How to build a brand in 2017: Tips from Glossier CEO Emily Weiss

There’s no shortage of women’s beauty brands, yet for many millennial women in particular, one young outfit — the cosmetics company Glossier — seems to stand out. Having products that customers like is undoubtedly one large reason why. The company’s “boy brow,” a kind of mascara meant to thicken and tame eyebrows, is particularly popular. But Glossier has also established a kind of cult following because of the numerous ways it keeps communication channels to its consumers wide open.

At a StrictlyVC event in San Francisco last week, Glossier’s founder, Emily Weiss, talked about focusing on ways to engage customers that more traditional brands had neglected. Weiss, a former fashion assistant who launched Glossier several years after creating Into the Gloss — a site about women’s grooming routines that now attracts 1.5 million unique visitors monthly — also talked about the role of content in growing her business.

You can catch part of that talk below. Her interviewer is venture capitalist Eric Liaw of IVP, which recently led Glossier’s $24 million Series B round. In the meantime, here are some other interesting — and instructive — outtakes from that conversation.

On why Weiss launched Glossier in 2013, after creating Into the Gloss out of her apartment in 2010:

Here, Weiss talked about the many influential people she’d come to interview for Into the Gloss, including J.Crew’s creative director Jenna Lyons, serial entrepreneur Arianna Huffington and professional celebrity Kim Kardashian. “I’d be sitting on their bathroom floors and squeezing tubes of creams and … discussing the big wide world of beauty, and I realized there was a disconnect” between the leading beauty conglomerates and their customers, said Weiss. Though many women seemed to have an affinity for certain products, they didn’t necessarily know anything about those brands’ values or communicate with them in any way. Weiss spied an opportunity to rectify that by “building a company around what women want, not just from a product perspective but from an engagement perspective, from a distribution perspective, and from a values perspective.”

Could she have built Glossier if Into the Gloss hadn’t attracted a following first? Could she have launched the two in reverse order?

As a “content-first” company, it’s a question that Weiss receives a lot, evidently. But she doesn’t see the two businesses — the blog and the cosmetics line — as distinct. “Sure,” she’d said, “we could be like a lot of consumer brands that start blogs after they start their business. But in our case, I think Glossier is still very much a content company. I think about our products themselves as pieces of content.” How, exactly? Because many of its customers purchase its products, photograph them, then upload them to social media — often knowing Glossier will re-post them to its own accounts. In fact, she likened Glossier’s products to “crayons” for its customers.

On how the brand has stayed “authentic” versus becoming seen as more commercial:

Weiss noted that in 2017, not only is the customer always right, but thanks to social media — whether it’s a product review on Amazon or an Instagram post — that customer “has a microphone and she’s reaching 50, 500, 5,000 or 500,000 of her nearest and dearest friends and is able to talk about her preferences.”

To ensure she is saying only positive things about Glossier, the company focuses on maintaining product quality, of course. “Ultimately we’re making and selling a consumer good that needs to work and that needs to make customers happy.”

But Glossier is also very focused on transparency and “voice,” Weiss explained. “We like to think that whenever we talk to [our customer] through captions on Instagram or through email or through copy on the site, that we’re writing text messages to a friend.” For Glossier, “staying true to that voice has created a lot of loyalty and trust with our customers,” she said.

Other reasons that Glossier has struck a chord with its customer base:

One point we found particularly interesting during Weiss’s talk was about Glossier’s willingness to acknowledge and support other brands, which apparently adds to the feeling that Glossier has its customers’ best interests at heart. Said Weiss: “In the old days of beauty marketing and even still today, beauty brands refuse to show other brands in their Instagram feeds; they live in their own world of Cover Girl and they aren’t acknowledging customer behavior. [T]he reality is that [women] are mixing and matching and everyone is creating their own recipe for how they want to look, and we at Glossier really encourage and celebrate that.”

She went on to say that though Glossier has established a reputation around a dewy, fresh-faced look — its mantra is “skin first, makeup second” — anyone can use its products, including someone like Kardashian, who isn’t known for her sparse use of makeup. The reason, said Weiss, is that Kardashian can use the company’s “priming moisturizer underneath her 13 other makeup products.” (She apparently has, too.)

A big question for Glossier — which now has several hundred thousand users, says Weiss — is whether it can expand beyond its current user base of mostly 18- to 35-year-olds. Here, Liaw asked if it can grow up and older alongside its consumers.

Weiss acknowledged the company’s base is comprised of mostly younger users, but she said that Glossier “does have women in their 60s writing in, and saying, ‘We love your brand and products.'” Where? In comments in the company’s net promoter system (a management tool that’s used to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships). “I read every single comment that comes in,” said Weiss.

On this same topic, Weiss noted that one of her favorite bits of recent feedback came via a user who tweeted that Glossier is the first beauty brand that this person is “passing up,” including to mothers and older friends (versus an established brand that’s been handed down to them).

On the topic of user feedback, involving users and just how far Glossier takes its approach:

Glossier has become known for working with its customers to develop products, and Weiss elaborated on that point in her conversation with Liaw. “In our product development cycle, we ask and listen to our customer about what she wants.” After it solicited feedback in the development of what’s become one of its best-selling items, it received “thousands of comments from customers about everything from ingredients to price point to [the type of] pump the product should use.”

Glossier, which also has an active Instagram account where it often features customers, has also created a Slack group for a few hundred of its “top” customers who “now organize meet-ups, their own lunches — some of them work at other stores and give each other discounts.” Said Weiss, “There’s this whole network of women who are connected through Glossier.”

What happens next?

In addition to focusing on international growth, one focus this year will be to “stoke” Glossier’s “friend-of-a-friend recommendation system,” said Weiss. It’s no wonder, given that it contributed to 90 percent of the company’s sales last year (versus through paid marketing).

Weiss ran out of time to say so, but part of that campaign includes turning its staunchest supporters into formal representatives via a more formal arrangement that Quartz wrote about in December.

Glossier isn’t turning them into Mary Kay girls, it insists. Instead, think of it as its current referral program “on steroids,” Weiss told Quartz. “It comes back to making everyone an influencer.”