Inside Glossier’s Unmarketing

Inside Glossier’s Unmarketing
By Tracy E. Robey. Source: Glossy.

How does Glossier, in the course of two years, go from launch to being talked about as the beauty brand that possibly defines a generation? The skincare and makeup brand is expected to grow 600 percent in 2016, rising so fast that the company has re-forecasted its revenue goals twice this year.


Glossier emerged from the popular blog Into The Gloss, founded in 2010 by Emily Weiss. After years of learning what’s on women’s bathroom shelves and talking to passionate readers of Into The Gloss, Glossier (rhymes with dossier) was launched in 2014 with a limited range of products. That product line, along with sales, has grown over the past two years. The Glossier brand centers on the Cool Girl: a young woman who I imagine has effortlessly full brows that just need a bit of tidying and not much need for makeup, thanks to either natural beauty or comfort in her own skin. Whereas many YouTube and Instagram beauty gurus display piles of brushes and makeup application tools, Glossier products come in tubes and sticks, and are applied with just the help of some fingers.

Articles have connected Glossier’s passionate fanbase to the fact that customers actually have a stake in its success. The ability of Weiss, Into The Gloss, and Glossier to tell meaningful stories has been discussedas has Weiss’ aim to create a brand that engenders a feeling of friendship in customers.

The coverage of Glossier has tended to focus on the top of the pyramid: interviews with Weiss and sometimes input from Glossier staff members. While “Glossier is succeeding without appearing to try too hard” according to the Fashion Studies Journal, the bottom-up reality — usually unseen and certainly not the subject of much coverage by the mainstream press — is less slick, yet perhaps no less effective at drawing in new fans. Fader connected Glossier’s marketing to Avon’s friend-to-friend sales tactics, making recommendations to an “immediate circle of friends.” Yes, young women look to their real life friends, but my experience and those of other bloggers suggests that the bulk of the “friend-to-friend” marketing is still done by social media influencers, downplayed in much of the narrative of authenticity but still very much present in Glossier’s marketing.

in much of the narrative of authenticity but still very much present in Glossier’s marketing.

Here I need to mention that I have a beauty blog, mostly about Korean skincare. You probably haven’t heard of it and it’s not crazily popular. It’s a site that I update infrequently with about 75,000 page views per month and less than 1/30th the number of unique visitors attracted by Into the Gloss. Yet despite its middling stats, months before I began writing as a beauty journalist, Glossier came to me.

My first encounter with the Glossier marketing team didn’t go so well. A community manager at Glossier wrote in April 2016: “We’d love for you to put together a post on your blog that features some of your beauty essentials that allows you to highlight (instead of hide) your natural beauty.” I was confused. Did a company really just ask me to write a post on my own blog on a topic they chose? Aren’t bloggers usually offered money for that? Or at least a sample product for review? The same person wrote in August: “We’d love for you to put together a post on your blog that features some tips from your own eyebrow routine — product recommendations and techniques that are easy to do at home but really allow you to highlight your natural beauty.” While I wasn’t explicitly asked to mention Glossier products in the post, the community manager offered inspiration for my work: “Feel free to check out our top shelfies on Into The Gloss!”

The first time I wrote back to say that I lack the natural beauty — resembling more an early modern Habsburg in both face and aspirations than a Cool Girl — required to write such a post. I was a journalist by the time I received the second email, so I disclosed that and asked for more information about the goals of these requests. While part of me felt that maybe I had deeply hidden, so-secret-it’s-a-secret-even-to-me coolness that had been noticed, I was skeptical. I mean, I’ve been asked to write sponsored (read: paid, ad) blog posts about brands and their products before, but unpaid… brand-suggested content?

It turns out I’m not the only one. When I searched for phrases from the email, comments left onblog posts by the same Glossier community manager that contacted me turned up. One blogger actually wrote the post, but she seems just as confused by the request as me. Later this summer, my friends who blog about kbeauty received the same email. When one wrote back to ask for more information, she also received no reply. I can really only guess the aim of these buckshot requests. The cynical side of me thinks that they seem like an attempt to tap into the vast ocean of unfamous beauty bloggers, and to use their hopes that the unpaid post will lead to something more with Into The Gloss and Glossier in order to build the company’s SEO, domain authority, and brand recognition. The less cynical side thinks it might just be a poorly conceptualized and executed attempt to grow the Into The Gloss and Glossier community.

As far as how many posts on the internet were inspired by an invitation from Glossier, I can’t begin to imagine — and they don’t have to be disclosed since there’s no money or products (or explicit promise of future money or products) changing hands. It’s likely rare that the emailed requests result in posts, but it doesn’t cost the company anything, and the posts could end up looking (and being!) pretty authentic as long as the author isn’t confused by the request or under the illusion that they’re auditioning to supplant Karlie Kloss in the pantheon of Glossier BFFs.

Yet the strategy seems rather risky. Glossier has been open about the inspiration the Into The Gloss fan community and The Top Shelf profiles have provided for the development of new Glossier products, but the emailed requests to bloggers seem to seek information in a more contrived way. The problem with randomly asking weird stuff of bloggers is that sometimes they play along, but most of the time they drag the hell out of your brand in their bloggers-only chats. Begging for what amounts to free consulting from bloggers isn’t very Cool Girl.

Far more successful (and straightforward) is the Glossier referral program. Glossier’s website includes a “Get $10” link right in the menu, which leads to a page explaining that current customers can receive a $10 credit for each friend referred by email, Facebook, or Twitter that makes a first purchase (friends receive 20 percent off). The referral page also pops up after checkout and is linked at the top of order confirmation emails. Referral programs are now standard practice in and out of the beauty industry: most US-based kbeauty shops, my grocery delivery service, and the company that cleans my house all offer store credit for referring new customers.

This year, I wrote two blog reviews, one in April and one in May, that included my Glossier referral link, but I’ve otherwise not circulated it on social media. After buying Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser ($18) and testing it for three months, I posted my (mixed, but ultimately favorable) review. Four people used my referral link to make a first Glossier purchase the day I posted my review, resulting in $40 in store credit. In the course of the next five months, those two posts referred over 100 new customers, and therefore earned me over $1,000 in store credit. I talk about other brands and stores with similar referral programs a lot more, but none have hit the roof faster than Glossier. The brand’s earnings and growth reports seem not to have been exaggerated at all.

I asked Glossier some specific questions about the referral program and they wrote, “According to industry market research and our own surveys, the number one way women find out about new beauty products is from their friends. Peer referrals are extremely powerful, and they’re really important to our brand, which is why we actively build programs that give our most engaged customers new ways to share Glossier with their friends.” I paused to think: Are my readers friends? Yes, if Glossier is “a brand you can be friends with,” my blog can be a friend to readers. While a traditional affiliate program would offer me a cash commission ranging from 4 to 10 percent or so on any purchases readers make after clicking a product link (with no discount given to them), referral links at least offer a discount for new customers.

The system is not without its issues. Large store credit balances like mine appear to have prompted a referral system crackdown, something I’ve never encountered when dealing with similar programs run by other beauty e-tailers. I’m certainly not the only blogger or (gag) influencer to have stumbled into a pile of Glossier credit. In September, when I was already working on this article, Glossier contacted me to say that their terms and conditions allow one to earn no more than $500 in store credit each year, putting me and at least two other bloggers well over the annual limit. The referral system now automatically caps the amount of credit one can earn per annum. Super referrers are allowed to keep the credit, but earn no more in 2016, while new customers can still use our referral links to earn 20 percent off.

Just as sticky, but nowhere near resolution, is the issue of US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) disclosures for Glossier referral links and products “purchased” with store credit. While most bloggers with any sort of following and reputation in the United States are aware that they need to disclose affiliate links that earn them cash commissions (although many do so incorrectly), referral links that result in store credit also need to be disclosed by people sharing them, business and intellectual property attorney Sara F. Hawkins wrote by email. Hawkins also said that products “obtained by using referral credit, whether in part or in whole… should be disclosed in some manner.” One shouldn’t “buy” a product with store credit earned from making referrals and post the photo on Instagram or on a blog without mentioning the referral credit. Hawkins writes that when the FTC has taken regulatory action in the past, it’s always been against brands rather than individual influencers.

While over $1,000 in Glossier store credit probably sounds quite nice, it creates something of a tax headache. As Hawkins wrote, “US Tax law has a very broad definition of income and includes both cash and non-cash compensation,” which means that I need to pony up income tax for the referral credit I earned in 2016.

If the changes to the referral system were inspired by concerns about spam, that would be totally warranted, judging from the number of spammy accounts on Instagram that clog the #glossier tag and appear to exist only to offer Glossier referral links. Some don’t even post product photos, just graphics that are reused over and over to promote the referral link in their bio. To put the impact of spam accounts on Glossier’s brand in context, consider that a follower of my Instagram once asked in the comments of a post if Glossier is a legitimate company, since they were worried that it was a scam. A helpful commenter replied that Glossier is “a legitimate brand. They just have a referral program.”

Update: After publication, Glossier reached out to explain the emails bloggers had received. They wrote, “When we first launched Glossier, we started working with an agency that did outreach to beauty bloggers–which explains the email you received. When we grew and we started to reevaluate some of the strategies we used in the early days, we realized that you (and others) were right–this type of engagement and outreach is not authentic and isn’t representative of our brand today. We have since stopped working with this agency, so you shouldn’t receive any more of those emails. Now all of our outreach and communication with bloggers, influencers, etc. is handled internally and in a much more genuine and conversational manner.”

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