Lilly Singh gets millennials. Specifically, she gets 13.1 million YouTube subscribers to tune in for weekly comedic videos poking fun at everything from her relationship with a fictional pair of parents to dating and work.
Better known as IISuperwomanII, 28-year-old Singh—Adweek’s 2017 Digital Creator of the Year—is one of YouTube’s biggest creators, earning a reported $7.5 million in 2016 from a growing franchise of viral videos, a world tour and soon-to-launch book. Her funny, relatable personality has collected a mind-boggling 2 billion views across two YouTube channels since she uploaded her first clip in 2010.
“One of my goals is for someone to watch one of my videos and react in such a way where they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I thought I was the only person who did this. This is so me,’” Singh says in explaining her digital success. “They’re all things that we do—I’m just presenting them in a very exaggerated, comedic way. I think there’s that element of being universally relatable.”
More importantly, Singh’s brand is consistently positive and uplifting so that brands feel safe advertising around her videos, which is particularly critical in light of the recent backlash against YouTube creator PewDiePie’s anti-Semitic comments that caused Maker Studios, YouTube and major marketers to sever relationships with the site’s most-watched star.
“Lilly has a very strong identity and clear definition of what she stands for, so like any good brand, she puts the discipline behind it,” comments Shannon Pruitt, president of Dentsu Aegis’ The Story Lab. “She talks about real issues and represents the not always shiny side of what’s going on—there is a little bit of aspiration tied up in her. When she’s doing the work, she’s incredibly professional. For brands that’s obviously very important because they’re moving from a world where they control the entire message.”
Indeed, Coca-Cola, Skittles and Smashbox pay Singh to make ads and co-branded products her millions of social followers will love. For Coke, Singh makes videos and does IRL activations. During a world tour show in her hometown of Toronto last year, Coke gave away bottles with her name printed on them. “We are always impressed with the level of energy that Lilly brings to our partnership, but even more so with her ability to bring our brand to life in an authentic way while remaining true to her own audience,” explains Diego Moratorio, director of marketing for Coca-Cola Canada. “She has a natural love for the brand and we let her run with that.”
For Smashbox, she created a line of bright red lipsticks, and she worked with Skittles to draw fans to the brand’s pop-up pawn shop in Toronto, which doled out candy to those donating holiday gifts.
Such partnerships require “brands that are willing to step outside the box” and cede creative control to her, she says.
“I have a very particular voice with my audience—they trust me and they see a lot of me …nine times a week,” she says. “If you looked at a video from seven years ago, I’m eating Skittles and drinking Coke.”
That level of endorsement comes with a hefty price tag, though, according to The Story Lab’s Pruitt. “If you’re going to work with Lilly-level talent, it’s more like working with a more traditional celebrity,” she says. “The investments start to hover in the same space, the contracts they’re working around, the exclusivity—those kinds of things.”
Singh is now looking to parlay her digital success into other projects. This month, she launches her first book titled How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life with stories and tips on how she built her audience and brand. The move from digital to analog may seem counterintuitive, but not to Singh: “I actually don’t like the word ‘traditional’ because I feel like nothing about my career is traditional and thus I don’t have to be confined to how things have been traditionally done.”
And yet YouTube remains core to Singh’s career. The Google-owned site has highlighted her in commercials and she hosted YouTube’s annual Brandcast event in New York last spring to pitch media buyers on YouTube’s 3-year-old Google Preferred program (of which she is a member).
“My favorite thing to do is to walk into a room of suits and say, ‘This is why I’m going to disrupt everything that’s happening,’” Singh says. To hear her tell it, brands are among her most hard-core fans. “I think I made a really great case because afterwards, the amount of brands that came up to me and wanted to take pictures was probably more than any other meet and greet I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.