These Cosmetic Brands Are Letting Consumers Define What Beauty Means to Them

Startups like Glossier are reshaping the industry

Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Glossier, Fenty, Thrive Causemetics, CoverGirl

In October, CoverGirl unveiled a new, more inclusive brand positioning that better reflected its consumers. The work from creative shop Droga5 featuring new CoverGirls like Insecure creator Issa Rae, 69-year-old model Maye Musk and the new brand tagline, “I Am What I Make Up,” was a radical shift for one of the biggest beauty brands on the market and indicative of a change in tone for beauty marketing.

Beauty brands are looking not only to be more inclusive in the way they show bodies, skin tones and people of varying ages in marketing campaigns, but also to revamp how they speak to and listen to consumers.

“Women are really different now than they were 25 to 30 years ago in a really great way,” said Katy Alonzo, group strategy director at Droga5, explaining the new CoverGirl work. “What we wanted to do was to reflect a very positive cultural mood where women don’t want to be told and dictated what is beautiful. Women want to decide for themselves what their beauty is, what beauty means to them, what beauty even means. So I think in order to modernize CoverGirl, we had to reflect the modernity of who this consumer is today and the culture that we live in.”

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A changing industry

Modernizing major brands like CoverGirl makes sense. Beauty brands are not only contending with the success of direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier and Kylie Cosmetics at a time when Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and others make headlines for inclusivity, they are also dealing with customers’ desire for “transparency, customization and authenticity,” Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at The NPD Group, explained.

Major beauty brands are being challenged by upstarts, and it’s having a ripple effect throughout the industry. With $17.3 billion in annual sales at stake for brands sold in U.S. department stores and beauty specialty stores and sales up 6 percent over the previous 12 months, according to NPD Group, it’s easy to see why major brands are scrambling. (Those numbers don’t include direct-to-consumer brands.)

“While social conversations, including the themes of diversity and inclusivity, are currently commonplace in the United States, makeup brands are marketing their products [specifically, face and foundation products] to leverage their inclusivity via their broad shade range,” Jensen said.

She continued: “In skin care, smaller subsegments, smaller brands and the smaller online channel are the largest drivers of dollar sales gains. Consumer demand for transparency in various forms, from ingredients to pricing, have given rise to brands that communicate directly with consumers through social media instead of traditional marketing methods. Brands that embrace the demand, communicate authentically and see the fundamental shifting are winning share and the consumer.”

The rise of Glossier

In 2014, Emily Weiss founded the direct-to-consumer brand Glossier after making waves with beauty-focused publication Into the Gloss.

“After I spent so much time engaging with our community on Into the Gloss, I realized that all of the existing beauty brands and companies weren’t evolving past their top-down approach with their customers,” Weiss said.

Instead of creating a dialogue with consumers, big brands were using a “brand-to-customer or brand-appointed expert-to-customer” approach, Weiss explained.

“What we learned through Into the Gloss is that women were much more interested in learning about a product from women who inspired them than from brands or products alone,” she said.

In September, Glossier launched arguably its most inclusive campaign yet for Body Hero that showcased athlete, pregnant and plus-size models in the nude.

“From a casting perspective on Body Hero, we always want there to be that ‘that could be me’ effect,” Weiss said. “We want to have our customer see herself in our images.”

Glossier can also create a better customer experience and give consumers more support because it’s a direct-to-consumer brand, according to Weiss. And Glossier works to be accessible. If consumers have questions or issues with a product or if they send an email to Glossier about a product they want it to make, they can do that.

“Brands need alternative ways to connect with their consumers,” Jensen said. “Department stores are suffering in consumer engagement, as foot traffic and dollar sales experience a slowdown. This is indicative of a shift in the industry, which is looking to understand the ‘What’s next?’ and to identify innovation and future opportunities for brand positioning.

Cosmetics making a difference

Glossier is far from the only brand challenging the beauty industry. Thrive Causemetics, another direct-to-consumer brand, uses a one-for-one donation approach—for every product purchased, one is donated to someone dealing with cancer or domestic violence—which appeals to consumers who want to buy from a brand with a positive purpose. It also uses social media and other channels to give consumers a direct connection.

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“With Thrive Causemetics, we have people leaving comments on Facebook or wherever they are interacting with us saying, ‘I love this Triple Threat Color Stick, but I use it on my lips instead of cheeks,'” said Anjula Acharia, partner at Trinity Ventures, which backs Thrive Causemetics. “So then we’re thinking,’OK, they like those colors of that texture—let’s make that into a lipstick. … It’s really about being in a dialogue with your consumer and understanding what the product means to them.”

Industry experts believe this shift in the beauty space, both in terms of representation and customer conversations, will only continue and that more department store beauty brands will try to be part of that conversation.

“Traditional department stores will continue to lose sales if they can’t create excitement for consumers,” Jensen said. “While this slowdown signifies a shift, the hope is that innovative brands will be leading this transition and not that other brands will lag behind.”

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