychology at university in 2010. She was depressed at the time, having lost the creative spark she had growing up, when she loved to be on stage. That period in her life is what eventually sparked her channel’s raison d’être: to be a place of positivity, encouraging fans to be the best version of themselves.

She does this through her (sometimes split personality) sketch comedies and music videos, which have altogether tracked 1.4 billion views. She is currently the third-most subscribed YouTube channel in Canada, sitting behind music and gaming channels WatchMojo (#2) and VanossGaming (#1).

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Creative marketers have taken notice of Singh. Coca-Cola, in particular, has made a substantial investment in the entertainer through an ongoing partnership since 2015, brokered by her agents at Studio71. For example, the brand most recently flew her to the Olympic Games in Rio to create live-streaming content at the Coca- Cola fan zone, only asking that she organically weave the brand into video narratives. She delivered more than one million views and 300,000 engagements.

Coke has also played a more prominent role in helping to build her brand, such as when Singh came up with the idea to launch a world dance and music tour, which she curiously named “A Trip to Unicorn Island” (what she calls her “happy place”), and needed a sponsor to help finance the 26-city tour. YouTube documented the experience and hosted the film on the newly launched (at the time) Red channel.

Again, in true Singh style, she was the one to come up with the idea to take it a step further and host a fi lm premiere in her home city earlier this year. Because the film was a digital-only release, Singh and her team (which also includes creative and executional help from agencies Universal McCann, Ogilvy and Gravity) hosted a 500-attendee premiere alongside Coke, which brought in helium balloons that contained the soda’s effervescence for people to inhale. The partnership goal, for Coke, is to pass on its legacy of inclusiveness and positivity to the next generation of Canadians, encouraging them to
#shareacoke with #teamsuper.

“We’ve heard this partnership [with Coke] referenced in a number of boardrooms over the past two years,” says Jordan Bortolotti, executive VP at Studio71 Canada. He says it’s become a sort of “test case study” for other marketers wanting to get into the content creator space, and has even led to Coca-Cola putting together a mini-network of “super influencers,” which it now works with on an annual basis on tent pole activations at, for example, music events.

While Singh’s portfolio of partner brands (which also includes Skittles, TD, Toyota and Smashbox) is small, says Bortolotti, it’s because she wants to keep it exclusive. Plus, “she only wants to work with brands that she can [and wants to] authentically talk about.” For example, Skittles — with which she partnered last year, making a guest appearance at and social content for its “Holiday Pawn Shop” and later speaking about when she was on Jimmy Fallon’s show this summer — is a brand that she was already “emphatically enthusiastic” about, he says. (Also, says Singh, “it just made sense. [Skittles are] always in my house,” and she was already talking about the brand in some of her videos).

Bartolotti gives credit to Singh, who has to deal with basically being her own “brand manager, CEO, CFO and producer-slash-creative genius.” He admits, “we haven’t been the driving force [of her success] by any stretch of the imagination. That’s been 100% Lilly… What she has been able to do in many cases is get advertisers to commit to a new way of doing business. It’s uncanny how, when she works with a brand, they end up double- or triple-downing in the space immediately thereafter.”

He also believes that what makes her so marketable is how she is able to create a snapshot of modern Canada. “If you look at her multicultural, satirical look at this world we live in, she has done a tremendous job at reflecting those cultural and unique aspects [of] Canada. And that doesn’t just apply to Canada, it’s all over the world, and so many kids can relate. This brand that she’s built has been centred around those important human truths.”

Top image of Lilly Singh by Danielle Levitt