Posted: Tue 6th Apr 2021
At the beginning of 2019, Alissa Khan-Whelan was looking for "a miracle". Four weeks later, she had gone from her south London sofa to the Superbowl, having smashed a world record previously held by Kylie Jenner.
Two years after the most-liked photo on Instagram was uploaded, it holds more than 55 million likes – a total that continues to rise by the minute.
What makes the image so extraordinary is how ordinary it is. It's a stock photo of an egg. This nondescript picture, though, has successfully challenged everything Instagram represents. Even Kylie Jenner has been won over.
I wanted to find out how Alissa and her co-founders Chris Godfrey and CJ Brown did it, what small businesses can learn from their success and why, of all things, they landed on an egg.
Alissa, tell me where the egg came from…
In 2018 I left my role at an agency to start my own business. I'm quite entrepreneurial in spirit. My dad opened a restaurant when he was 26, so I grew up watching him build his own small business.
I was creating campaigns with a focus on photography, content creation and social media management for different clients. It was fun, but it lacked something, and I think that was a guiding star or purpose. It was the same for the other co-founders.
It almost felt like we needed a miracle going into 2019. Anyway, one evening that Christmas Chris was looking at an article on the most-like images on Instagram. He thought it would be interesting to try and break the record, which at the time belonged to Kylie Jenner. That couldn't be right, surely?
He was wondering what to post. Could it be a chicken nugget? That wouldn't work for vegetarians. It had to be super universal, so we landed on an egg. It worked because it had no bad connotations.
Did you really feel like you were on to something?
Kylie Jenner had 18 million likes, but there were more than 18 million people out there who'd want to go up against her. The maths was there. It was also unusual for users on Instagram to see a stock image with a plain white background, so it caught people's eye.
When it got to 200 likes, I remember thinking, 'OK, there might be something here.' Considering it started from an account with zero followers, and was completely organic, 200 was pretty good.
Was it always your intention to challenge what Instagram is all about?
Yes, 100%. But initially I did feel conflicted. You get a dopamine effect from all these likes coming in. I don't think I'll ever be able to put into words how it feels when you refresh and the likes go up by tens of thousands.
I remember thinking at the time that Instagram had hit a peak. People were just starting to use their platforms for good, and the aesthetic was becoming less filtered. But in 2019 it was really at its peak; if you joined the platform, you'd see Cristiano Ronaldo or Kim Kardashian and be told to follow them.
It shouldn't be them you see, but positive news pages, pages on mental health, positive pages that aren't necessarily people who, yes, are inspirational and successful, but whose pages are super-curated and filtered. The message that we should all be striving to be famous or rich is vacuous.
There's pressure from social media to be a certain way and look a certain way. I know people who've uploaded pictures of themselves before taking them down if they don't get 'enough' likes. It's that idea that we're putting our self-worth in the hands of others, and the effect this has on society.
Ultimately, this was an anti-establishment campaign. I thought it was amazing that Kylie Jenner got involved herself. When we hit 18 million likes, she was ready with her meme to upload a cracking Eugene on the pavement. I thought that was really cool of her to do.
When did the egg become Eugene?
He got called Eugene by one of the fans commenting, 'Oh, we should call him Eugene.' And it just stuck. It was quite sweet.
How did Eugene go from zero to a world-record 55 million likes?
There's power in a good idea that has cut through. When an idea holds a human insight – which in this case was why is Kylie Jenner the most liked? – you know you're on to something because it will resonate.
There was also a very simple call to action – all you had to do to get involved was like the egg. These things came together, which enabled us to build a community around it.
That's why I love working with brands now. They want to have communities around them, and that's our specialism. Sometimes brands need help creating work that connects with people on an emotional level.
It was a hugely community-led thing. When you've got Paris Hilton, Versace and David Beckham liking it, you know you've done something. It really was the power of the people. It wasn't our egg. It was everyone else's egg.
Is there almost an irony with those celebrities liking Eugene?
If someone's going to get involved in something, they're going to ask themselves, 'What do I get out of this?' I think it's that idea of being part of something. It felt like an amazing moment for social media, so I think if you can't beat them – excuse the pun – join them."
Eugene isn't just about one picture, right? There's a story on his Instagram page. A crack appears. He goes missing. DJ Khaled comes along. Was this idea of a story always there?
No, definitely not. It all just came together when Hulu came along. It was literally four weeks that we went from a sofa in south London to the Superbowl.
From a business point of view, it was a massive learning curve. We struck a deal with Hulu over the phone so we had to know what the campaign was worth.
Different brands came to us wanting to be the thing that came out of the egg when we started cracking it. But myself, Chris and CJ knew the values this little egg represented.
In four weeks, we figured out exactly what we wanted from the experience. We said: 'This is what we're going to do: we're going to dedicate the platform to mental health. We're going to the Superbowl. We're going to launch it this way.' We all had jobs at the time, too.
We were getting loads of interview requests at that time. The Ellen Show wanted to fly us out to America. We had every opportunity to be the face of the egg, but that would have taken away from the mental health message we revealed in the Superbowl exclusive.
You decided to launch a business – Happy Yolk – on the back of the Superbowl success. How did you make it happen?
It was actually a LinkedIn message to Chris from one of our now investors, Nik Govier, the CEO of Blurred. Nik asked us what our next steps were, and we said that we'd love to build an agency.
Happy Yolk is an integrated social, PR and design agency. We're all about big ideas that build brand love and get people talking. We are grateful to deliver interesting work for global brands, as well as small to medium-sized brands looking to make a splash.
We launched last year, literally a week before the pandemic, and so it wasn't right to do any sort of self-promotion or marketing. The right thing to do was work with small businesses and lend our expertise to charities, which we did.
Around September, brands become confident again to spend their marketing budgets. Since then, we've been working with some amazing clients – which I hope I'll be able to talk more about soon!"
What's the one big thing you've learned from creating Eugene?
It gives me shivers thinking about how my life and how our opportunities have changed from simply sharing an idea. In this day and age, where you're constantly worried about what people think of you, and how people might perceive your work, thoughts or opinions, I think people are being pushed inwards.
My main message to people is to share your idea. I want to encourage more people to work through their fears, share their ideas and to be proud of the work they're creating.