Glossier Built a Cult Brand and a Digital Community, but What’s Next?

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Editor’s Note: This podcast was recorded Feb. 25, 2020.

BRIAN KENNY: 532 billion. That’s how much we spent in 2019 in search of beauty. According to Orbis Research, the global cosmetics industry will climb to over 800 billion over the next five years. It’s a rocket ship fueled by a rising generation of millennial consumers who shunned the cosmetic counter for YouTube, where they’ll find 45,000 channels specializing in fashion and beauty-related content. It’s also an industry in transition, where stalwarts like Estee Lauder and L’Oreal who once defined the space are grappling with the changing sensibilities of what it means to be beautiful in 2020. Today on Cold Call, we’ll discuss professor Jill Avery’s case entitled, Glossier: Co-creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call, recorded in Klarman Hall Studio at Harvard Business School. Jill Avery is an expert on brand management and customer relationship management. Before coming to HBS, she managed several world-class consumer brands for the likes of the Gillette Company, Braun Inc, Samuel Adams and AT&T. I guess you know a little bit about brands, Jill, is that right? Thanks for joining me today. This is, I think, your second spin and on Cold Call, so we’re happy to have you back. Last time we talked about Longchamp bags. Here we’re in a completely different part of the consumer space, but one that I think many of our listeners will be able to relate to. So I think they’ll be interested in hearing about Glossier and their emergence into this scene in such a profound way. As a professor at Harvard Business School, how would you set this case up?

JILL AVERY: I teach this case in my course entitled, Creating Brand Value, where we’re very focused on what brands are and how they create value for consumers and for the firms that produce them. So when I introduce this case to my students, I talk about a specific moment in time in the life of Glossier, the company. It’s a very exciting time in mid-2018 because the company has just raised a series C fundraising round of $52 million. So this startup now has significant money to think about investing in the future. But, it’s also a daunting decision facing the management team. How should we spend it? What’s going to provide the best return on investment and what’s right for the brand going forward?

BRIAN KENNY: It seems great to have all that money, but then you have to figure out how to use it.

JILL AVERY: Exactly. That’s the hard part.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So I’m curious, are you a customer of Glossier?

JILL AVERY: I am. I am. My two favorite products are, one is called Boy Brow. It’s one of the bestselling products of the company and it’s an eyebrow enhancer. Take a look at my eyebrows. Don’t they look great?

BRIAN KENNY: Fabulous.

JILL AVERY: Exactly. And then my second favorite is a pretty versatile product called Bomb.com, and it’s a skin salve that you can use on your face, on your lips, on your hands to bring some moisture to your skin.

BRIAN KENNY: All right, so you know of what you write here in terms of the case, in terms of the product and the quality of this product.

JILL AVERY: Definitely.

BRIAN KENNY: So how did you hear about Glossier? And I’m curious as to how this case relates more directly to your research interests.

JILL AVERY: Sure. So Glossier is one of the hottest new companies in a crop of e-commerce driven direct-to-consumer brands that have come on the landscape over the last 10 years. And Glossier is a classic example of direct-to-consumer brands and what they bring to the table that’s different from brands that we’ve studied in the past. I was particularly interested in Glossier because of its focus on community. I’ve been studying digital communities since my doctoral dissertation days when I spent my years here studying Porsche’s online brand communities. And I’m fascinated by how consumers who are yoked together in digital communities based on their love for a brand, how they interact and how they create value for each other and what kinds of opportunities and challenges that presents for brands.

BRIAN KENNY: So tell us a little about Glossier. How did they come into being?

JILL AVERY: The founder, Emily Weiss, she was an art student and then working as a styling assistant and she began writing a blog called, Into the Gloss. And it started as a hobby for her as a way for her to express some new ideas that she had about beauty and quickly grew readership and became very, very popular. And as it grew, she started to think about whether this could be a full-time gig for her and left her job to pursue it and started to experiment with different business models. She first started selling advertising to try to monetize the blog, and then she realized that there might be a larger opportunity.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, and so that larger opportunity was to actually get into the creation of these products. That’s a big leap, it seems to me, to go from writing about these things in a very authentic way, which is probably what helped her to start to build a following, but then how do you make that next step into actually being in the space itself?

JILL AVERY: Yes. So, Into the Gloss grew to about 1.5 million readers, which was a significant audience for her. And over time she realized that these readers represented a new type of beauty customer, that they were dissatisfied with the way that big beauty companies were treating them and the types of products that they were producing. She was also gathering a lot of information from her conversations with her readers, which were very communal, two way conversations. So she was not only putting content out to them, they were delivering content back to her, and it was a real conversational experience. She was learning a lot and realized that that knowledge could be quite valuable in creating a product line that delivered against exactly what her audience was looking for.

BRIAN KENNY: What was her audience like? What were the things that she was hearing that made her sort of take this path?

JILL AVERY: I think what she was hearing is that beauty felt exclusive rather than inclusive, that many women who are her readers felt like big beauty companies were not addressing their specific needs, their skin tones, their color choices… that beauty companies were speaking to the needs of a different generation. But there really wasn’t a beauty company and a brand that was speaking to millennial women. When you looked at the beauty landscape at that point, products and brands were quite functional, but there really wasn’t a beauty brand out there. Emily describes it as, we have very different relationships with fashion brands than we do with beauty brands, and there wasn’t a beauty brand that created that lifestyle, that sense of belonging that beauty customers were looking for. And that’s really what she set out to do with Glossier.

BRIAN KENNY: We did a podcast here with Geoff Jones, a business historian at Harvard Business School on Helena Rubenstein. And she was sort of the mother of cosmetics counters and women in lab coats and doing makeovers. It sounds like this is the exact kind of thing that Emily was sort of working against was your mother’s version of the cosmetic space.

JILL AVERY: I think the lab coat imagery is exactly what she was fighting against. She really wanted Glossier not to be an authority on beauty, but to be a friend that could listen to what women were asking for and then someone that could deliver against those wishes. And so the white lab coat connotes authority and a kind of sense of telling women what is beautiful and how they need to conform to that. Emily’s perspective was that all women are beautiful and that women want to express that beauty in different ways. And so Glossier was really set up in a much more democratic, less authoritative, more inclusive and communal way of expressing beauty.

BRIAN KENNY: Seems pretty consistent with what we know about the millennial generation and how they think about life and the products that they buy, and they’re very sensitive to marketing, they understand when they’re being marketed to. And so this feels like a much more authentic path for them to take. Who are her customers, if you could describe them?

JILL AVERY: Emily built a community of readers and listeners before she tried to sell them anything. And I think that that builds her credibility and her trust with her audience. So the commercialization in this business came four years after Into the Gloss was founded. Her consumers generally are millennial and Generation Z women, young preteens, teens and early 20s women who are looking for alternatives to big beauty. These are women who are comfortable shopping for skincare and cosmetics online. And the type of beauty that they’re trying to express is not a heavily made up type of beauty. It’s a beauty based in skincare, in dewy, glossy, shiny, fresh-faced skin. And so it’s not about covering up, it’s about revealing the beauty that’s within you.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. Who does Glossier compete with?

JILL AVERY: I would say Glossier has lots of competition right now. The interesting thing about the beauty industry is it’s dominated by eight large holding companies, all of which own many brands. But the industry itself is quite fragmented. Women are quite fickle when it comes to beauty products. And so they like to experiment and move around products and brands. So Glossier has a lot of competition in the offline space, all of the traditional beauty brands that we grew up with, but also a new crop of competitors that are competing in the direct-to-consumer space. So companies like Goop, companies like Fenty, new brands that are digitally native and direct-to-consumer have really put a wedge into the industry and are disrupting it from within.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. So let’s get back to sort of the premise of the case. They’ve got this infusion of money. They’ve got to figure out sort of how they’re going to use it. Can you describe a little bit about what the size of the company is at the time that they get this infusion? They’ve scaled up quite a bit from their modest starting place.

JILL AVERY: They have. The company at the time of the case has about 150 employees, so it’s getting quite large. They’ve raised a significant amount of money. So they’re not a startup anymore. They’re really moving into the scaling phase of their business as a private company. The company doesn’t release financial data, so it’s hard to say where their sales are at the point of the case. But their venture capital support indicates that they’ve tapped into something special here.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And they’re considering several sort of options, routes that they could take with this money on how they might invest it. One of the tensions that I think comes through in the case is that they’ve built this brand on authenticity. As you scale, is it hard to sustain that sort of authenticity? I mean, inevitably, you become a little bit more commercial than you used to be.

JILL AVERY: I think that’s a big tension for Glossier at this point in its history. As it looks back on how it’s grown, it’s grown primarily through very authentic media such as earned media, consumers talking to each other, press attention, excitement about what the company is doing as they move to the future and think about scaling. They’re starting to consider things like paid media. That’s always perceived as more commercial than a friend telling you about a new product. So I think as you scale, you start to lose some authenticity, some credibility. But for Emily in particular, I think you start to worry about can you maintain the close community and the close relationship that you’ve been able to garner with your consumers. Consumers see Emily as a close friend and they feel like they have symbolic access to her through the way that she speaks through the brand. As the community gets larger, that gets harder to maintain.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And there’s only one Emily. So what happens when you’ve got a brand that’s built around sort of an icon, right?

JILL AVERY: Exactly. And one of Emily’s challenges early on is how can she empower her customer experience team to speak with the voice of the brand. And a lot of her training of her employees focuses on speaking to customers, not as customers, but as friends, and how do we conduct business in a way that makes people feel valued in that type of a relationship rather than in a commercial relationship.

BRIAN KENNY: What role do investors play in a situation like this? They obviously believe in what she’s doing and they believe in her and they believe in the product. But I would assume they’ve also got a point-of-view on how she should do things, and how do you balance that kind of pressure?

JILL AVERY: Emily was very smart and very lucky that she caught the attention of Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, who is an investor who has been very active in the direct-to-consumer space, has a lot of experience with these types of companies and was very supportive of Emily’s vision for a new landscape of beauty. She really saw the magic within Emily to be able to build a passionate following of community, people who engage in the community. And so I think Emily’s getting a lot of support from her investors, who are also giving her quite a lot of runway to be able to build this company in the right way, to pursue growth that’s sustainable over time and to really use her venture investment wisely to be able to think about building a brand not just for a five year payback, but for what Emily calls a hundred year brand. She’s really looking to make this a major statement in beauty for a long time.

BRIAN KENNY: I mean, what is her vision for the brand? Does she have sort of a dream for what Glossier can become?

JILL AVERY: I think she does. She definitely, as I said, wants to build a hundred year brand. That’s very important to her, that this has long-lasting value creation for beauty consumers.

BRIAN KENNY: Long after she’s gone.

JILL AVERY: Long after she’s gone. And I think her vision doesn’t stop with Glossier. She has a bigger vision for e-commerce in general, what she calls social commerce or bringing consumers into commerce in a way that feels very natural and very relational, recognizing that the value of a customer is not coming just from the profitability from that particular customer’s purchases, but also from their social value, from the fact that they can help other consumers discover products, assist during a purchase, help them understand how to best use them and share their excitement post-purchase and post-consumption to involve them in a community and to make them feel like they belong. So Emily’s vision I think goes way beyond what Glossier will be able to achieve and really talks to the future of e-commerce.

BRIAN KENNY: And she’s leveraging that community, as you mentioned before. It’s like a feedback loop for them, right? So they’re getting ideas. Are they actually soliciting ideas from their customers, “Tell us what colors you want, what kind of makeup you want”?

JILL AVERY: They are. Her very first product was the Milky Jelly Cleanser and she put out a call on Into the Gloss for any thoughts and ideas or problems, challenges that people were having in the cleanser category, collected a ton of data from her prospective customers and then spent the next six months working with chemists to develop exactly the right formula that would address the needs of her particular audience. So she sees her role as listening and learning from her community rather than dictating to her community what she thinks they want. She actually-

BRIAN KENNY: “Here’s your product that we’ve made for you.”

JILL AVERY: Exactly.

BRIAN KENNY: You mentioned paid media. What are some of the other things that they’re thinking about doing with this big infusion of funds?

JILL AVERY: They’re also considering paid influencer marketing, so partnering with influencers. Beauty influencers are very powerful in social media today.

BRIAN KENNY: Those are pretty pricey though, right? I mean, you mentioned some of the costs that are tied to some of these influencers.

JILL AVERY: Yeah. So particularly in the beauty industry, influencer marketing is getting very pricey. Some of the top influencers in the space charge $1 million a post, so you can quickly run through a media-

BRIAN KENNY: I’m in the wrong business.

JILL AVERY: You can quickly run through a media budget if you’re talking to that. But Emily’s also considering other types of influencers, more micro influencers who don’t have as large an audience but have a much more close relationship with their followers that leads to greater engagement.

BRIAN KENNY: And I think also when you tie yourself to influencers, you tie yourself to whatever they do in a given moment. And we’ve seen that backfire on big brands in the past, particularly with sports, with athletes and celebrities and things.

JILL AVERY: Yeah, so influencer marketing is a very popular strategy right now, but it involves taking some risks on the content side. In order to be persuasive, influencers have to speak in their own voice. And so brands that try to heavily script them often wind up falling flat because the messages are perceived as less credible or less authentic. However, giving too much control to an influencer also carries some risk because they could say something that’s against the brand’s message.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Makes me squeamish.

JILL AVERY: Me too.

BRIAN KENNY: Working with a brand influencer for Harvard Business School. I don’t think … although I figured out our students are our brand influencers. They’re out there anyway. They’re very active.

JILL AVERY: And I think that’s what Emily picks up on as well. Her best influencers are customers who love her brand. One of her other tactics is, can she leverage her existing customer base to become peer-to-peer sales representatives? Can she actually monetize her customer base to help her sell the brand and help other consumers discover the product line?

BRIAN KENNY: Does that sort of run the risk of … I don’t know … It feels to me like people may take advantage of that in a way that seems, again, incompatible with the authenticity of the brand.

JILL AVERY: I think whenever you start paying people for influence, credibility goes down and so they’re going to be perceived as less persuasive than if they had no commercial motivation for the word-of-mouth that they’re spreading. I think consumer peer-to-peer selling relationships are tough to manage at scale because most of our customers don’t have very large audiences and a lot of them aren’t very good content creators and some of them don’t have the desire to create content, and so finding the right customers who have a large enough audience who have content creation skills and who have the motivation to do it well is a challenge for the company.

BRIAN KENNY: How do they market their products now? What’s their marketing strategy prior to investing this money?

JILL AVERY: Primarily from the launch, they got a lot of earned media, a lot of press attention. Beauty editors were fascinated by Emily’s story and also fascinated by Emily herself. She was a great front person for the brand. It has a glamorous background and a very engaging personality that she was able to leverage into a lot of press mentions. Early on, the brand gained traction with millennials and they spread the word very quickly. It was like you were invited into a very special club and you wanted to share that club with others, so most of the attention that the company received early on came from these earned media methods rather than paid media.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. The case goes into their foray into brick and mortar as well. They opened some retail spots, which I thought that was really interesting.

JILL AVERY: Yes. I mean, for a digitally native e-commerce seller, traditional physical retail is often a challenge. It’s a different business model and it’s something that a lot of e-commerce sellers have rejected at their launch saying “Physical retail is dying. The retail apocalypse is upon us and so we don’t need physical stores. Customers want to shop online, so we’re going to provide the best e-commerce experience.” I think what Emily realized is that physical retail is not just a fulfillment channel. It’s also a product discovery channel and she really uses both of the showrooms that Glossier has, one in New York and one in LA, as well as pop-up retail experiences, not so much to sell product, but to create brand and to create community. So her retail spaces don’t feel like stores. They feel like parties. They feel like experiences. They feel like gathering places or clubhouses, places where consumers can make a pilgrimage to, to meet the brand face-to-face and to interact with both employees, but most importantly to interact with other customers, to feel the physical presence of the community that they had only engaged with digitally before.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And they also look at the prospect of maybe moving into some of those established retail channels, sort of moving away from the DTC and selling through these other channels. What are the pros and cons of doing something like that?

JILL AVERY: Wholesale distribution is always enticing to startup brands in the beauty space because getting distribution in Sephora, one of the largest specialty beauty retailers in the world, could mean transforming your revenue line overnight. It’s a quick way to grow sales. Challenging for Emily as she’s debating that decision because Emily believes that part of the strength of the Glossier brand is this direct relationship that she has with her customers. If she moves to a wholesale distribution option, a two-step distribution option where she’s one step removed from her customers, she loses that two way communication, she loses that direct contact. So I think it’s both an opportunity and a risk for the brand.

BRIAN KENNY: We’ve been hearing a lot about DTC brands. They seem to really be emerging. Do you feel like this is probably the next wave of retail having the experience that you’ve had in the retail space?

JILL AVERY: I think the jury is still out, particularly on direct-to-consumer, in primary consumer products categories. The original founding myths of all these companies is that we’re going to cut out the middleman. We’re going to establish a direct relationship with you and we’re going to be able to offer you usually lower prices because of that. Because we’re not paying a retailer a margin, we’re able to cut out some of the costs. I think what most DTC companies are feeling right now is that they’ve underestimated the cost of having to acquire their own customers, and particularly for companies that are largely pursuing digital marketing strategies, the customer acquisition cost on digital is rising precipitously. As these categories get more crowded, as people are competing for advertising space, it gets more expensive to acquire a customer. So suddenly that middleman who played the role of bringing you a steady stream of customers is actually looking more attractive. So we’re starting to see digitally native direct-to-consumer brands start to move to traditional wholesale partners, so you see Casper partnering with Target. You see Dollar Shave Club starting to come into traditional retail.

BRIAN KENNY: You’ve discussed this case in class. Were there are lots of Glossier customers in your class?

JILL AVERY: The beauty of this case is it hits perfectly at the target market of current day MBA students. People often bring their own Glossier products to class, which is exciting. I’ve also taught the case to executives, and here I don’t have as many Glossier fans in the audience because they tend to be a little bit older. But I do have a lot of moms and dads who say, “Oh, my daughter loves this brand.” So across audiences, the case has been really popular. It’s a very engaging company but also engaging topics for people to learn more about.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s great. I can see why people could relate to it. One last question I guess would be for the Emily who’s out there listening to this podcast right now, the next emerging star, is there one sort of piece of information they should hang onto here and think about as they think about what they’re going to do with their business?

JILL AVERY: I think Emily’s long-lasting lesson is to recognize that giving is as important as taking. And Emily spent a lot of her time when she was building her company giving a lot to her prospective customers, giving content advice, giving a listening ear, establishing friendships, making sure that people had a place to feel heard, making sure that she was recognizing the true needs of her customers. And then she started transforming that into a business. So leveraging the power of community, leveraging the power of communication and conversation, using content not just to dictate, but to listen to and engage with an audience to better learn who they are.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s great. Jill, thanks so much for joining us today.

JILL AVERY: My pleasure.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like other podcasts on the HBR Presents network. Whether you’re looking for advice on navigating your career, you want the latest thinking in business and management, or you just want to hear what’s on the mind of Harvard Business School professors, the HBR Presents network has a podcast for you. Find them on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. I’m your host, Brain Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School on the HBR Presents network.

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