New power dynamics equal new possibilities

Embracing the growth of the creator economy to reimagine brand and business models.

Originally published on WARC.

Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen creators go from nascent concept to unstoppable juggernaut, as the perfect storm of accelerating trends, innovative technologies and new cultural terrains combined to create fundamental changes in the worlds of work, celebrity and brand – bringing them together into an overlapping space we now call The Creator Economy.

Many misunderstand this shift as simply the growth of influencers, but in my mind, an influencer and a creator are two distinct beasts.

One grows a social following through an artfully curated life, turning themselves into a palatable canvas in order to attract the attention of relevant brands, who can easily slot into their world of considered, edited, polished perfection.

The other leans into their own talents or a specific topic, creating content that’s entertaining, educational or engaging enough to grow a strong and sticky community, which they in turn can leverage in numerous ways to turn their followers into their financiers – through tiered access, merch lines, product spin-offs, virtual drops and much more.

Put simply, one monetises their audience through brands, the other monetises their audience directly.

One needs to court brands in order to make a living, while the other is more than capable of turning themselves into a brand in their own right. That difference may sound insignificant, but it’s far from it.

What’s happening is a paradigm shift. The tables are turning and the vast majority of brands have no idea what’s about to hit them – their competitive category just expanded on a scale almost impossible to wrap your head around – thousands of individuals who are creating successful content, cultivating adoring communities and then building in a commerce layer to capitalise on it all.

This is the creator economy that’s coming down the line and as the saying goes ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet.’

The challenge for brands is to quickly figure out how to operate in a space where the people they’d gotten used to chucking a few thousand dollars at, to hold a can or wear a t-shirt or plug a new moisturiser, are now potentially their competitors...starting their own drinks brands, their own streetwear labels and their own skincare lines.

This is no longer a game of ‘pay-for-placement’, using social media stars as human billboards.

Instead, this new dynamic heralds the arrival of more open and collaborative business models, with brands inviting creators in and giving them a springboard against which they can pursue their own ideas.

I like to think of this as brands becoming record labels or talent houses; an idea originally explored by Jarrod Dicker with a specific focus on the publishing industry, but which can easily be applied in this instance.

Instead of all innovation, design and creativity coming top down, the brand becomes a central hub with resources, cash and credibility, from which myriad creators can launch their own takes.

Imagine if Nike developed a closed version of a NikeID for creators, so they could make their own designs and sell them to their community?

What if Elf created a mix and match palette that creators could customise and curate for their audiences?

What if The Hundreds created a plain t-shirt that creators could showcase their own designs on, with limited collections for their fans?

And far from this approach diluting a brand, instead it augments it – pulling it in new directions, seeing it through new lenses, opening it up to new communities, remixes and iterations – driven by creators but still anchored by the brand.

We have to accept that the power balance is shifting, but that doesn’t spell disaster, rather it points towards new possibilities – ones which may initially feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but which could catapult brands into new and exciting realms.

Ultimately, the Creator Economy is a rising tide – it’s evolving, maturing and shows no signs of stopping – so if you can’t beat it, you may as well join it.