Self-made or not, Kylie Jenner really is an economic phenomenon

In the film Dodgeball, the vile owner of Globo Gym (played by Ben Stiller) boasts: “I earned this body and I built this temple out of nothing more than a little can-do attitude and elbow grease…and a large inheritance from my father.”

The reaction to the claim by Forbes magazine that 20-year-old Kylie Jenner is on track to become the world’s youngest “self-made billionaire” has focused on the “self-made” element. Does someone who is born into a wealthy, well-connected, reality TV dynasty really qualify as “self-made” (presuming it’s not an oblique reference to Jenner’s allegedly copious amounts of plastic surgery)?

Yet the second element of the claim warrants some scrutiny too. Is the valuation of her makeup company, which is the basis of the bulk of her $900m (£680m) estimated wealth, sound?

I admit I was sceptical. But the consensus of financial analysts I consulted is that, assuming the $330m a year sales figure for Kylie Cosmetics is accurate, it’s not unreasonable to value the brand at around $800m.

Mature companies are generally valued on a multiple of profits, rather than turnover. But for fast-growing, young companies (and Kylie Cosmetics was only established two years ago) it’s normal for top-line sales to be used.

Other recent acquisitions bear this out. In 2016, It Cosmetics was bought by the beauty conglomerate L’Oreal for $1.2bn, when the eight-year-old company’s sales were just $182m, little over a half of Kylie Cosmetics’ today.

And last year George Clooney sold his four-year-old Tequila business, Cosamigos, to the drinks giant Diageo in a $1bn deal, when annual revenues were estimated at only $70m. Cosamigos is certainly associated with Clooney, but it isn’t named after him. Kylie Jenner’s makeup business is slightly different because it is clearly driven by a single celebrity name.

That implies a risk. “With a one name brand all it takes is a change in public mood and it’s all up in smoke,” warns George Salmon, an equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

We had a good illustration of this hazard last week when John Schnatter, the founder and chairman of the Papa John’s pizza empire and the face of the company in its advertising, used a notorious racial epithet.

Shares in the company dropped by 5 per cent and Schnatter was hastily ejected by the board.

Nevertheless, the explosive growth in sales for Kylie Jenner’s company is a confirmation of the awesome financial power of modern internet-powered celebrity.

Earlier this year a Dublin hotel objected when a YouTube “social influencer” called Elle Darby requested a free stay in return for publicity. It’s hard not to feel sympathy with the exasperated hotel owner who wrote: “Who is going to pay the housekeepers who clean your room? The waiters who serve you breakfast? The receptionist who checks you in? Who is going to pay for the light and heat you use during your stay? The laundering of your bed sheets? The water rates?” 

Yet the reality is that the kind of publicity social media stars (and, granted, Darby probably is not in this bracket) can potentially generate for a business really can more than cover the costs of their complimentary hospitality. Collaborating with social media influencers has become a marketing strategy for many firms. Those who invest in it seem to think it works. And one study suggests that each dollar spent on influencer marketing returns around $8.

“For he that hath, to him shall be given,” states the Parable of the Talents. And we see ample evidence of it. Hollywood actors are inundated with free clothes and jewellery in the hope they will wear them at award ceremonies, with all the various freebies worth around $100,000 a year according to one estimate.

Sports stars receive vast amounts of money in sponsorship deals, earning far more from image rights than salaries or tournament fees. And one can now become a dollar billionaire in two years from selling makeup on the back of being “famous for being famous”.

The economics makes sense. What such trends say about the state of our society is, of course, another matter.

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