Kim Kardashian West: How one reality TV star survived while others faded into obscurity by conquering the tech world

One woman's very fruitful quest to 'break the internet'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last week, Kim Kardashian-West was honoured with a Webby award in the ‘Break the internet’ category, a term now forever associated with the infamous Paper magazine cover.

The ceremony commended Kardashian-West for “her unparalleled success online”.

Undeniably, Kardashian-West does boast an unparalleled online success story. Considering the criticism she and her famous family receive, ensuring her relevance for over a decade and transforming from a reality TV star to a digital icon is an enviable skill. 

Kardashian-West’s success is evidenced by one thing: in a world of fading reality TV stars, she survived. 

While most resort to clothing or beauty lines, tell-all books, fitness DVDs, gossip magazine columns and questionable endorsement deals before becoming irrelevant and being forced to appear on yet more reality TV shows, Kardashian-West has flourished. 

There’s no denying that she has done all of the above, and not all have ended well (an Instagram post promoting a morning sickness pill was met with a warning from the FDA). However, these ventures are not what has kept her firmly in the public eye. Her ability to tap into the digital industry, ensuring she appealed to an even bigger audience, did.

Ryan Detert, the CEO of LA-based social media influencer marketing company Influential, says while Kardashian-West became “a product of internet fodder” from her reality TV show, she quickly realised she could manipulate this position to her “tremendous” advantage.

A private sex tape of herself and the singer Ray J was leaked online in 2007. Months later, she and her family premiered on Keeping up with the Kardashians on E! The show is now in its twelfth season and steered by ‘momager’ Kris Jenner, and has seen all of the offspring involved in the show to go on and have successful ventures. Similar to ‘brand Beckham’, ‘Kimye’ (dubbed so as a combination of her and husband Kanye West’s name) has too become a brand - with West recently telling radio host Steve Harvey: “You can’t give me an example of as popular of a mixed couple. I’ve got friends that have white wives that say before there was a ‘Kimye’ they’d go to amusement parks and people would be talking down to them."

Kardashian-West’s reality TV career combined with the sex tape background mean people are often quick to discredit her, but it is her digital ventures that set her apart. Last year’s viewing figures for the season 11 premiere of KUWTK were 1.4million US viewers, Kardashian-West has 70 times the followers of that figure on Instagram. 

It is statistics like this that led the Webby awards to declare her “the leading celebrity in terms of her online presence and understanding of how to connect with a global audience via social media, apps and online video […] she has shaped our understanding of how someone or something can draw the popular attention of Internet users everywhere".

The digital world of Kim Kardashian

As the steady stream of rising social media influencers shows, the definition of “famous” is changing. A prominent Instagram blogger will have more followers than a singer who has been making music for ten years. Jeetendr Sehdev, an expert in celebrity branding and a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, says if celebrities want to keep up their profile they have to tap into the market as their young, millennial audience is full of “digital natives”.

“Celebrities have no choice but to tap into the digital market if they want to get ahead. Audiences are digital natives and don’t discriminate between mediums anymore,” he said. “You’re not a bigger celebrity with millennials just because you’re in the movies instead of on Youtube.”

“Break the Internet” was the famed slogan which accompanied a bare-bottomed Kardashian-West on the cover of Paper magazine in 2014. The power of this slogan actually led Kardashian-West to go on and pull many manoeuvres which did almost grind the internet to a halt, proving that she could capture the attention of an online market and use it to her benefit.

In their write up to accompany those photos, Paper said the only person they could think of who could “break the internet” would be Kardashian West, calling her “a pop culture fascination able to generate headlines just by leaving her house, Kim is what makes the web tick”.

“Everything that she does is carefully curated to elicit a particular response,” Detert tells the Independent. “She is a polarising figure and whether the press writes about her to chide her or praise her, they ultimately always write about her.” 

At no time was this more evident than earlier this year when she shared a nude selfie which definitely did polarise the internet. Bette Midler, Chloe Grace Moretz and Piers Morgan all used their internet platforms to criticise her, while Emily Ratajkowski and Amber Rose used theirs to defend her. Kardashian-West herself also fired back at critics on Twitter and the discussion around “Kim Kardashian’s naked selfie” continued for days. 

Tech Ventures

Last year, Kardashian-West laid bare her ambitions to become a domineering force within the tech world.

“Once you get started, you have this creative bug of ideas that you want to get out,” she told AdWeek. “I feel like I've partnered with the right team, and now I have the creative outlet to make that happen. I'm happy that people are into it and perceiving it well. I just want to create more apps.”

Detert says Kardashian-West was in “the unique position to capitalise” on her fame as a reality TV star and then ultimately used it to sell low-priced, digital products.

However low-priced these products may be, they have resulted in a big paycheque.

Between June 2014 and June 2015, she earned $52.million, according to Forbes, placing her at number 33 on their global celebrity 100 of the world’s highest paid entertainers. The year before, she made $28million. When analysing what had changed, Forbes concluded it was down to her moves within the tech world, with the literal game-changer being the Kim Kardashian Hollywood Game which reportedly accounted for half of that $52.5million.

Game

Kardashian-West was approached by the San Francisco-based Glu Mobile to be the face and name of a re-branded game several years ago. The CEO of Glu, Nicolllo de Masi, told Forbes in 2014 she was identified “as arguably the best brand fit in the world”.

The game invites users to live in the life of a Hollywood celebrity, aka Kardashian-West. You can travel from Beverly Hills to New York to Miami and spot her famous family, assistants and friends along the way. The creative directors of fashion houses like Balmain, Olivier Rousteing, and Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, have even cameoed in the game. A simple concept, yet downloaded over 40 million times in the first six months of its release in 2014. 

Kardashian-West maintains that she has been very involved with the production and concept of the game, telling AdWeek she was in “daily” contact with developers. By letting them know of her upcoming events, holidays and trips the game was updated quickly and users could ‘join’ Kardashian-West wherever she may be or visit a location recently seen in KUWTK- effectively living her life with her. Similarly, most of the outfits that character Kim wears have also been spotted on real-life Kim. 

“The look of the game was really important to me,” she told AdWeek. “I must have pulled thousands of references of all the different ways that characters should have their hair, the outfits and the shoes. One time there was a strap wrong on one of the character’s shoes - her feet weren’t matching. I had to change the programming to fix that."

The game quickly amassed $43million in three months and led a host of celebrities to sign up. Glu has since announced the production of a Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Kendall and Kylie Jenner game too.

Kimojis

While a game may not have been fully innovative, inventing a line of emojis was. If the flamenco dancer, wink face or raised hands was boring users, the Kimoji range allowed fans to instead convey emotions with either a hand taking a selfie, Kardashian-West’s bottom or a “Kim crying face emoji”. So successful was the app when it was first released that Kardashian-West apologised to Apple for “breaking” their app store after demand apparently sent the store into a frenzy. According to Fortune magazine, the paid for app was still topping Apple’s app store in February. 

Wharelock Industries, the Santa Monica-based developer of the app, are also behind the Kim Kardashian-West official app. Kim, along with sisters Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie all have their own individual apps which they use to share exclusive photos and video content as well as beauty and fashion tips.

Social Media

Kardashian-West has said herself that she “loves” social media and summarised why someone like her works on the platform during a conversation with AdWeek. 

“Social media works when you're open, when you're honest and people want to feel like they're getting a little glimpse into your life,” she said. “It's not that I brand myself like I'm a celebrity. It's just I'm living my life and sharing a part of my life with the world.”

However, Detert believes Kardashian-West’s social media presence is just “a platform to feed the traditional media”.

“Her audience on social media is almost entirely voyeuristic. She gets, on average, about 1 per cent engagement on Instagram, while many of the most engaged social influencers get upwards of 10 per cent,” he said.

Whatever Kardashian-West’s motives for using social media and developing a digital platform, there’s no denying it has enhanced her celebrity from reality TV star to one of the most talked about individuals in the world.

“What makes Kim Kardashian so powerful is that her presence is felt everywhere,” says Sehdev. "She’s not afraid to experiment with her brand and take big risks. She's a best practice case in how to extended your brand across traditional and digital platforms to create a truly iconic image.”

Comments