After watching the première episode of Gossip Girl — a teen-oriented drama set in a snooty private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — 15-year-old Anna Blackwell and her friends were almost as interested in what the stars were wearing as they were in the show’s plot line. So, while sitting in their respective homes, they got on their computers to check out the Gossip Girl section of the CW Network website ( www.cwtv.com) and, through the messaging network Facebook, started discussing what they had seen. “Look at that cute dress — that’s so hot,” Anna, a Grade 10 student at Mentor College in Mississauga, Ont., tells Kavita Mahil, also 15, as she looks at a gold sequined Tory Burch tunic dress featured in the Style section of the Gossip Girl site.
But, at US$450, the designer dress is a non-starter as an Internet purchase. So Anna sets her sights a little lower, picking out a pair of ballet flats after being directed to the London Sole site, based in Santa Monica, Calif. Priced at US$125, the black nubuck flats would go perfectly with her school uniform kilt. But what’s even more appealing is that the same make of shoes was worn by her favourite character in Gossip Girl, a tall willowy blond with the improbable name of Serena van der Woodsen. Add to that the fact that they’re a relatively obscure brand, which gives them some fashion cachet in her social circle. Kavita, for her part, is more interested in the casual, lower-priced tops and jewelry featured on the site, and wishes there were more of these kinds of products, rather than merchandise like jeans, “which can be hard to buy without trying on.”
In the past, the teenage dream of dressing like a television star has been just that — a dream that didn’t lead to retail action. The cool thing about Gossip Girl, from the perspective of Anna and her friends, is that, through the wonders of e-commerce, the show can actually tell them where the characters’ clothing comes from and how to get it for themselves.
The man they have to thank is Travis Schneider, a 28-year-old native of Hamilton, who founded StarBrand Media Inc., which operates the online marketing site starbrandmedia.com and also manages shopping sites for broadcasters like the CW Network. “I knew I had a great idea; the trick is making it a viable business,” says Schneider, who moved to Los Angeles to start his company more than four years ago.
So far, StarBrand has developed the style portion of websites for a number of hit shows, most aimed at younger viewers, from teens to 30-somethings. In addition to Gossip Girl, StarBrand’s roster includes The Tyra Banks Show, One Tree Hill, Smallville, Supernatural and The L Word. Schneider also has the rights to develop the style portion of the website for America’s Next Top Model, hosted by former model Banks. He considers this a major coup, given that the program, which airs on CBS, is “all about fashion.” He’s also made a deal with Canadian broadcaster CanWest MediaWorks Inc., which owns the Global television network, to represent the style websites of some the shows it airs. Under consideration is About a Girl, a youth-oriented program “that hits one of our core demographics,” says Schneider.
StarBrand is just one of the creators of a cluster of websites, themed around television, movies or music, that offer a combination of behind-the-scene looks at productions and the chance for instant gratification through e-commerce. And it’s a trend that’s not necessarily just for the young, even though the sweet spot right now is that all-important 18–34 hipster demographic. Through sites run by StarBrand and similar companies — seenON.com and starstyle.com are among the other biggies in this growing area of new media — fans of all ages are being targeted to check out clothes, jewelry, accessories and even furniture and housewares used by characters on hundreds of TV shows and movies. “I had one woman contact us wanting to know what tiles were used in the kitchen of Brothers & Sisters, says Ashley Heather, a founder of New York–based starstyle.com, which started up in the spring of 2006. And on the Desperate Housewives hub of seenON.com, which has been operating for more than five years, there’s even a selection of “desperate housewares” ranging from Bree’s Bosch washer and dryer to the Tupperware and dishwashing gloves used by the uptight homemaker of the ABC hit series.
Heather says his site has a 50% “conversion rate,” meaning that those who clicked on one of the shows he represents also clicked on the retailer or brand selling a product. He’s amazed at how much people are willing to spend on an Internet purchase. Heather mentions a jacket, worn by singer Kellie Pickler in an American Idol episode, which sells online for about US$1,000. Within a few weeks of being offered on the starstyle.com site, he says, about 30 were sold.
New York–based Starstyle.com shopper Lauren Honig, purchased her Botkier bag for US$595 after seeing it on the arm of Holly Harper, a character on Brothers & Sisters. “I saw the bag on the TV show and loved it,” she says. Honig adds she’s happy about these types of shopping websites “because TV shows, music videos and movies influence so much fashion in our society, but it’s really hard to find exactly what I’m looking for.”
The idea of explicit “product placement” has been around for a long time in film and television — the can of Coke strategically placed on a kitchen counter, the cute and cuddly extraterrestrial E.T. downing Reese’s Pieces by the bucketful are just two examples. But websites like starbrand.tv, seenON.com and starstyle.com are developing a more subtle way for manufacturers and merchandisers to get their advertising message out. There are thousands upon thousands of products embedded in shows like Gossip Girl and America’s Next Top Model, says Schneider, yet until sites like StarBrand came along there was no way for consumers to get to know more about the products, where to get them and, more importantly, how to buy them on impulse while they’re still “emotionally attached” to what they’ve just seen. At the same time, he adds, there are retailers and owners of brands such as Gap or Levi’s who have not, until now, had any way of monetizing the fact that their fashions are so implicitly intertwined with hit television shows. Often, they didn’t even know their products and brands were being used. StarBrand, through its connection with the broadcasters, brings the two sides together.
Schneider, who has an honours degree in business administration and economics from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, points out that in these days of the PVR, when television watchers can ignore commercials by recording programs and fast-forwarding through the ads later, it’s becoming more important for advertisers to figure out innovative ways of reaching potential customers. By marrying e-commerce with society’s increasing fixation with celebrity culture, Schneider says companies like StarBrand have come up with an entirely new business model for advertising and selling goods. “I don’t think of this so much as an e-commerce site, though obviously there’s an e-commerce component,” says Schneider. “I see this as more of an advertising tool.”
Schneider says there are two ways of tapping into the style sites he’s created: either through the starbrand.tv website that links to the shows, or through a show’s own website. Style-conscious fans can browse the sites through a number of means — by character, date, episode, brand or featured products. As well, to keep up interest in staying on the website, Schneider has developed content — for example, getting Gossip Girl stylist Eric Daman to discuss the fashion sense that embodies the show’s two main characters, the aforementioned Serena and her best friend (and also archrival) Blair Waldorf.
Schneider says he always intended to “do something entrepreneurial” after finishing university, and got his “big” business idea somewhere around 2003, when his girlfriend, Suzanne, now his wife, mentioned she liked a blouse Jennifer Aniston wore in a particular episode of Friends, and wondered where she could get it. This got Schneider thinking that there was a huge market for developing media content with an e-commerce component. Upon graduation, he and Suzanne, who now works as a teacher in the Santa Monica area, loaded up the car and moved out to California. It took 18 months of putting together a business plan and knocking on doors, with Schneider finally launching the site in the fall of 2004.
The first stage in Schneider’s business model is to make connections with a studio or production house, asking for access to work with stylists and costume and set designers to collect lists of clothing and accessories used on a particular show. “Hollywood is a tough town,” says Schneider. The good thing about it, however, is that “it’s an idea-driven town,” so getting meetings with the people he needed to see came relatively easily. While it’s ultimately the creative decision of the stylists when it comes to how they want the stars to look, he adds, the role of StarBrand is to “help exploit these decisions in a revenue-generating way” for owners of the brand, the broadcaster or media group, and, of course, StarBrand itself. Once armed with the lists of fashions and brands for the shows he works with, Schneider and his sales and marketing staff — it’s now up to 11 employees — then go to the designers and merchandisers involved to tell them there is an advertising opportunity. If they think it could mean better exposure for their products, a deal is worked out so that StarBrand provides a link to the retailer’s or designer’s website from the show’s website. Often it’s a “live” link to let motivated viewers actually buy the products then and there. How StarBrand makes money, Schneider says, is by taking a piece of the revenue from each sale, while passing on some of it to the broadcaster or show’s producers. StarBrand has cultivated relationships with popular brands including Diane von Furstenberg, Lucky Brand Jeans, Diesel, Converse, Puma, 7 for All Mankind, and Canadian success stories Research In Motion and Aldo shoes.
While Schneider wouldn’t discuss specific numbers for privately held StarBrand, he says revenue has gone from zero to the “low seven figure” range, and is growing at a rate of “double digit” gains per quarter; as well, StarBrand has been profitable for the past year. None of the other websites would disclose revenue either, though all said they made money through commissions on sales and profit-sharing with broadcasters.
For broadcasters, ventures like starbrand.com represent a way of expanding the revenue potential from shows they’ve already invested heavily in by finding a way of generating incremental income through style websites. J. J. Ahearn, who is the director of licensing at CBS consumer products, and has been working with Schneider on America’s Next Top Model, says he’s “excited about the prospect of finding a new potential business model for generating revenue” at a time when there are forces at work — the PVR, for instance — that might take away from the revenues that broadcasters traditionally relied on. The data collected on those who come to the sites, and those who buy, can also be valuable in learning about a show’s audience, he adds. On the other side of the triangle, there is designer and celebrity stylist Poppie Harris, who now runs her own fashion retail site, poppiecouture.com. Heather says the fashions featured on starstyle.com give exposure to up-and-coming labels like Poppie Couture and are important to getting the designer’s message out.
But for wannabe TV fashionistas, like Anna and her Facebook gang, having websites give them the lowdown on exactly what a character or personality is wearing is almost as good, if not sometimes better, than watching the shows themselves. It’s their way of saying, “Get me wardrobe.”