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The Fairy Tale Behind Storybook Cosmetics' Viral Success

The creators of ‘Harry Potter’-themed makeup wands have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

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Harry Potter-themed makeup brushes are so smart and simple a concept it’s a wonder J.K. Rowling didn’t whip up a few herself and apparate them right onto Sephora shelves. Instead, one of this year’s most talked-about beauty launches came from Mandy, Missy, and Erin Maynard — triplet sisters — in Omaha, Nebraska.

The sisters launched Storybook Cosmetics in October 2016 with the set of five Wizard Wand Makeup Brushes. When the sisters introduced the set on Instagram, the beauty world lost it, Kylie Lip Kit-style. “The makeup brushes have absolutely changed not just our business, but our lives,” said Erin. “The viral nature of the product launch catapulted our business into hyper-drive. The internet was begging for them, so we started a pre-sale and sold out almost immediately.”

If you only read beauty headlines, it may be a surprise to learn that the brushes are the lone product Storybook has actually released. Even previews of potential products, like Mean Girls- and Game of Thrones-themed eyeshadow palettes, are so primed for Internet adulation that the brand gets mainstream beauty news coverage of almost every Instagram post. Bustle, for one, has written about them 15 times in three months.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow, you're only a day away 11am CST

A photo posted by @storybookcosmetics on

But every truly great content artist knows you can’t reverse engineer viral success. The Maynards have spent the past few years building an empire of fandom businesses. Mandy draws fan art under the name Half Blood Prints. Erin and Missy own Flitwicks, a jewelry subscription box. Before pausing to focus on Storybook, Erin sold fandom-inspired items such as The Geeky Cauldron. They jointly run a Fandom of the Month subscription box, where $13 gets you jewelry (produced by an outside supplier) based on the sisters’ artwork of Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and other series. One look at their Instagram feeds — I recommend Erin’s account for “geeky” home decor — proves they’ve also built lives surrounding their favorite characters. Missy’s license plate says OHSNAPE. Erin nestled her newborn in a Gryffindor scarf for a portrait. You can’t just be in it for the money and be that good at Harry Potter puns. America already fell in love with the Maynards once, in the backlash after they auditioned for American Idol and Simon Cowell called them “three overweight Jessica Simpsons.” (They still sing, only now it’s Potter-themed.) Someone, please, get these women a show on HGTV.

There’s a start-up cliché that says something like, “The best ideas are the ones you can’t believe don’t already exist.” We’ve long determined that women are also geeks. It’s shocking that an industry as money-hungry as beauty (love you!) hasn’t yet honed in on such a ready-made demographic. MAC does the occasional collab with a brand like Star Trek; you can find Lord of the Rings nail polish on Etsy, but an entire brand created for fans hasn’t broken into the mainstream. “We'd been talking for a while about the need for a cosmetics company to tap into the exploding ‘geek culture,’” says Erin. “Finally one day, we decided to be the ones to do it.” Major beauty company execs are probably having meetings about Storybook at this very moment.

While the company grows — a recent photo shows Mother Maynard helping pack brushes for shipping — it has retained the familiar tone of a beloved fandom Reddit thread. The natural comparison is Glossier, another Instagram-bred beauty company that tries very hard to seem like it doesn’t care about social media marketing. In contrast, Storybook’s engagement with fans feels earnest. Even commenters are nervous about their decision to ‘gram product ideas and prototypes. One fan is especially worried about the Game of Thrones palette, which the sisters have made clear is not yet approved by HBO: “Please don’t share your ideas before you get licensing in place. Someone with more connections or money can swipe the opportunities right from under you.” But the sharing is all part of Storybook’s brand. We really want our fans and supporters to feel like they are part of our brand,” says Erin. “What can we say, we are an open storybook.”

The intimacy also comes from a rare meaningful opportunity to aid the design process. Posts ask for explicit feedback in the comments section. “Let’s make sure we are all on the same page before we submit our final changes,” reads one caption. They embrace criticisms — “Wand #1 is too bulky” — and share the design tweaks along the way. It’s a smart strategy: An Instagram commenter who feels responsible for the decision to straighten Wand #4 is surely more likely to purchase the final product. Brands may never be our friends, but Storybook is the least nefarious attempt I’ve seen. Missy got engaged last week — at Disneyland, of course — and she posted her ring selfie to the company feed.

Transparency also means fans notice when designs take a turn. Storybook introduced a Hogwarts-themed palette with recognizable shades like “Brave” and “Daring” in Gryffindor red and gold. It was later pulled and renamed the “Wizardry and Witchcraft” palette, with names like Merlin, Sorcerer, and Salem that add some distance from Harry Potter proper. They announced the swap on Instagram: “We are really proud that this is our unique, original creation, inspired by all the magical stories we grew up with and loved. Our palette is not sponsored by, endorsed by, or associated in ANY WAY with, the owners or creators of any other pre-existing literary or artistic work. We feel these changes are necessary to avoid any confusion regarding this matter.” The brand’s rep assures me that Storybook hasn’t been in touch with J.K. Rowling or anyone at HP headquarters. Let’s all agree to keep our eyes peeled for the day Rowling starts tweeting about the Quill & Ink Liner.

It’s likely no coincidence that two of Storybook’s forthcoming products — Wizard of Oz and Romeo and Juliet makeup palettes — are themed around brands in the public domain instead. Powerhouses like Harry Potter and Star Wars have entire teams devoted to handling licensing requests. The first Wizard Wand Brushes, which were mocked after descriptions of Harry Potter characters’ wands, will not be restocked. “Unless a company is an official 'licensee' of a brand, they cannot use the brand's logo, characters, or any other proprietary rights,” says Kelly Langstaff, a licensing coordinator for children’s entertainment brands. “Legal action happens all the time as you can imagine, either with fans creating their own products to sell on Etsy or similar platforms, or companies creating 'rip off' versions of licensed products. Most manufacturers fly under the radar, and certain brands are more litigious than others.”

Erin says they’re “learning a ton” about the particulars of licensing as they move forward. But that’s not slowing their flow. First up for 2017 are a new set of Wand Brushes and a “quill and ink” liquid eyeliner. It’s only a matter of time, one hopes, until they get to Golden Girls pressed powder. You can wait for your particular favorites to go on sale, or you can just believe: “We love how anything is possible in fairytales,” says Erin. “The impossible is made possible and everyone lives happily ever after! We love the idea of Storybook Cosmetics because while your life won't always be singing birds and happily ever afters… your makeup can be.”

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