Nov 08, 2018

By Tara Weiss
From big bows to a big business—with the help of Nickelodeon—in five years.

JoJo Siwa launched an empire with an oversized hair bow.

Since signing an exclusive licensing deal with Nickelodeon in 2016, the teen talent who rose to fame after a turn on Lifetime’s Dance Moms has sold 35 million bows worldwide. That’s two bows for each of her 16 million social media followers. Her army of Siwanators—what her fans call themselves—eagerly buy up her sequined high-top sneakers at Payless, sparkly bomber jackets at Target, and any new JoJo-branded item that hits the shelves until they’re depleted.

Her consumer products touch nearly every imaginable corner of retail. There are toys, electronics, arts and crafts, apparel, accessories, home goods cosmetics (perfume) and beverages.

With her 16th birthday on May 19, that empire is growing. The milestone will be marked with a slew of new consumer products and her first tour, "JoJo Siwa D.R.E.A.M. The Tour," which starts Thursday in Phoenix, AZ.

Yes, JoJo Siwa is an entertainer. She’s also a cottage industry.

"We figured out how to take an influencer and turn her into a brand."

Pam Kaufman

President, Viacom/Nickelodeon global consumer products

“JoJo Siwa’s rise to consumer product success is remarkable, and it’s only the beginning of what we expect to see from influencers and Gen Z talent,” says Amanda Cioletti, content director for the trade magazine License Global. “It’s influencers who have the power to break through the clutter right now, and JoJo is the perfect combo of talent and influence that’s hitting at the ideal moment in time to help bridge audiences to this new way of marketing.”

Her live appearances drive sales of her branded products. Last summer, bow sales increased by 40% in Chicago after she performed at SlimeFest and 60% in the Anaheim area after VidCon.

Licensing deals with young celebrities aren’t new; Disney made an industry of Miley Cyrus and the gang of Musketeers that are among today’s (and yesterday’s) biggest pop stars. What is new is the immediacy and directness in which today’s celebrities communicate with fans. Social channels have broken the barriers between Hollywood and fans, enabling them to promote their products and publish links to purchasing sites. It’s an industry trend that’s changing the nature of celebrity. Now more than ever, celebrities are social influencers and social influencers are celebrities. And instead of using their cache to sell magazines or movies, they’re leveraging their influence to sell directly to their fans.

Last October, Walmart launched a Ryan’s World toy collection, a partnership between the retailer and the seven-year-old who reviews toys on his YouTube channel. Hearts by Tiana is another influencer-started merchandise brand. Grown-up models include Reese Witherspoon’s lifestyle brand Draper James, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics

JoJo Siwa dominates the tween girls’ market.

“We figured out how to take an influencer and turn her into a brand,” says Pam Kaufman, president of Viacom/Nickelodeon global consumer products.

While YouTube enabled Siwa to build a fan base, Nickelodeon leveraged it to build a consumer products empire.

Social Stars are Retail Stars

Tweens have been exposed to social media since they were in diapers. Influencers feel more like friends than untouchable celebrities. That’s particularly true for Siwa, who eagerly shows followers her redesigned bedroom, incorporates family members into posts, and offers behind-the-scenes moments at her performances.

“It’s been a fascinating shift in dynamic from kids idolizing actors to social stars,” says Sunny Lauridsen, vice president of licensing and business development at the toy manufacturer Just Play. “For kids, they let them into their lives so they feel more authentic.”

Siwa is a convincing saleswoman, but it helps that she’s got a willing audience. More than 34 percent of kids ages six to 17 consider social media stars to be among their top role models—more so than musicians (33%), athletes (27%), and actors (22%), according to research from Mintel. Combine that with statistics from the Viacom-commissioned study, Kidfluence, that 77 percent of parents say their kids ask to buy products advertised on TV and 73 percent of parents say they have purchased the requested product, and that makes tweens a very powerful retail cohort.

“Nobody cared enough to market to previous generations of kids,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of several books including Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings are Revolutionizing Retail“There’s a shrinking hierarchical distance between parents and kids. Tweens today have more power than any other generation of tweens. What kids do and how they look reflects more powerfully on today’s parents than previous generations of parents since it’s all broadcast on social media. It’s a big shift. And marketers are recognizing that parents give their kids a lot more power.”

"“What kids do and how they look reflects more powerfully on today’s parents than previous generations of parents.”"

Kit Yarrow

Consumer psychologist

Owning the Look

For Siwa, her authenticity and the kids’ rising purchasing power translates to sales. The JoJo action figure doll hit the number one spot in sales at Walmart for several weeks last summer, beating out Barbie and My Little Pony. At first, Lauridsen and her team were confounded by a spike in sales of the doll at Walmart since no marketing promotions were planned. After viewing Siwa’s YouTube channel they realized she mentioned the doll in a video post, causing the spike.

Payless started selling JoJo Siwa shoes in March 2018, and since then, they have consistently sold out. Once a particular shoe sells out, it is replaced with completely new merchandise. Payless decided to alert customers via social channels when a new shipment will arrive for the first time with JoJo merchandise. “We don’t do that for any other category,” says Keshia Wilson, vice president of merchandising at Payless.

Before Siwa started selling at Payless, Nickelodeon IP represented about 25 percent of their total kid’s character business in sales volume. Since adding Siwa, Nickelodeon has grown to 50 percent of the character business at Payless. Wilson attributes the strong sales to the sneakers’ appeal across ages groups.

“JoJo has an ownable look and style and girls want to replicate that,” says Lauridsen. “She’s the new aspirational icon that girls want to be just like. They want her bows, clothes, and dolls. They’re living out their fantasy of, ‘I can be like her.’”

That was evidenced at the Sugar Factory in New York last fall when she announced her concert tour and EP release. The kids—and moms—who attended the announcement wore oversized bows, items from her Target line and side ponytails.

From Vlogger to Retail Sensation

Siwa can relate. She recalls being five years old and watching Autumn Miller, a social influencer whose social feed focuses on her life as a dancer. “I wanted nothing but to be her,” Siwa says during a phone interview. A few years later, she started posting her own videos on YouTube using her Nintendo DS. That lasted a month.

Then came her role on Dance Moms. Her big personality made her stand out among a group of big personalities. She started posting again and became more regimented about it after meeting with Colleen Ballinger, the YouTube sensation-turned-actress who starred in the Netflix series Haters Back Off. Ballinger told her that the key to success is posting frequently.

“The biggest thing with YouTube is persistence,” says Siwa, 15. “As long as you upload on a specific schedule and have consistency between channels that’s when it takes it to another level.”

 

"We knew there was white space in the tween market. [Siwa] had a built-in audience but we amplified it."

Pam Kaufman

President, Viacom/Nickelodeon global consumer products

Siwa, who says she’s wanted to be on TV since she was a little girl, became known for her wholesome personality, anti-bullying message, and, of course, oversized hair bows. She got a manager and together with her mom, they pitched the idea to merchandise bows to the accessories store Claire’s. “The bows had wild success,” says Siwa. “They sold out in the first day. It was crazy how fast they went.”

That’s when Nickelodeon called. “We knew there was white space in the tween market,” says Nickelodeon’s Kaufman. “She had a built-in audience but we amplified it.”

Once she signed on with Nickelodeon, she started performing at events like the Kids Choice Awards, SlimeFest and she starred in a docu-special about her life, JoJo Siwa: My World. She keeps her followers in the loop on her Nickelodeon activity by posting from the “orange carpet” (Nickelodeon’s version of the red carpet) at events.

The animated series The JoJo and BowBow Show Show, which airs on Nickelodeon’s YouTube channel on Saturdays, was renewed for a second season. She released a music video for her song, “Only Getting Better,” last September. JoJo's Dream Birthday airs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday on Nickelodeon.

Products celebrating her 16th include birthday looks for the JoJo’s Closet collection at Target; birthday-themed bows at JC Penney; birthday-themed doll clothes at Target and JoJo Siwa birthday cake decorating kits at Walmart. Limited-edition JoJo Hairdorables dolls will be available at Walmart and Amazon in June and Target in the fall.

“We are not letting up with JoJo,” says Kaufman. “This is the peak year. We want to make sure we’re leaving no stone unturned.”

Authenticity in Action

Through it all, Siwa says the key to keeping fans engaged is her authenticity. Last summer Target launched JoJo’s Closet, a line of clothes inspired by Siwa’s favorite performance ensembles. Target didn’t advertise the line and it wasn’t featured in their weekly circular, but it agreed to a YouTube video of her discussing the clothes from a Target in L.A. Siwa nixed the original video because it felt too produced and reshot it in her signature style.

“The fans can tell when an adult writes it or when I write it,” she says. “They can see through that. I want my fans to know about the product but I don’t want them to feel like I’m overselling.”

And for the record, the collection sold out. “A normal collection typically stays on the floor for six to eight weeks,” says Leah Kellenberger, Viacom’s vice president of retail development for Target. “Many styles sold out in the first couple weeks. It completely exceeded expectations.” The next iteration of JoJo’s Closet hit stores in January 2019.

 

"I want my fans to know about the product but I don’t want them to feel like I’m overselling."

Jojo Siwa

Don’t let the Siwa’s affinity for unicorns and sparkles fool you; She’s a shrewd businesswoman. She recognizes that her instinct for knowing what kids respond to is where she has the most impact on her business. So while she approves everything that’s marketed under her name, she knows that being the face of the brand is where she’s needed.

“Creating the fanbase is my job,” she says. When Nickelodeon comes to her with new partnerships, “I ask, ‘How are we going to promote this? How are we going to get the word out?’ That’s where my creative expertise comes in.”

So where does Siwa go from here? Siwa admits that’s the question she’s asked the most. “I think there’s always somewhere to go and a future. Yea, we’ve made JoJo bedding, now let’s make a JoJo bed. Now we’ve done a collaboration with a drink lets do a collaboration with…” Here, she pauses, before continuing. “Oops, I dug myself into a hole. I can’t say the competitor.”

You get her point: This is uncharted territory, but she has a plan.