Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

What’s the deal with brands infiltrating Discord to build communities?

It’s 2022 and our interests are as dynamic as ever. Catering to a digital-first generation with 8-second attention spans, it’s not surprising to see companies often run into brick walls when it comes to engaging their target audience. So in the age of “been there done that,” is there a platform which encourages free-flowing conversations around a brand while giving marketers the autonomy of customising individual experiences?

Clubhouse, duh!” I hear you say. Well, I hate to break it to you but gen Zers are commercially migrating from the social audio app to another ever-inviting ecosystem—previously only popular among gaming communities. Enter Discord in all its organic glory.

What is Discord?

Launched in 2015, Discord is an instant messaging and digital distribution platform—first conceived as a conversation hub for gamers. Here, users can build dedicated servers (similar to channels on Slack), text, voice and video chat and share their screen with each other. They can also listen to music together, make their own emojis and customise the heck out of their profile.

I’m not kidding about the ‘heck’ part in the latter feature. On Discord, you can either choose to be anonymous or do a “face reveal”—as the lingo goes on the platform—by inserting your own selfie. This can either be a static image or an animated avatar, provided you have a Nitro subscription. You can also choose your own profile banners, change your username from time to time and set custom statuses.

Although Discord initially aimed to facilitate text and voice chats while playing video games with other users, it has since positioned itself outside this niche and into all sorts of professional and social communities.

In 2020, Discord changed its slogan from ‘Chat for Gamers’ to ‘Chat for Communities and Friends’ and started expressing its plans of courting users with varied interests—ultimately hoping to evolve into a platform that, as its Chief Marketing Officer Tesa Aragones puts it, “runs the gamut from creative collaborations, to maths tutoring, podcasts and avocado smoothies.” From hosting “agency days” to featuring Awkwafina and Danny DeVito in its first brand campaign, it’s safe to say that the platform has amassed over 150 million monthly active users today for good reasons.

The marketing playbook

Nowadays, Discord servers of several aesthetics and subcultures like Weirdcore have become commonplace for members to huddle around shared cultural interests. But as of late, numerous commercial brands have been infiltrating the platform and hailing it as the new frontier of marketing in their playbooks.

While online marketplace StockX debuted its Discord server in June 2021, retailers like AllSaints, Hot Topic, New Era Cap, Chipotle and Jack in the Box have also hosted events, queries and giveaways on their own servers. Leveraging Discord as a platform to connect everyone from level five sellers to casual collectors, StockX currently has over 31,000 members who actively post their “Kicks of the day” on dedicated channels created by the marketplace. Meanwhile, the server created by New Era Cap—the company behind the official headwear for the NFL, NBA and MLB—is a place for enthusiasts to show off their collections and just chat about sports in general.

In May 2020, British fashion retailer AllSaints hosted a Q&A session with its lead menswear designer and offered an insider look into the brand’s style evolution on Discord. Meanwhile, American food chain Chipotle tapped the platform in its push for availing fresh recruitments. Launching a virtual career fair on Discord three days after announcing an increase in wages, the burrito giant not only connected with fans of the chain but also distributed applications to potential job seekers.

The result? More than 3,000 members joined the server in under a week and Chipotle witnessed a 77 per cent week-over-week increase in applications.

For all these commercial giants, Discord has offered a way to engage with their existing fanbase. The array of tools available on the platform also provide endless possibilities for brands to customise individual user experiences—tailoring them specifically to their consumers. This is probably one of the major factors that differentiate Discord from other platforms in the marketing handbook.

However, the digital asset in question is not without cons. For starters, launching a campaign on Discord is no easy feat—given how it’s not designed to be a social network like Facebook and Instagram. Sure, the platform boasts 150 million active users, but they’re actually dispersed across thousands of smaller servers and, therefore, difficult to reach. Discord also lacks features aimed at discoverability and virality unlike other mediums like TikTok. So, even if a campaign manages to run well on a server created by the brand, there are no chances of it gaining traction outside the same.

Discord additionally earns money through its premium subscription service called Nitro and doesn’t support ads in its interface. While this is one of my favourite features of the platform as a user, it ultimately cancels out all possibilities of monetisation.

A peek into the communities

Now onto the elephant in the room: despite all the cons Discord houses under its belt, why is such a decentralised ecosystem gaining traction as the next frontier of marketing? And why are more companies trying to get their foot in the door to tap into new audiences as we speak? When SCREENSHOT reached out to Discord to break down the phenomenon, its communication team stated that they were unable to participate in an interview at the moment. The next best source for insights? The active members of the communities mentioned above.

“I heard about the server when it was announced on an Instagram story, alongside a giveaway,” said Remote, a Jack in the Box (JITB) enthusiast who joined its Discord server in July 2021. Although his interest in the fast-food chain’s commercials is what motivated him to join, Remote was also curious about the community JITB had built. “The giveaway was a fun part and we were all excited about it,” he added. “You could say it was like a bonus.”

When asked about the details of the giveaway in question, Remote highlighted how JITB has hosted only one to date—where the chain gave out JITB Funko Pops. “From what I remember, a bot was used and we had to react to messages to enter,” Remote explained. “It was also like a giveaway where someone would win after a certain amount of time would pass and then we would have to re-enter for another try at it.”

If you, like me, spend most of your free time on the ‘general’ channel of various servers, you must know how dynamic the chat is and how hard it is to actually hold a conversation with someone on Discord. When I joined JITB’s server, I witnessed the same dynamics and topics being tossed around like every other server on the platform: uwu girls, milfs, zaddies, chads and, of course, femboys. That being said, I also noted how a moderator would often steer the conversation back to JITB by sharing a link, video or story that triggered users to react and share their own thoughts.

But that’s just my one-week-old observation of the community. In order to get a more concrete view into the engagement fostered by JITB on the platform, I turned to Remote again. When asked about his personal experience with the community, he shared, “A lot of the fellas there are nice. Some do troll on the server, but it’s not as prominent and bad as it used to be when it started out.” According to the enthusiast, spammers and trolls are quickly banned from the platform by the moderators. “I have made some friends and there are people that I talk to almost on a daily basis and would consider to be close with. I’m glad that there are people with similar interests and fellas I can talk to with ease,” he added.

During my chat with Remote, I also realised how the member had been a dedicated fan of JITB for years before joining the server. “I’ve been living near a JITB since I was about five years old,” he admitted. “Although I don’t frequently eat out, my family almost always chooses JITB when we do.” Remote’s love for the American food chain, in turn, has manifested into full-fledged fan arts—some of which he actively shares on the server. “I mostly make fan art, but I think I’ve made some short ‘comics’ too,” he said, outlining how he plans on making more memes based on JITB “for the fun of it.”

Across Remote’s fan arts, it’s worth noting how JITB’s mascot is versatile enough to fit different media formats. This is exactly why its Discord server has dedicated channels for both JITB memes and fan art—where enthusiasts accept requests for artworks. For example, you can ask an artist to draw the mascot (who the community addresses as ‘Jack’) riding a horse or a bull.

When I asked Remote for his views on Jack’s versatility, he mentioned: “I absolutely think their mascot attracts people. I know some people, myself included, who have little crushes on their mascot.” According to Remote, the avatar also works for younger demographics as Jack looks like a clown but not too clown-like to a point where it’s deemed scary. “Their mascot and their commercials, especially the older ones, do a good job at attracting people,” he added.

So what about, let’s say, McDonald’s? As another fast-food chain with a meme-able mascot, if McDonald’s announced a Discord server, would enthusiasts like Remote join? According to the JITB member, the motivation to join servers boils down to existing interests in the brand. “I wouldn’t join, unless I had a friend who joined and asked me to,” Remote admitted in this regard. He additionally noted how those who already have a Discord account and are familiar with its interface will be more inclined to join a server created by brands compared to other fans.

“However, when the JITB server was made, there were a good number of people who made Discord accounts just for the server,” he continued. “A couple of fellas [were] asking questions on how to do certain things on the first day or so. Most of us would gladly help them figure stuff out.”

What’s the deal with brands infiltrating Discord to build communities?

Five years down the line, Remote still imagines himself being an active member of the JITB Discord server. “The only way I see [myself] no longer being on the server is if it were to be taken down, or some disaster happened that prevented me from being on the internet. Even if no one was active on the server, I’d still stay because I like to hold onto the memories of the people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had on there,” he said.

As a Discord user since 2018, Remote’s conclusive statement hit home for me. Although the platform has grown to incorporate various facets of internet and commercial culture today, let’s not forget that it has roots in gaming communities—where you’re capable of bonding with absolute strangers with shared interests in under a minute. So couldn’t the same extend to brands too?

Every brand needs a space where their customers and fans can hang out and share slices of their lives defined by the commercial company in question. With a well-structured array of channels and ever-inviting chats, what better platform than Discord to engage with the most valuable customers of your company? Sure, it’s not the perfect way to reach new audiences or monetise on content directly, but one thing brands can be assured of is that once a user joins and starts engaging with others, they’re bound to stick around for the memories and experiences they’ve gathered for a lifetime. A win-win situation, if you ask me.

Will we soon see Glossier’s fall from grace? It’s slightly more complicated than that

When Glossier made its debut in the beauty industry back in 2014, it felt like a breath of fresh air—a millennial pink-tinted, slightly iridescent breath of fresh air, to be specific. From there, the digitally-native beauty brand built a cult following like no other. I was among the many fans who collected the brand’s pink pouches as if they were Hilma af Klint sketches. In 2017, when Glossier opened a pop-up store in London, you bet I skipped uni to get my hands on its trio of serums and its Cloud Paint cream blush. I even took a few snaps in the label’s now-iconic ‘YOU LOOK GOOD.’ mirror. How basic, I know.

My point is, there simply was no stopping Emily Weiss’ beauty baby and its unsaid motto: that it celebrates its customers’ natural beauty, not the artificial, painted-on kind. After all, “Beauty products inspired by real life” is Glossier’s tagline for a reason. And yet, now in 2021 (although I still shop some of the brand’s products) I can’t help but wonder if it will manage to stay relevant now that its then-groundbreaking marketing strategies—which, fair enough, it pioneered—have become the norm for other beauty brands.

Because I know that my personal opinion should not be taken as gospel, I turned to Dulma Altan and Camay Abraham for some answers. Altan, founder and CEO of Makelane, a startup that serves as a digital community for women with e-commerce businesses, previously worked as an advertising strategist at Google. The business-savvy woman first caught my attention on TikTok, where I encountered one of her videos on Glossier, listing everything from the company’s experiential retail to how cult brands are built. Needless to say, I had an inkling Altan knows what she’s talking about.

Now, I am a strong believer that good things come in threes, so I also reached out to Abraham, a journalist, fashion psychologist, research and trend forecaster who works for the likes of The Future Laboratory, Adolescent and—would you look at that—Screen Shot. First things first, we tried to paint an accurate picture of Glossier’s current footing.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Glossier (@glossier)

How well is Glossier holding up?

Let me start by clarifying one thing: in no way, shape or form is Glossier failing as of now—a point that Altan also highlighted during our conversation. “Glossier is still likely doing well (it was tracking at over $160 million in revenue a few years ago [2019] and just raised a fresh round of capital) but its path to beauty industry domination has been challenged by personnel issues, increased competition, and brand relevance,” explained Altan, leading me to my first argument.

Yes, the skincare and makeup company is doing well. That being said, its rise to fame paved the way for its own competition. Sharing that same opinion, Abraham said, “Its popularity is waning and I now associate this brand more with millennial/zillenial consumers than gen Z. I don’t hear gen Z really talk about Glossier anymore and certainly not at the cult beauty level it was at before. A lot of young people are ‘over’ the natural makeup look, and if they are into natural-looking makeup, they’re not interested in the higher price points Glossier has to offer them.”

The company grew out of its millennial founder’s beauty blog Into the Gloss. Starting her career as an intern at Teen Vogue, then moving around other coveted slots at Condé Nast, Weiss left in 2010 to launch the blog where she shared beauty tips and tricks with her online community.

Weiss’ early engagement with other beauty aficionados revealed a gap where traditional beauty brands were letting both her and her followers down. Her solution? To launch Glossier’s initial collection of four products, including a cleanser, priming moisturiser, lip balm and a misting spray. Starting out with an impressive and loyal audience was the first crucial step Weiss nailed. The fact that this community was, in turn, proof of the demand behind her four products—and the many others which followed suit—was the second step. She got feedback straight from her soon-to-be customers, before even having to launch anything. Genius.

Back to 2021, and while Altan believes Glossier is still on track for an initial public offering (IPO)—which refers to the process of offering shares of a private corporation to the public in a new stock issuance—she added how such a move will probably not happen without the company “first rehabilitating its image of projected success by proving out the success of its omnichannel model largely driven by experiential retail expansion and, potentially, investment in the tech infrastructure that facilitates a new kind of community/conversation-driven commerce.”

In order to fully break down what Altan is referring to here, we’ll need to have a closer look at some elements of what she refers to as “the Glossier playbook.”

From a blog to an indoor canyon

In less than four years, Weiss was able to grow a niche internet blog into a $400 million global goliath by simply asking women what they wanted instead of telling them what they wanted. Every single year during those four years, the brand more than doubled its growth. For the first five years, over 70 per cent of Glossier’s sales came from peer-to-peer referrals, as the CEO told Entrepreneur back in 2017. Heck, by the summer of 2017, Glossier’s Instagram ambassador programme alone was responsible for 8 per cent of that.

In other words, having cultivated such an incredibly engaged and loyal community as well as knowing how to put consumers first was what gave the beauty brand the initial push it needed to grow—something that Weiss had planned all along. Then came Glossier’s famous in-store retail experience.

Beginning as digital-only, Glossier had been dipping its toes in retail, trialling pop-ups and showrooms until it finally unveiled its first permanent store in New York City in November 2018. Unlike other skincare brands who saw brick and mortar shops as a revenue channel, Glossier’s physical stores were opened to add dimensions to the brand, market it further, and continue to connect with its community—this time in real life.

Instantly, the company’s stores were celebrated for their immersive elements, from the Los Angeles-based shop which has a fake-yet-mind-blowing indoor canyon to one of its latest ones, also located in Los Angeles, which is a marble-ensconced paradise made for Instagram and TikTok content. In that way, shops became marketing channels.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Glossier (@glossier)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Glossier (@glossier)

@iamdulma

Tomorrow I’ll do a video deconstructing the in-store design choices & overall experiential retail strategy! #glossier #losangeles #retail

♬ FEEL THE GROOVE - Queens Road, Fabian Graetz

“Glossier’s experiential retail is part of a larger vision to reinvent commerce in the Amazon age and it’s done well at this. In fact, it does this better than many similar competitors even in the well-funded direct-to-consumer (DTC) space. Which is to say that competitive skincare/beauty brands have not caught up to them in this area, nor do I think they intend to (it is extremely capital-intensive and risky, and most brands are opting to expand eventually into Sephora, Ulta, Target, even increasingly Walmart etc.),” Altan shared when speaking about the company’s current position with its in-store retail experience.

But that’s where things might get complicated for Glossier. While it’s doubtful any other major beauty and skincare brand might try to go after its approach to brick and mortar marketing, Glossier is already witnessing strong competition from younger brands in another one of its signature strategies: its “reliable feedback loop of engagement > UGC > sales” method as Altan calls it.

Everything is content when it comes from your community

Because Glossier decided to remain a DTC brand, it allowed itself to keep a tight rein on its image as well as how it is perceived by potential customers. And such work wasn’t only done through its highly Instagrammable stores.

@iamdulma

Part 6 ✨ Everything is content! #marketing #branding #glossier #beauty #cosmetics #entrepreneur #smallbusiness #femaleempowerment #girlboss

♬ original sound - Dulma 🦋

“Glossier calls itself a ‘content company’ […] It sees every single part of the customer experience as an opportunity to create content, and it even sees its products as pieces of content,” Altan stated in one of her TikTok videos. For the company, everything it does can be turned into content, including the feedback and interactions it receives from its loyal fanbase. Before Glossier, user-generated content (UGC) would have never ended up on a beauty and skincare brand’s social media. Now, this content and community-driven approach is standardised as a full-fledged playbook.

It’s because of the acceptance of such a novel approach that the company is slowly losing some of its relevance. Here’s what Altan had to say about how this global shift might detriment the brand, “In my opinion, Glossier will not come up with a new strategy so much as refine its approach to the vision it’s always had to create a seamless, ‘emotional’ and communal shopping experience by using beauty products as the vehicle.” Sure, it will continue to double down on expanding its retail footprint as the world opens back up and will “invest in the tech infrastructure to make this more data-driven and efficient.” According to the expert, it might even focus on becoming “more clean” and start releasing “products with a more gen Z aesthetic that upgrades its increasingly outdated millennial pink look.”

Both Altan and Abraham also highlighted the need for Glossier to further align itself with more diverse and inclusive brands and personalities, allowing it to, in turn, tap into their own audiences. An example of such evolution can be found in its 2020 Body Hero partnership with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and eight of its game-changing players.

In many ways, Topicals, a fairly recent skincare brand that treats chronic skin conditions with the help of science-backed and clinically tested products, has proved itself to be a gen Z version of what Glossier was to millennials when it launched—only more diverse and honest.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by TOPICALS (@topicals)

When it comes to Glossier however, Altan added that the brand’s next move might be hard to decipher ahead of time, “It’s unlikely that it will stray too far from its original brand DNA because it’s fundamentally good at focus and integrity with its core vision. It’s honestly anyone’s guess what it does beyond the strategy we’re already seeing.”

In Abraham’s opinion, in order to cater to the needs of gen Z, the brand will somehow have to find ways to lower its price range. “They [gen Z] will look for cheaper products that do the exact same thing,” she told Screen Shot. In fact, it’s well-known that similar products—from their packaging to their ingredients—to what Glossier has to offer are already available for less on the beauty and skincare market. Korean brands come to mind, with the likes of Innisfree and Glow Recipe.

It’s all about staying relevant

When it launched, Glossier was innovative and trailblazing. It nurtured a previously ignored approach to entrepreneurship and fostered a creative shift that was nothing short of groundbreaking. But as time goes on, just like with any other company, Glossier can’t afford to slip into irrelevance. If you fail to evolve with the times, you cease to exist—it’s as simple as that.

Hypothesising on the label’s potential at staying ahead of the curve, Altan shared that she thinks Glossier will struggle, “It’s in a tough place with products that feel increasingly undifferentiated (and not up to snuff in quality for some) and an aesthetic that has lost its novelty and sheen.”

So, what’s the right move then? “To make any dramatic upgrades to these would feel disingenuous and forced, but to not make significant adjustments would place it at risk of losing relevance, which is the currency it used to first catapult to popularity. It can survive, but I don’t know if it can thrive in the way it originally set out to,” she continued. In other words, Glossier is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Of course, while it’s easy for the little trio I’ve gathered here to point at what’s going slightly wrong for the brand, we don’t pretend that we have the answer to all of Glossier’s problems either. Trust me, if we did, we would have gone after Weiss’ business a long time ago. But as a gen Zer myself—as well as a Glossier customer, I should remind you—I know my perception of the company and what it has to offer me is exactly what will impact whether, in the long term, it stays up to date or not.

Following that same line of thought, I also remembered an interesting point Altan made about the future of the company in another one of her TikTok videos, “Weiss is a privileged white woman who grew up in a wealthy family in Connecticut. And while that might have actually helped catapult Glossier to fame, with her as the face of the brand, making it feel aspirational back in 2014, I actually think that enough has shifted in societal expectations and dialogue around diversity and inclusion that this is now a hindrance. That is going to hurt the brand and make it feel less relatable.”

Such an argument can only be reinforced by looking at the rumours that started making rounds in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. At the time, ex-Glossier employees (18 of whom agreed to speak to Fortune) revealed that the company had failed to support black workers—prioritising the needs of customers, including the ones behaving inappropriately, over those of its ‘editors’.

Knowing in the back of my mind that ending this research on such a gloomy note would most definitely undo years of diligent skincare routines, I asked Abraham what she thought Glossier was doing well instead of wrong when it comes to finding a way into the younger generations’ good books. Although the specific example she answered my question with didn’t exactly come from the brand itself, it does act as a fan page for a niche part of Glossier’s demographic: Glossibaes.

“I love the Boyfriends at Glossier’s Instagram. The company has to become more authentic and take itself less seriously, which again, is why I can see the appeal in ‘parody/fan page’ accounts like this one—it’s funny and unfiltered,” she said. The account offers users and customers a peek behind the scenes of the brand’s perfectly sleek image. And surprise, surprise, even the ‘real’ Glossier experience is pretty damn attractive.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Boyfriends at Glossier (@glossierboyfriends)