Most companies have been on a journey of digital transformation over recent years, taking their bricks and mortar offering and adapting it to new available technologies and consumer behaviours. But amidst this huge shift to online, a whole new breed of brand has emerged. Beauty brand Glossier is leading this charge of disruptors, with its uniquely customer-centric approach and innovative digital marketing tactics.
In just four years, this direct-to-consumer make-up business went from launching four simple products on a basic ecommerce site in 2014 to surpassing $100 million in revenue in 2018, acquiring a million new customers that year and employing 200 staff. In 2019 they raised a further $100 million investment at a company valuation of $1.2 billion.
Their success is credited to a five-pillar digital marketing strategy – Consumers, Content, Conversations, Co-Creation and Community. Whilst much of this activity centres around social media channels, we’ll see that it goes deep into the heart of the business and the way it operates. The great to lesson to be learned from Glossier is that success doesn’t come from a pretty Instagram account. It’s based on who you are and how you work with your customers to enrich their lives.
The DTC Boom
Firstly, we must consider the background to this story – an environment where the adoption of ecommerce has grown steadily over the last decade. Shoppers have now become completely comfortable with buying online, even on mobile devices or through social channels. This shift laid fertile foundations for a new business model – direct-to-consumer or ‘DTC’ as it is commonly known.
These companies sell directly to customers through their own websites, without the need to rely on traditional retailers to stock their products. After all, on the internet, every shop is equal (notwithstanding Amazon). Every store is just a click away, however big or small. All that sets these digital stores apart is brand and marketing, and whilst the incumbents have big budgets, it’s chiefly the minnows who boast the most nimble digital setups and innovative creative resources.
The advantages that DTC businesses have over slow-to-adapt physical retail giants are many. They enjoy full control over their own retail experience, from discovering a product online through to unwrapping and using it at home. As well as the creative freedom and control this affords, it also allows DTC brands to gather and leverage first-party data on all their customers. They have complete oversight on how people found them, what they did on-site, what they bought and how they behave as ambassadors in social media.
Operating in this way – so close to their customers and their data – allows a brand like Glossier to not only improve conversion rates through website design tweaks, but make major business and product decisions based on this knowledge.
In 2011 Emily Weiss, an intern at legendary fashion magazine Vogue’s ‘Teen’ edition, set up her own beauty blog Into The Gloss in response to what she saw as the fashion industry’s inability to portray real women, with normal shapes, sizes, and skin. The blog lives on to this day, featuring beauty tips that focus on making the best of your real self, rather than trying to becoming someone you’re not.
It was this ethos that was to become Glossier’s tagline – “Skin first. Make-up second. Smile always.”
Whilst interviewing women about makeup for the blog, Weiss gained her first insight that eventually led to the creation of Glossier in 2015. In an interview in the Financial Times she recalls, “one of the insights that led to the creation of Glossier was actually my experience listening to women as I was interviewing them for the blog years ago telling me how much they loved their Lancôme mascara or how much they really loved their moisturiser. But reading between the lines, I didn’t hear them saying that they loved these brands.”
Realising that there was a gaping hole in the make-up market, which should have contained simple, effective and inexpensive products that achieved real results, Weiss launched four products of her own. To this day the brand’s offering is notably small, with just one mascara, and a total of around 40 products across their lines. Compared to major make-up brands, who constantly churn out countless iterations and trend-led versions of their products this is an ultra-minimal offering.
The idea is that beauty doesn’t need to be complicated, or baffle the audience with multiple claims around an ever-growing portfolio of novel products; people just want reliable products that they trust and enjoy using.
So let’s look at those five pillars of their digital marketing approach which are so carefully, yet distinctly, intertwined.
Whilst traditional brands must seduce retailers with promises of products that will sell and make profit, Glossier and its DTC counterparts only have to serve one need – the end users of its products. Glossier have played on this dynamic and put the customers as close to the centre of the business as possible.
It’s just another way in which they go against the flow of the industry, which normally keeps its doors closed to the public. Glossier asks, and it listens. It provides multiple communication channels between staff and customers. The lines are sometimes blurred between models, influencers, staff, and customers. In fact, many people are several of these things simultaneously. Staff join the company because they are fans, or have been models. Customers engage with the brand as if they are stakeholders, because they feel like they really do have a stake in the business. After all, they rely on Glossier’s continuing success to get their now-favourite beauty products, so they’re happy to help shape their future.
Starting out as a beauty blog promoting the same values as Glossier still does today, the company was built on a solid foundation of content from day one. But the brand didn’t stop once it primarily became an ecommerce business. In fact, it continues to produce a huge amount of video and image content.
Glossier popularised the ‘Get Ready With Me’ format on YouTube, which has taken on a life of its own and become a popular way for people (celebrities and the rest of us) to share their beauty routines around the world. It’s made Glossier a central player in the rise of a more candid and honest approach to beauty content more widely.
The brand’s Instagram is their central channel in social media (and the most natural fit for any beauty brand), but Glossier utilise it better than most. What’s notable is that much of the content is not by the brand’s marketing team, but by fans of their products, influencers, and staff at the company. Much of it is focussed on how to get the best out of their products, providing value to the audience rather than promoting to them.
Interestingly, Glossier are also happy to feature products from other brands, regularly mentioning them in the mix of a how-to or beauty routine. This is the essence of great content marketing – offering valuable content that serves an audience’s need first and foremost, rather than forcing promotional messages into their feeds that merely aims to serve the brand itself.
Whereas a typical ‘brand’ exists online as a website and some social content, Glossier largely exists as a multi-channel conversation with its customers. It asks them lots of questions regularly about their needs, and new products are born out of these unmet needs.
But this is more than just modern-day market research. This strategy has led to the brand enjoying a cult following. By involving their customers to the extent that they do, and opening their doors transparently and candidly, the audience feels part of something more than just a make-up supply chain. Glossier’s Instagram bio reads ‘Glossier Inc. is a people-powered beauty ecosystem’ and it’s made clear to customers that the brand is always listening, should they have something to say about their products or beauty needs.
At one point the company created a channel on the corporate messaging service Slack for its most valuable customers to discuss products and ideas. And its Twitter account is a constant source of user stories where people share their product experiences with a like-minded community.
This level of dedication to the audience would seem like too heavy an investment of resource for many companies. But from the beginning, Emily Weiss and her team have understood that this is how you create value for your community, and if done properly (i.e. generously and authentically) that value will come back into the company multiplied, in the form of good will, loyalty and, ultimately sales.
On the back of the running conversation with its audience, Glossier co-creates its products with them. The theory is that the further up the marketing funnel you engage people in the idea of a product, the more likely they are to buy it when it’s available.
One of the most famous examples of this is their milky jelly cleanser. In 2015 Weiss wrote a blog post on Into the Gloss, which asked ‘What’s Your Dream Face Wash?’ Behind the scenes the team was already aware that the perfect face wash didn’t yet exist and knew that if they could create it, they’d have a hot product on their hands.
The post garnered 400 enthusiastic responses, which were then categorised and digested by their in-house chemist. Keywords such as ‘mild’, ‘glowy’, and ‘moist’ became the checklist for everything they aimed for in the final product. A year later their now-staple milky jelly cleanser was born, and it is now their third best-selling product.
Last, and certainly not least, in the Glossier formula is the power of community. What Glossier have done uniquely well is to build a genuine community around their company. The word ‘community’ is one of the most overused in marketing today, but it rarely means something that truly operates like a real community – i.e. people connected around common interests and goals, sharing and caring for one another.
Glossier’s customers understand that by buying the products, they’re supporting a company with a clear purpose. A company who are making products for them, not for shareholders, retailers, and not by some irrelevant industry norms. They know that there will be future products that are also for them, and are happy to be on the journey, supporting them along the way with their dollars and their feedback.
It may be the rise of crowdfunding on sites like Kickstarter that has introduced this dynamic to the relationship between brands and customers. It’s something we see particularly in the DTC sector – see brands such as Peloton, Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker, Casper, Allbirds, Gymshark, Blue Apron, Harry’s, Honest Company and many more. Or it may simply be the directness and transparency afforded by modern social media channels. But either way, community is more than a fuzzy warm feeling: it makes for impressive business results.
Glossier and Influencers
Weiss is quoted as saying that 72% of millennials take product recommendations through content on Instagram, and 70% of [Glossier] sales come from word-of-mouth organic connections. The company have put a lot of effort into understanding their numbers, and knowing where sales originate from, and why. It’s their unique approach to influencer marketing that makes them the community and customer-driven brand they are today. To Glossier, every single customer is an influencer.
This plays out on their Instagram page, where most content is by customers, not the brand. The product’s usefulness speaks for itself and anyone using it is potentially an ambassador for the brand. Again, it’s a uniquely transparent and democratic approach for what has traditionally been a top-down, inaccessible industry that, as Weiss says, would tell you how to feel, what to think, and how you should look better.
Brand – Clear and Simple
Mention Glossier to anyone who knows them, and they’ll instantly think of two things – the pink bubble wrap bag and that distinctive shade of bubble-gum pink. Their logo is of course memorable, if plain. But whereas the brands of the past were more commonly associated with logos and colours (Coca Cola, Marlboro, John Deere et al), we see more modern brands defined by their distinctive packaging. This is particularly important for businesses in the DTC sector where there is typically no bricks-and-mortar customer experience, and so that experience must be orchestrated around the unboxing moment. Glossier does have a few physical stores and popups, but even here the focus is different: when the New York flagship store opened in 2018, Weiss said “it’s not about selling things, it’s about making people feel things.”
The now-iconic pink bubble wrap bag is a fashion accessory in its own right, appearing in the clutches of red carpet celebrities and so popular that there is even a market for them on eBay. They are trying to trademark them: not an easy task as packaging in itself is not typically trademarked.
Lessons for Marketers
So what can we learn from Glossier’s success story? The takeaways from this meteoric beauty brand are surprisingly universal, regardless of what industry you’re working in:
- Shared Mission – Glossier and their customers have worked together to create quality products that enrich those consumers’ lives. How can you move from simply selling what you sell, to working collaboratively with customers, and going on a shared mission to improve their lives in ways that only you can? If you can achieve this, you gain something no competitor can easily replicate – a loyal community of dedicated supporters.
- Openness and Transparency – modern brands are letting people in like never before. Whilst that’s a scary thing to do for your own business, it will almost always result in good things – making your company more trustworthy, likeable and engaging. Glossier showed that bringing down the edifice of perfection that props up other beauty businesses, rather than eroding the appeal, made them the most relatable beauty brand on the planet.
- Be Your Customer – it’s basic marketing theory, but what Glossier took the time to do was go out and spend time with their target audience, understand their needs and desires. They built a company of people just like them and took their content to platforms where those people spend time. They speak to their consumer in a highly relatable way, not because of some clever market insight and contrived brand guidelines, but because they are genuinely just like them. Today more than ever, people seek out the likeminded. How can you be your customer and talk to them authentically about the things they care about, rather than simply spewing out marketing at them? This is the core challenge for any brand today.
Every brand can learn lessons from Glossier’s story. From opening up the channels of communication and inviting customers to go on your mission with you, through to the use of social media as a place to foster real community, and focus on adding real value to your audience we could all benefit from becoming a little more like Glossier.