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

By Alma Fabiani

Dec 10, 2021

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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.

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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.

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@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.

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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.

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