We’re closing out 2022 with a stellar episode of Earned: Conor sits down with Michelle Miller, SVP of Global Marketing at biotech-backed haircare brand K18. The brand has rocketed to stardom since its launch in 2020, ranking among this year’s top five haircare brands by EMV and achieving a 189% year-over-year growth. Prior to joining K18 last year, Michelle has enjoyed a storied career leading the marketing teams at some of today’s top beauty brands, including Too Faced, IGK, and Kosas. In fact, Michelle was recently recognized as one of Glossy’s Top Marketers of 2022.
To start the episode, we learn why K18 prioritizes top-of-funnel brand marketing over paid advertising, and Michelle emphasizes the importance of fostering your core community—which, for K18, has always been professional hairstylists. We then hear what qualities Michelle looks for when joining a brand, and the characteristics of good founders, before learning how Michelle recruits her own “team of geniuses.” Next, we dive into Michelle’s career background and unpack how influencer marketing has evolved since her early days pioneering the space at Too Faced. We discuss K18’s approach to TikTok, before switching gears to explore the challenges of hyper-growth. To close the show, we learn what’s next for K18, and Michelle gives advice to those looking to achieve similar success.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
Why K18 Focuses on Top-of-Funnel Brand Marketing Over Paid Ads
Conor Begley: A lot of brands are making a decision to invest less into paid advertising and more into pure brand marketing. Are you guys pulling back in terms of investment in pure paid ads on Google, Instagram, Snapchat, those channels? Talk to me about what you guys are doing, because obviously K18 is killing it as a brand from a marketing and revenue perspective.
Michelle Miller: I think a lot of brands have seen success in paid. Something K18 has been very, very passionate about from the beginning was that the brand story would ideally drive the desire for K18. So we've really leaned into the brand side versus the paid advertising. That's not to say that we don't do it, but because we are a young brand, we focused on top of funnel. For us, that has been a lot of creators, that has been TikTok, that has been activations, especially with influencers, to drive brand love to K18—versus hitting people with ads where it's a really saturated space, it's super competitive, and there's not a lot of ways to be able to break into the consumer's mindset.
Conor Begley: Yeah, I agree with that approach, but one of the hardest parts of that is you invest the money in, but it's hard to know exactly what you're getting out, right? It's hard to directly measure it sometimes. So how do you think about justifying those investments now that you've been doing them for 10 years across some of the most successful brands?
Michelle Miller: I think before a brand can make a big investment, it's really about fostering your community, and especially your niche community. So with K18, we really started with creating our core community of hairstylists who love K18, and we had to first find these people because K18 was a completely unknown brand. So the first thing we started with was, “hey, try [our product].” We knew if the hairstylist tried it, they would love it. So before we went into bigger things like ROI, we really built our core community, which drives, I would say, 40% of our Earned Media Value—and that's huge for a brand that's in the top three in hair EMV right? Our core community is driving that.
So when we think about bigger activations, it's what's going to build brand love? Is there something special that we can do that is a bigger campaign? Because really it's about the day-to-day versus your big campaigns. Your big campaigns are moments in the year, but your community is every day. So in thinking about those ROIs, those campaigns are bigger bets that you're going to take learnings from, and you think, “okay, I'm going to make a bet here because I think this is going to work and my gut says so, but we have a really strong community to catch us if this doesn't work.”
Advice from One of Glossy’s Top Marketers of 2022
Conor Begley: You were recently recognized by Glossy as one of the top marketers in the world within the beauty and fashion space. If you were to give advice to people that want to follow this same trajectory and path that you've followed, what would be your recommendation to them?
Michelle Miller: That's a great question. I think my recommendation is if influencer marketing is your thing, then knowing that it's a really important piece of driving awareness today, and knowing the power of influence and what drives a consumer's want and desire towards a product, is really important. And then I think it’s important to have an analytical view on what's current, because I think anyone in this space knows that it changes all the time. So when it comes to collaborations or partnerships or building your community, it's really important to have an eye on what's current. You also want to have an eye towards the overall brand story and the storytelling aspect, and keep that empathy.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 63 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Gymshark, Olaplex, Instagram, and 2K, visit our Earned Podcast page.