Glossier, the most-hyped makeup company on the planet, explained

Instagram has changed beauty, and Glossier is the proof. Now the “no makeup” makeup brand is launching glitter.

For two weeks, the beauty company Glossier hyped up a new brand it would be launching, called Play. It posted vague imagery on a brand new Instagram page dedicated to Play, which racked up 50,000 followers in just over 24 hours, and now has almost 75,000. One image featuring a blue watery GIF prompted some speculation that it might be sex-related. Nope.

On Monday, the brand was revealed: sparkly, colorful makeup.

In the world of beauty, there is a spectrum of styles that range from “no makeup” makeup to “glam.” Those categories and their extremes have become ever more visible and entrenched thanks to the internet — starting with YouTube tutorials and today largely living in the influential world of Instagram.

On one side of the ecosystem are sparkly, meticulously done beauty influencers who wear 15 products and perform elaborate techniques with makeup like the “cut crease.” For them, glitter is for everyday wear and highlighter should be blinding. But for years now, Glossier has dominated the former category, making “you, but better” products. (See: Meghan Markle at her wedding for an example of the aesthetic.)

Glossier — pronounced like “dossier” — has landed more than $86 million in funding, with $52 million of that in 2018 alone; IPO buzz started last year. The brand employs hundreds of reps, essentially brand evangelists, who tout the products on their Instagrams for a cash commission, discounts, some free products, and early access to new launches. Beyoncé once helped launch a Glossier product.

With only two stores, one in New York City and one in LA, the vast majority of Glossier customers buy beauty products online, with nary a swatch or a sniff. And its relatively low-maintenance aesthetic, along with really good branding, is a big part of why.

Digital is part of Glossier’s DNA. The company started in 2010 as a beauty blog called Into the Gloss, where founder Emily Weiss cultivated a community of skin care and makeup fanatics. In a long-running feature, Top Shelf, Weiss photographed subjects — from cool fashion insiders to It girls to A-listers like Victoria and David Beckham, Serena Williams, and Selena Gomez — and recorded their favorite beauty products and rituals in painstaking detail. At a time when Instagram was just taking off, it felt like an authentic (and literal) peek into the bathroom vanities of aspirational people. Arguably, Into the Gloss popularized the term “shelfie,” the now Instagram-ubiquitous shot of beautifully arranged products in a medicine cabinet. Readers left hundreds of comments on each post.

Weiss learned a lot about her readers’ preferences, and when it came time in 2014 to develop her first Glossier products, she asked for their input. The result was products with names like Milky Jelly (a face cleanser) and Boy Brow (an eyebrow gel). There was an emphasis on skin care items like serums and masks. There was no glitter or heavy foundation. Its first product was a Vaseline-like lip balm. It has a skin tint that barely covers skin. Its lipsticks are sheer.

There has been criticism in the past that Glossier caters to people who are naturally beautiful with “perfect skin.” The satirical site Reductress distilled it perfectly with a headline in 2017: “Glossier Announces New Line of Makeup For Women Not Already Beautiful.”

 Glossier
Imagery for the new Glossier Play campaign.

Now Glossier is getting sparklier. Play, its new makeup brand, offers glitter gels whose “multidimensional paillettes mirror everything” and eyeliners in colors like magenta and moss green. Glossier is crossing the aisle, offering a selection of “dialed-up beauty extras,” essentially the going-out top of makeup.

Glossier’s rise and growth say a lot about the power of influence, the importance of Instagram, buying makeup online, and what’s expected when a company takes a lot of investment money.

How influence has changed beauty

Glossier’s value lies in something intangible and impossible to fake: It’s cool. While that’s often leveled as both an admiring compliment and a sneering criticism, many people end up conceding that the brand is compelling. One person interviewed in a 2016 Fader article who didn’t particularly like the quality of Glossier’s products summed it up: “They’re so well-marketed that you want to believe.” Plenty do believe. Images of pink bubble wrap packaging and distinctive two-toned Cloud Paint blush tubes abound on Instagram, where the brand has 1.8 million followers.

“I love that Glossier is unique and simple, and yet amazingly effective and well-made,” says Mabel, a 16-year-old New York City student whose brows are a walking advertisement for Boy Brow. She’s Instagrammed pictures of the giant tubes that exist solely for that purpose at the brand’s New York City showroom. Mabel says Glossier is popular with her friends, too.

Weiss, Glossier’s founder, got her start in fashion magazines. In 2007, she was on a few episodes of MTV’s The Hills and was dubbed the “super intern” by Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port. At the time, she was working for Teen Vogue, whose former editor-in-chief Amy Astley told the Cut last year, “The MTV people loved her. But Emily said, ‘I don’t want to be a reality-television star.’ She knew that was a trap. I always knew that Emily would go far, and one of the ways I knew was that she just walked away from MTV.”

After that, Weiss worked at W and then assisted an editor at Vogue, where she got experience on fashion shoots. That’s where she started to develop an interest in beauty, asking famous models about their favorite products. She wrote about beauty on Vogue’s website, and she subsequently launched the beauty blog Into the Gloss in 2010.

With a modest (by influencer standards) 444,000 Instagram followers, Weiss herself is not as visible as traditional influencers, who generally advertise products for outside brands. Kylie Jenner, a fellow beauty brand founder who launched Kylie Cosmetics a year after Glossier, has 128 million followers. But Into the Gloss was the de facto voice and early on reflected Weiss’s aesthetic preferences, and it influenced a generation of beauty addicts. Now, the community functions as Weiss’s proxy, her hive mind. Its members, in turn, proselytize for the brand.

Glossier uses plenty of traditional marketing techniques, like billboards in major cities and paying makeup artists to debut products on their famous clients on the red carpet. (This is how the Beyoncé product placement happened.) But it also tapped the community, recognizing that age-old adage that the most trusted recommendation comes from a close friend.

Glossier’s first attempts were clumsy, using an agency to cold-email beauty bloggers to write posts. It has also used more common methods like offering referral codes, so that bloggers or even regular Boy Brow lovers who refer friends receive credits. That turned into a more formalized program, where brand reps are given their own URLs to recommend their favorite products.

Oliver Chen, a research analyst specializing in retail and luxury goods, attempted to describe the phenomenon in a November 2018 research note: “While being ordinary and being aspirational are typically mutually exclusive characterizations, Glossier’s ability to simultaneously capture both sides of this fulcrum is a direct product of the deep community that Glossier has carefully built and fostered through its growth.”

Selling beauty online

Most people no longer think it’s weird to buy shoes or toilet paper online, or even eyeglasses, thanks to Warby Parker. “We’re seeing explosive growth with digital native brands because the consumers profoundly shifted where most of the new demand creation is via the mobile phone and social media,” Chen tells me.

Beauty has been swept up in this digital movement, but brick-and-mortar shopping is still strong. Kylie Cosmetics (almost $500 million in sales), which had been only available via her website and a few limited pop-ups, just launched in 1,200 Ulta stores. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty (more than $500 million in sales) is sold in Sephora. (Its parent company Kendo and Sephora are both owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH.) Both are on track to become billion-dollar brands. Makeup and skin care definitely can be sold online successfully, but consumers still want to touch and smell and feel and swatch their beauty products.

While much of the beauty boom has taken place online, from YouTube to Instagram, Glossier is one of only a handful of beauty brands that have been successful in turning likes into sales without a trip to a store to see if a product looks good or not. Getting a bunch of people babbling about something online to buy it — “conversion,” to put it in retail lingo — is another thing altogether.

Weiss launched Glossier as an online exclusive with only four products, including a face mist and a moisturizer. With the addition of Play, the company currently sells about 40 products, including a fragrance, a body lotion, and an acne treatment.

Today, Glossier is still sold mostly online, but it does have two stores. It just opened ground-level retail in New York City. “You look good” pronounces a mirror there, which has been photographed approximately 10 zillion times for Instagram feeds. In 2018, it opened a shop in LA famous for its Instagram-friendly “Glossier canyon,” modeled after Arizona’s Antelope Canyon.

Weiss has said she has no plans to take the brand wholesale, meaning you won’t see Glossier at Ulta anytime soon. (There are Glossier products on Amazon, but don’t buy them because they didn’t get there by legitimate channels.) More pop-up shops are expected, reports Business of Fashion, but for the vast majority of Glossier consumers, buying Cloud Paint means making a purchase without testing the product.

Some experts caution against believing the hype about some buzzy digital startups like Glossier.

Nobody knows what the actual truth is about their financials, and they are often excellent at PR, and they all consistently lead people to believe that they are a larger business than they are,” says Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester with an expertise in online retail and consumer behavior, mentioning digitally native brands like Kylie and Blue Apron. She says that when her company surveys consumers on brands and buying habits, these types of businesses are a “teeny-tiny percent” of brands mentioned.

What happens when a brand has a lot of investment

Glossier announced at the end of last year that it hit $100 million in sales. Pitchbook, taking into account $86 million in outside investment, puts Glossier’s valuation at $390 million. But it has investors to answer to, and it’s up against a makeup market that’s not growing as quickly as it once did: There’s a glut of glitter products, a customer base that expects innovative products on a short timeline, and an expectation of global availability and brick-and-mortar presence.

Chen thinks Glossier offers a product and, more important, an experience, that is “un-Amazon-able” and will work for selling its product digitally. “What Glossier represents is something very different to me. It has a very unique point of view. It’s more than a brand — it’s a community of people, and it’s very customer-centric,” he says.

Weiss told Bloomberg that Glossier is building a social shopping platform to harness that customer enthusiasm. “Weiss has identified several archetypes of online beauty shoppers and wants to build the site to serve them,” Janine Wolf and Kim Bhasin wrote. It’s not clear what that will look like or when the new platform will launch. But she has the loyalty.

Launching more makeup, particularly the glittery kind, could be risky, especially for a brand that has embraced a skin care-first philosophy and is known for minimalism. According to the NPD Group, makeup sales only increased by 1 percent in 2018, compared to a 6 percent increase in 2017. And beauty enthusiasts may have fatigue after being constantly bombarded with new products and the drawn-out social media teasing that accompanies these launches.

A commenter on Glossier Play’s Instagram wrote: “Truthfully I feel very underwhelmed by this collection after so much hype. Will still try some the products eventually but I’m disappointed.” Still, others are sold; one wrote of the announcement: “Just impulse ordered one of everything. I hope I got good colors I think I had a seizure. Going to have to order everything aren’t I I basically have the entire glossier website in my bedroom/bathroom so may as well add to it .”

While there are more options here for people to, yes, play with, there still isn’t an assortment of foundations to take on Rihanna’s empire or a classic product like traditional lipsticks. Weiss has said proudly that Glossier products take months to years of planning, which bucks a trend in beauty lately.

“Fast beauty,” meaning turning around products in a few months or even weeks, is becoming an expectation of consumers. Glossier is not that. But brands, particularly ones like Glossier that have venture capital investors looking for quick and lucrative exits, have to grow, whether that means expanding product selections, entering new countries (Glossier has expanded to Canada, the UK, and a few European countries like France and Sweden), or expanding to brick-and-mortar stores.

Some minor drama appears to be brewing already with Glossier Play. In the glitter gel description is this note: “Avoid washing off with water to prevent getting glitter into the waterways.” Some picked up on this quickly. One commenter wrote: “Y’all couldn’t have at least sourced biodegradable glitter for the Glitter Gelée? That’s a pretty careless/irresponsible move. It’s 2019 ffs.” Glitter is increasingly becoming a subject of debate in makeup circles. Biodegradable options definitely exist.

But mostly, Glossier fans are hyped up. Mabel said, “I am SO excited! It looks absolutely amazing and it’s such a new and beautiful turn for Glossier. Can’t wait to try them out.”

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