Glossier, the direct-to-consumer beauty brand from Emily Weiss, did not begin with a product – it didn’t even begin with a firm plan to create a product. In Emily’s own words, she didn’t have “some huge technological advancement or patent” that would differentiate the company from any other beauty business. What she did have, and still does, was a preternatural sense for market positioning and deep insight into what her target consumers actually wanted from a beauty company.
If you haven’t heard of Glossier by now, where have you been? In the four years since its founding it’s raised more than $80m and achieved a valuation approaching $400m. Along with a number of other standout challenger brands (Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath Labs to name just two) it’s shaken up the $430bn global beauty market with an approach to community building and branding in the social media age that would be ground-breaking if it wasn’t so obvious.
Glossier realised earlier than most that in an era where every customer has a digitally-enabled soapbox and megaphone, communicating with them in a transparent way would be the key to success. Kylie Jenner knocked more than $1bn off of Snapchat’s market cap this year in a single tweet. Not everyone has her sheer communicative power, but in aggregate consumers today are more able to influence each other outside of traditional and accepted brand arenas than ever before. Social media marketing is just word of mouth on a much, much bigger scale.
Glossier built its communications, community and brand strategy from the ground up with this in mind. It launched its Instagram before it launched its first product, ensuring that by the time its initial range debuted there were at least 15,000 engaged and excited customers waiting. Glossier takes the content primacy of modern marketing a step further – it began as a blog, Into the Gloss (founded and managed by Emily Weiss). Before the company was even a glint in Emily’s eye, there was an engaged and motivated potential customer base ready to be invested in the brand’s success.
“I was interviewing hundreds of women from around the world, from Isabel Marant to Selena Gomez, and I realised that there was a real disconnect between the beauty brands and the customer. They weren’t communicating with her – they were talking down to her, or speaking at her, rather than having a conversation, which was leaving a lot of women at arm’s length.” – Emily Weiss in conversation with The Pool
Since its founding, Glossier has emphasised community and communications. In each country that the business has launched in, its marketing team have scoured social media – not to find influencers with the right level of prominence, but to find the superfans – the most engaged members of the Glossier community. Their goal is to empower people who already like the product to create a network where brand awareness doesn’t run from celebrity to fan but from friend to connected friend. Ransley Carpio, a former director at L Catterton notes that this strategy is “almost creating a market before even entering it.”
This community-first focus is woven through the company’s approach to customer service. Unlike many businesses, the customer service team is tightly integrated into the company and its long arms extend into product development where insight from the community is used to craft better, more targeted products. Glossier has called its development process ‘co-creation’, an expression of the role customer feedback and conversations with consumers play in shaping the product. There’s even a Slack channel where its 100 most devoted shoppers can provide feedback on the latest releases.
Of course, this all raises questions about how scalable the human touch is. If the key to brand success is a genuine sense of connection between customer and company, buyer and seller, then how do you replicate that a hundred times over for each new market? Beyond this, will international expansion dilute the value of a product development process highly reliant on the feedback of consumers, particularly when bearing in mind that Glossier aims to create catch-all products for the mid-market rather than highly differentiated offerings for each segment? For now though, Glossier’s international growth has shown no sign of abating, with plans to launch in two more countries before the start of 2019.
Importantly, they’re also hiring in interesting places. President and COO Henry Davis is a former venture capitalist with a stint at Index Ventures under his belt. His recent talk at The Next Web’s conference is a masterclass in why the beauty industry is increasingly turning toward tech industry veterans for insight and innovation:
In many senses, Glossier has just internalised old lessons in a new format. Putting the customer at the heart of what you do is nothing new – Glossier’s innovation was in seeing that new technologies had massively expanded the capacity for businesses and brands to genuinely establish a conversation with the customer in real time.
“A lot of times people ask me, ‘How do you make your audience feel involved?’ And I find that such a funny question, because we don’t make her feel involved. She is involved. It’s not like a gimmick or a marketing tactic. We would be silly not to ask for her input to make a better product.” – Emily Weiss in conversation with Fast Company
Underlying this community is the strength of the brand itself. Glossier shares with Outdoor Voices a sense of well-earned intuitiveness. Both in terms of how it strategises about its relationship with the customer, but also in terms of how easy it is to see exactly what ‘Glossier’ stands for. In an age in which more and more consumers believe themselves to be brand savvy old-hands at consumer-capitalism, creating brands that are supposed to be easily read is the next step in the evolution of loyalty. Consumers understand that Glossier is engaging in branding – and they welcome it.
Bearing all of this in mind, it might be unsurprising that Glossier wants to go a step further and take on social media itself. As Henry Davis, Glossier’s COO and president has said, “At the moment YouTube or Instagram or Facebook owns the context, the environment and the format in which we talk with our own customer and actually, if we really believe that having customers as a core part of the company is the way to build brands of the future, you have to start to own that relationship.”
So far the company has been tight-lipped on what that means, but given Glossier’s run in creating not just products but self-sustaining ecosystems of engagement, I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever they’re cooking up proves to be a resounding success.