How an Influencer Built the Most Recognizable Makeup Brand on Instagram: The Glossier Success Story

Who better to start a makeup brand than an influencer?

Before she founded Glossier in 2015, Emily Weiss was a beauty influencer herself. In 2010, she started Into the Gloss, a beauty blog that climbed to six million page views per month within its first six months.  

When she launched Into the Gloss, Weiss was posting three times per week and producing all the content alone. Within just a few months she had hired a team of four and increased her frequency to four times per day.

Sometimes, this is how entrepreneurs are made. They start small, see success early, and then it’s 10 years later and they’ve built a beloved brand that disrupts the traditions of an entire industry.

Credit: The New York Times

Since its inception, Glossier has challenged the standard aspirational messaging of the beauty industry with a more inspiring one: you look great just the way you are. 

Now, 500 brand ambassadors drive growth for Glossier, which was valued at $1.2 billion in 2019.

The takeaway? Messaging works. 

In a nutshell: The Glossier story

Photo credit: Samantha Ravndahl

“At Glossier, something we’ve always stayed very true to, since pre-launch, day one, is that every single person is an influencer,” Weiss said during a live interview with Kara Swisher.  

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Emily Weiss started her business because she felt annoyed about a problem. As a former Vogue staffer, Weiss loved creating content about beauty products, but she felt bothered by beauty brands that talked “at” her. 

So she created a community with Into the Gloss and eventually pivoted to e-commerce, raising $2 million in seed funding in 2014. Weiss started small with only four products: all-purpose balm, a facial mist, a sheer skin tint, and a moisturizer.

Weiss has been praised as a creative founder rather than a technical one, and her eye for authentic imagery has become the backbone of the Glossier brand.

Glossier’s look encompasses the millennial aesthetic: minimal, diverse, and authentic. The Glossier brand intentionally eschews conventional high-gloss campaigns for user-generated content that has been Glossier’s primary driver of growth since the beginning.

Keep reading to find out more about how Glossier created Instagram’s number one beauty brand by focusing on one thing: featuring real people.

Success ingredient #1: Becoming your audience

“Today’s woman has five minutes to do her face before she’s flying out the door. That’s her reality, but she still wants to look good and needs to do it with minimal effort,” Weiss said in an interview with Entrepreneur.

More than any other beauty brand, Glossier has gone all-in on minimalism in makeup for millennials. While many people are happy to spend considerable time on contouring and brow shaping, Glossier speaks to a hidden portion of the beauty market: busy women who want a great everyday look that’s easy to achieve with minimal effort.

And their imagery reflects their core messaging. Hop onto their Instagram account, and you won’t see high fashion models or polished photography. You’re met instead with what could be an account run by your best friend who happens to love makeup and sometimes posts cute videos of their corgi

While Glossier’s original target audience was the “millennial woman”, their brand has since evolved to include people of all ages. This evolution was allowed to happen because Glossier never prioritized demographics as a main audience parameter.

In an interview with Forbes, ex-Glossier president and CFO Henry Davis said, “The Glossier customer is a psychographic, someone who understands the role beauty plays in their life. The main thing Glossier stands for is the power of the individual to choose their own style.”

How to develop an audience-forward brand:

  • Form a makeshift focus group of friends who would buy your product. 
  • Interview your friends about your product category. Note how they talk about communities within the category, their pain points, and how they use products.
  • Record each interview and listen for recurring themes or words: this is the foundation of your brand messaging. 
  • Develop a word cloud and map potential imagery to each word, envisioning your dream Instagram feed for your product. You’ll begin to form a template for your design aesthetic. 
  • Allow your brand to evolve with your audience––put processes in place to make sure you’re always talking to your customer so you’re never out of touch with new people who discover your brand along the way.

Success ingredient #2: Prioritizing user-generated content

For Glossier, user-generated content (UGC) isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s in their DNA. 

Glossier has let go of the standard beauty industry obsession with the aesthetically driven feed. While their Instagram account is chock-full of gorgeous product shots and thoughtful color palettes, they understand that customers want to see real people using their products above all else.  

Every week Glossier posts a “Top 5” highlight on their Instagram account, featuring their favorite tagged stories from the week. Now that Glossier has 2.7 million followers, there is a certain status that comes with a Top 5 feature––sort of like when a friend included you in their top 8 on Myspace back in the day.    

How to prioritize UGC for your brand:

  • Forfeit some control of your brand’s design aesthetic––while more of a mindset than a tangible action item, a focus on UGC starts with embracing the messy parts of authenticity and having the courage to highlight them front and center.
  • Catalyze UGC by finding micro-influencers to post about your product. 
  • Post UGC on your feeds every day, multiple times per day. People who post about your products should be made to feel like VIPs on your social accounts. Invest the time and resources necessary to engage with UGC––don’t think of it as a passive activity.
  • Use a platform like #paid to find the right micro-influencers who can post content others can model. 

Success ingredient #3: Investing in community

It’s one thing to feature your customers on your Instagram account, but it’s another to engage with them at a high level. Glossier knows conversation on social is a two-way street, and they’re always asking their followers what they want to see on their accounts.  

Glossier, however, also understands that meaningful communities develop off social media: Instagram may introduce people to Glossier, but deeper connections are built on other channels. That’s why Glossier invited 100 of its top customers to their Slack channel, where they exchange more 1,100 messages per week.

Ex-Glossier president and CFO Henry Davis says, “If we can engage customers further up the [sales] funnel and earlier in product development and brand strategy, we will be in a position to create what people actually want.”

Glossier has made sure their community acts as a feedback loop for product development; in fact, their community is responsible for the development of their Milky Jelly cleanser. 

Customers described how washing their face was a two-step process with two different products, so Glossier combined both steps into one product––even if they could have made more revenue by iterating on both products. 

Instead, they put their community first and solved a problem that had become a pain point for them. 

How to develop a community around your product:

  • Invest in knowing your top customers inside and out. Develop a list of your top customers and their social accounts, and engage with them every day on multiple channels.
  • After several months of solid engagement on social media, start a Slack channel or Discord server and invite your top customers to participate.
  • Assign one or more community managers to generate and moderate conversation within your community. 
  • Hire micro-influencers to generate meaningful conversations within your community, so people continue to remain engaged.

Success ingredient #4: Building an army of brand ambassadors

During its first year, Glossier didn’t invest in any formal marketing tactics. Emily Weiss says that, in the beginning, “79 percent of sales were from organic and peer-to-peer and earned sources.” 

Through pitch-perfect product development, Glossier had reached the holy grail of marketing: genuine word of mouth. Their customers became evangelists for their brand. 

To keep up the momentum, Glossier has since invested in hiring an army of 500 brand ambassadors. Emily Weiss credits her army of “fangirls” with 90% of Glossier’s meteoric growth. 

How to invest in brand ambassadors for your product:

  • Create a brand ambassador program that rewards evangelists who love your product.
  • Sort your existing evangelists into customer types: Are they entertaining or informative? Are they a celebrity or an authority? Set goals for each ambassador type and develop loose guidelines for them.
  • Develop a product-focused hashtag for your ambassadors.
  • Use a platform like #paid to find the right ambassadors for your brand. 

Emily Weiss’ foundational philosophy remains true for Glossier: every woman is an influencer. Glossier’s commitment to brand ambassadors, user-generated content, and community development create the environment for what is now one of the largest and fastest growing makeup brands of 2020.