When customers feel connected with a brand, they’re 76% more likely to buy them over a competitor.
And that’s just the tip of the benefits iceberg.
Connected customers are more likely to refer, hang around, and hang out with brands they trust and feel drawn to as well.
But building connections of any kind is challenging. Especially in an age where consumers receive a tidal wave of ads for anything from novel pet collars to *checks Instagram feed* weird-shaped produce.
Which is why any brand that not only cuts through the noise but actually befriends consumers is worth noting. And one of the best examples in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) world is the pastel pink beauty hit Glossier.
To an outsider, Glossier’s success seems as effortless as their “woke up this way” cool girl image. But a dive behind the scenes shows that their rise to unicorn status has been anything but accidental.
Emily Weiss is the beautiful-yet-approachable founder of Glossier, and she dipped her toes into the fashion world early. At age 15, she babysat for a Ralph Lauren employee and boldly asked for an internship, which she landed.
After an art degree from NYU and a brief appearance on The Hills as the beloved Lauren Conrad’s nemesis, Weiss began working as an assistant at Vogue. While she was rubbing shoulders in that fashion world elite, she launched her own fashion blog titled Into the Gloss.
It explored the magic of the industry’s cool girls, and to say the site took off is an understatement. At its peak, it was earning 10 million page views per month. Wowza.
Around that time, Weiss faced a choice: keep cranking out early morning blog hours while holding a full-time job for Vogue...or go all-in for Into the Gloss. She chose Gloss and, in 2014, Weiss launched her DTC spin-off Glossier.
Glossier initially offered four beauty products that made the cool-casual image cultivated by Into the Gloss attainable for anyone with $16 to spare on eyebrow-fluffing grooming wands. And it turns out, a lot of people not only have that spare $16, they’re pretty damn interested in spending it at Glossier.
Glossier has raised over $190 million from investors, is valued at $1.2 billion, and, in 2018, doubled online sales to hit $100 million in revenue.
But Glossier didn’t glide into these financial stats (or their 2.8 million Instagram followers) with as little effort as their millennial fans exude in applying lip gloss.
In the US alone, revenue from cosmetics, fragrances, and personal care items tops $89 billion. Globally, the global beauty market is expected to exceed $716 billion by 2025.
That’s a huge industry, and it’s historically been dominated by a group of brands called Big Beauty. These are the names that act as dividers on store the makeup aisle (L’Oreal, Neutrogena, Estee Lauder) and that graced the inside flaps of Seventeen magazine for generations of teens.
These giants are long-standing, but Weiss also knew they were also struggling—particularly with younger audiences. She said in an interview with re/code, that the brands she grew up with had a tired way of “...speaking tops-down to customers, saying, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
That message worked for previous generations. But when Glossier was entering the market, younger people weren’t pulling out their wallets (or however they carry money these days) to buy it. They wanted something more personal, more conversational. They wanted a voice and say in crafting their personal style.
Weiss saw an opportunity to provide exactly that.
She said, “I saw the need for a beauty brand that speaks to its consumers directly, offering them a chance to engage beyond the traditional touchpoints of purchase, use, and mass marketing. That’s what we’ve created with Glossier—a beauty brand that we want to be friends with.”
But in order to befriend her customers, Weiss had to get to know them in a way few brands do. Here’s how she did it and what other brands can learn.
In an interview with Quartz, Weiss attributes 90% of revenue to one source—Glossier fans. She said, “It hasn’t been through paid or built marketing spend. It’s been mostly word-of-mouth.”
Glossier’s Marketing SVP elaborates, “We really listen carefully to our customer because, when we actually include her input in the product process, she truly becomes a stakeholder in the brand. And if she feels ownership over the brand, then she is much more likely to share it with her family and friends.”
No doubt, Glossier has become the fashion BFF customers actually want to share with their friends. Here’s some of how they did it.
Instead of wondering how many Boy Brow products are selling at CVS or which face masks customers are debating at the mall beauty counter, Weiss knows the answer. The DTC approach gives her first-hand access to data that most beauty brands lack.
This is intentional. Henry Davis, Glossier’s COO from 2014 to 2018, explained at Cannes Lions, “...if we really believe that having customers as a core part of the company is the way to build brands of the future, you have to start to own that relationship.”
And for Weiss, owning that relationship means selling directly to her fans, sans middle-man. In an interview with re/code, Weiss says, “The way we look at it is that we’re building this people-powered ecosystem...we have a direct relationship with every single person who buys something from us, unlike all of the incumbent companies that have built through retail channels.”
This direct relationship gives Glossier the unique opportunity to listen carefully to what her customers are saying. But all that listening isn’t a one-woman job.
Weiss has said that Glossier does three things very differently from other beauty companies. The first is the DTC channel they use. The second is discovery. And the third is “listening at scale.”
Glossier’s customer service team, called the “gTEAM,” specializes in the last two: discovery and listening at scale. To be clear, this isn’t your typical customer service team motivated by number of tickets closed.
Yes, the gTEAM does own and provide support on channels like Twitter and Instagram. But their responsibilities go way beyond resolving order issues. At Glossier, the gTEAM is part of the larger marketing department, and it contributes to product development and brand strategy as well.
In fact, members of the gTEAM are called ‘editors’ because of the way they shape content across the entire company.
In an interview with Mixpanel, Glossier’s SVP of Marketing Ali Weiss (no, she’s not related to Emily), explains, “Our marketing insights team is positioned to act as a ‘neutral contributor’ to our team and ask questions of the data for us. What I really value about the individuals on that team is that they not only can deliver the answer to, let’s say, how many orders contain a particular product or how many repeat customers came back in a week, they can pull the instinctual answers also, around why that might be.”
That instinct is refined by a heck of a lot of listening. In a separate conversation with Wired, Ali Weiss talks about all the places Glossier gathers customer input: Instagram comments, tweets, emails, product reviews, article comments, the 19k member Into the Gloss Facebook group, and posts in the r/Glossier subreddit.
This listening, among other things, helps the gTEAM nail conversational marketing. They’re very good at speaking their customer’s language.
When Weiss was refining her idea for Glossier, she went through “the exercise of looking across 20 or 10 beauty brands, thinking about whether or not I would buy that sweatshirt, wear that sweatshirt… I just kept coming up with the answer ‘no.’”
Sidebar: Weiss totally nailed the whole sweatshirt thing for her own brand. When Glossier first released their pastel pink hoodie, 10k people joined a waitlist to buy it.
But while it may be soft and pretty, it’s not really the hoodie customers love; it’s the brand. And there are at least three ways Glossier became the cool girl everyone wants to be seen with.
Glossier shoots campaigns and product images with iPhones—you know, the way their customers might do it.
This gives Glossier’s imagery a more down-to-earth vibe. On the homepage, the models are undeniably gorgeous, but they’re not perfect. You see their pores, beauty marks, and scars—so-called flaws other brands would edit out. This fits with Glossier’s whole mission.
The site copy proclaims, “Glossier is a new approach to beauty. It’s about fun and freedom and being OK with yourself today.”
It also helps that most of Glossier’s models are team members or customers they find through Instagram. Weiss says, “...we’ll just direct message girls who have a cool look and we’ll be like ‘hey, can we fly you to New York to be in our campaign?’”
Sure, some of the customers happen to be models (like Weiss herself), but Glossier’s customers see them as more “real” and that’s what matters.
Many Glossier fans aspire to be a customer rep. Reps get (or used to get) a landing page on Glossier where they can showcase their favorite Glossier products.
They also get a custom link friends and family can use for a small discount. In return, the rep gets a mixture of commission and credit toward their own purchases.
Building this evangelist network was a smart marketing move for a number of reasons.
For starters, it works. Shortly after expanding this network, Weiss said, “...it’s really outperforming our wildest expectations.” It also aligns with how customers want to buy from brands. When Hubspot looked into how customers make purchase decisions, they found buyers strongly prefer recommendations.
This system also has another, less obvious benefit: it reduces the gTEAM’s workload. Across every media channel, motivated customers hop in and answer questions from community members, effectively reducing how many messages the gTEAM has to answer.
For example, when I casually tweeted for product tint recommendations and tagged Glossier, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Two Glossier fans quickly responded with advice, heart emojis, pet names, and discount links.
Fun fact: that 10% discount is listed as a “BFF” promo during checkout. #onbrand
Turns out, this is a big part of how Glossier plans to scale their whole people-first approach.
Weiss told re/code, “so much of how we serve our customers is actually our customers talking to each other. If you go into one of our two stores, or even if you look in our comments section on an Instagram post, people are answering each other’s questions...they’re really doing a lot of that work for us.”
When the gTEAM does hop into conversations, they take a friendly, relatable approach. They use emojis and sound like one of your friends (assuming your friends are laid back and fashionable). They have opinions and crack jokes.
A former gTEAM editor explained to Glossy, “We never want our customers to feel as if they’re talking to a robot, because they’re not.” Customers don’t get canned responses—they get a human with a personality, thorough understanding of emojis, and readiness to talk shop.
Another former editor explains, “When I’m having a conversation with a customer, I don't just fire off pre-written responses. I'll say, ‘Oh, I use this product this way and that way…’ and then they’ll talk about how they use it and ask me questions.”
All this conversation, between Glossier and customers, creates loads of qualitative data. And like the smart brand they are, Glossier doesn’t let that feedback sit on the shelf.
On the hiring portion of their site, one of Glossier’s 5 core values is devoted to the customer. They boast, “We are a people-powered ecosystem; our community and customers are at the core of everything we do. We listen to their voices intently, and with each decision we make, we ask ourselves, ‘What’s best for the customer?’”
Put another way, Glossier is a big believer in customer feedback loops. They use their DTC approach and customer-focused teams to gather inputs; apply those inputs to product development, campaigns, and store openings; and then keep listening.
Lather, rinse, repeat, and profit.
Here are a few examples:
Nowadays, when an employee joins Glossier, they’re required to work a two-hour shift in one of their new retail stores.
This is a recent program that gives every team member a first-hand look at the customer experience,= from order fulfillment to interacting with customers who walk through the door. Marketing SVP Ali Weiss, who came up with this idea, told Forbes, “As a digital-first company, our physical retail presence is still fairly new, so it’s important to give our employees scalable insights from customers who are making pilgrimages to our physical stores.”
Those insights help team members pattern-match. Weiss elaborates, “Being in our pop-up stores and long-term retail locations allows me to gather real-time customer insights across another important touchpoint and helps me look for themes and patterns in customer feedback.”
Glossier then uses those themes and patterns to refine products, campaigns, and experiences.
Back in the day, Glossier had a Slack group of 100 customers the gTEAM regularly chatted with for ideas and feedback. That particular Slack group no longer exists, but Glossier hasn’t stopped tapping into its audience for feedback.
For example, back in January 2015, Weiss wanted to develop a face wash. To figure out what goes into the perfect face wash, Weiss asked customers.
On the Into the Gloss blog, she posted: “What would your dream cleanser look like? Smell like? Feel like? Do for you? Not do for you? Who would play this cleanser in a movie?”
The post received over 370 comments and, about a year later, Glossier released the “Milky Jelly Cleanser.” While that sounds particularly gross to me (milk and jelly? On my face??), it’s spot-on for customers. It has 2,600 reviews and an average 4.3 star rating on Glossier’s site.
In a company blog post, Lindsey Manas, who served as the Physical Product Developer from 2015-2016, explains more about how the comments on Weiss’s post played a big role in developing the hit product. She says they took the comments, consolidated them, and “sent right to our chemist. There were key words like ‘mild,’ ‘glowy,’ ‘moist.’ That became the checklist for everything we wanted in the final product.”
P.S. If you’re curious about Weiss’s question around who’d play this cleanser in a movie, customers answered that too. Weiss determined it’s, “one part Cate Blanchett...one part Tilda Swinton's ingenuity, some of Lupita Nyong'o's eternal glow, with the natural proclivities of Shailene Woodley and the girlish joie de vivre of Elle Fanning. Plus Eddie Redmayne, because hello glowing, freckled skin.”
These specifics helped Weiss’s team track down the perfect dewy redhead to model in the campaign. Go figure.
Polling Into the Gloss readers isn’t the only tactic the Glossier team has tucked into their straight leg white Levis.
In an interview with Mixpanel, Ali Weiss explains that, in 2018, Glossier took a different approach to developing and marketing their exfoliator, Solution. Instead of polling the Into the Gloss audience, Glossier involved a select 60 customers in Solution’s launch. These customers received the product early and, in return, Glossier got to use their stories and feedback in the product’s marketing campaign.
One cool thing about these campaigns though, is Glossier doesn’t recruit customers for launch then say “see ya!” They review what customers have to say after it, too.
Ali Weiss told Mixpanel, “To find out if we made the right bet, we always go back to what our customers say. Often, our customers tell us what the brand makes them feel: It makes them feel like they can make good choices or it makes them feel empowered. If a campaign reaffirms that feeling, then we can confidently move forward.”
As Harvard Business Review points out, “The strongest feedback loops do more than just connect customers, the front line, and a few decision makers in management…they keep the customer front and center across the entire organization.”
Glossier’s loops do just that. Here are three other big-picture takeaways for brands looking to do something similar.
“Community” is a hot marketing buzzword these days, and for good reason. A chatty audience is a great way to amass a ton of feedback.
But audiences take a lot of time and effort to develop. Weiss started the Into the Gloss blog, which still generates customers, a decade ago...and a full four years before launching any products.
This paid off when she started Glossier (the brand had 15k Instagram followers when the site launched) and it continues to pay off today. Weiss told re/code, “Full stop, 70 percent of our growth so far has been through owned, earned, peer to peer or organic.” But that didn’t happen overnight.
Much of Glossier’s audience success is due to:
Once you have an audience that’s generating loads of qualitative data (no small feat), the next big trick is actually using that data.
Most companies say they value customer feedback. But even if they succeed at collecting it, they have a hard time knowing what to do with what customers say.
Glossier tackles this gap through their model (DTC), company structure (the gTEAM), culture, and weekly practices. This means, if other DTC brands want to model Glossier’s customer-first approach, they’ll need more than an audience. They’ll need the internal structure and practices to harness that audience.
This can look like a team or person dedicated to the customer—understanding them, analyzing them, and bringing their perspective to various parts of the company.
It can also look like piping raw customer data wherever team members will see it. Weiss told re/code that all their net promoter score feedback and related comments from customers are constantly piped into Slack. Where, “everyone from me to my assistant, to an intern can read every day, just to stay connected to the customer. Sometimes it’s a single comment, or sometimes it’s a macro-trend that we hear about that translates into innovation.”
Whatever you do, don’t put feedback on a shelf.
Glossier doesn’t simply read a bunch of comments and go with whatever their gut or cute office snacks whispers to them. While the art of instinct is certainly part of it, Glossier also relies on various types of technology to help them parse and apply customer data.
Ali Weiss told Wired, “Technology is the key to building one-to-one relationships at scale,” and alluded to social media tools the team uses to gather insights and data. Plus, a Segment case study reveals that Glossier relies heavily on analytics to bring data from all parts of the customer journey together.
Brian Mahoney, who served as Glossier’s CTO from 2017-2019, confessed, “Not only does our customer journey data end up in our analytics tools, but we’re able to use those insights in our email campaigns. When we launch a new product, we know based on reading habits which of our customers will be interested in the product and can reach out to them in a way that is customized and relevant.”
Glossier stays on the cutting edge of commerce and customer experience, yes, by listening to their audience. But also by using smart tools that help them organize and apply what customers are saying.
👆 This is a huge reason why we built LearnWhy! Read more about how we help you make sense of customer feedback in minutes.
Whew, we covered a lot of ground there. Here’s a recap of what we can learn from Glossier and their relationship with customers:
On gathering and listening to feedback from customers
On using feedback to improve experience
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go wait on my first Glossier package. 😉
Hey I'm Stuart 👋 Each week I share new tactics and lessons learned in our newsletter. It's short and actionable every time.