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Senior Lecturer Jill Avery prepared this case. It was reviewed and approved before publication by a company designate. Funding for the development of this case was provided by Harvard Business School and not by the company. Certain details have been disguised. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management. Copyright © 2019 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to This publication may not be digitized, photocopied, or otherwise reproduced, posted, or transmitted, without the permission of Harvard Business School.


Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community

Forging personal relationships among people through the sharing of digital content was foundational to Glossier, a digitally native, direct-to-consumer beauty brand. The company described its strategy as “born from content, fueled by community,” and its community was squarely at the center of everything it did. Its brand had emerged from a popular beauty blog, Into The Gloss, launched by founder and CEO Emily Weiss, which provided data from 1.5 million passionate readers to help inspire new products and an army of enthusiastic brand advocates to proselytize the brand.

Engaging Glossier’s growing community was on the minds of Senior Vice President of Marketing Alexandra Weissa (HBS ‘15) and President and Chief Financial Officer Henry Davis as they debated marketing strategy for the second half of 2018. The company, following multiple fundraising rounds that had yielded $86 million from venture capital investors, had grown rapidly, with sales up 600% in 2017. Despite this success, Emily had even larger ambitions. She dreamed of using relationships to fundamentally change the way women discovered and purchased beauty products—to create a social brand sold via human-centered social commerce. She explained,

I think there is a massive opportunity. There is much more for us to continue to solve, if we can truly create a new brand paradigm. How can we create the first socially driven brand, the first beauty brand that involves its community in its creative process? We want to do that by inserting people into the buying experience, so that we’re merchandising people’s opinions and stories just as much as we are merchandising products. We’re striving not for a breadth of assortment like Amazon, but rather for a breadth of human connections.

Weiss and Davis were debating marketing strategies that recognized the opportunities and challenges of managing Glossier’s rapidly scaling customer community, which had grown threefold in 2017. In February 2018, the company had closed an oversubscribed $52 million Series C round. This gave them a lot of runway to think about new ways to acquire, engage, and retain customers, beyond the company’s traditional reliance on owned and earned investments in Into The Gloss and Instagram and direct-to-consumer e-commerce sales. Most of its growth had been organically derived from these

a Alexandra Weiss coincidentally shares a name with founder Emily Weiss, but the two are not related. For simplicity, Emily will be referred to as “Emily” throughout the case, while Alexandra will be referred to as “Weiss.”

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millennial-friendly digital properties that allowed the company to pursue what Racked dubbed “no- commerce commerce” and “marketing without marketing.” 1 As they looked to the future, the three were considering whether the company’s next phase of growth would need to be fueled by a greater emphasis on paid media and/or a more physical market presence. They were debating whether to convert Glossier’s evangelistic consumers into paid peer-to-peer sales representatives, whether to engage professional influencers, and how to continue to use the community to inspire new product ideas as it diversified beyond early adopters. On the table was also a question of whether to expand Glossier’s availability beyond the digital to physical retail.

Creating a Trusted Voice and Building a Community

Emily, a former art student and styling assistant at fashion magazines W and Vogue, had achieved an almost mythical status. BuzzFeed dubbed her the “patron saint of dewy skin, no-makeup makeup.” 2 Forbes named her to its 2015 “30 Under 30” list when she was 29, just a few short years after she launched Into The Gloss in 2010 at age 25. She recalled the impetus for its founding:

When I started Into The Gloss, I wanted to make beauty as much of an element of personal style as fashion. As I interviewed hundreds of women, I became more aware of how flawed the traditional beauty paradigm is. It has historically been an industry based on experts telling you what you should or shouldn’t be using on your face. I wanted to reinvent the beauty experience by creating a brand that celebrates you for who you are today, and isn’t prescriptive about what you should or shouldn’t use in your routine.

She filled Into The Gloss with high-quality product reviews and comparisons, beauty how-to’s, and intimate, behind-the-scenes tours into the daily beauty routines of inspiring individuals who opened their medicine cabinets to Emily for private “Top Shelf” interviews (see Exhibit 1), dubbed by voyeuristic readers as “medicine cabinet porn.” Participants revealed the products they used and spoke candidly about their own issues and insecurities, from aging to acne. The series encouraged readers to proudly share their own beauty routines, using the hashtag #itgtopshelfie (see Exhibit 2), something that society had made women reluctant to talk about.

Entrepreneur described the blog’s writing as “cultivated but conversational, light but not silly; the graphic design, sophisticated and inviting; and the photography, beautiful.”3 Emily declared, “Into The Gloss’s beauty authority is bolstered by our access to industry experts and award-winning content. We are the internet’s hub for quality beauty conversation.” Emily and a team of four were soon publishing four stories per day and attracting 1.5 million unique visitors and 10 million page views per month. Conversations were happening, with most posts receiving hundreds of comments from readers, who shared their routines, swapped beauty tips, and provided product reviews. Recalled Emily, “Everyone can be their own expert, their own curator . . . we’re encouraging everyone to build their own top shelf, making active a whole range of women who were otherwise passive beauty consumers.”4

This activity kept advertisers like Lancôme, who used Into The Gloss to reach prospective customers, happy. Advertising revenue soon reached $5 million. However, explained Davis, Into The Gloss was much more than a platform for selling products:

Into The Gloss isn’t about product. It never really was. It’s about the person wearing the product. It’s a way to discover products, but that influence comes from the story of a person and an affinity that you have for them. Its sole purpose is to inspire and activate people to talk about beauty and to bring them together. It’s about owning the discovery piece of the funnel. We just want to have a conversation with you.

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Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community 519-022


By 2014, it had dawned on Emily that her intimate conversations with 1.5 million Into The Gloss readers and her social media interactions with 200,000 Instagram followers and 60,000 Facebook fans were yielding incredible insight into the current state of the beauty market. She noted,

There wasn’t one “aha” moment. I love all the beauty products I use and yet there has not been a brand that has come to define my generation. I want to think about what beauty means today . . . What do people want? What do they care about?5 Women today have different needs than we have had in the past, but beauty companies haven’t necessarily been the most reactive to that.6 There wasn’t a brand that spoke to women in an approachable way, while delivering a luxury experience and encouraging beauty as a part of an overall personal style . . . we set out to demystify beauty and create basics inspired by the content and conversations from the beauty blog.7

She decided to create a new brand, Glossier, to house a curated and edited collection of products to fulfill the desires of her community. She saw Glossier’s launch as an evolution of her initial mission for Into The Gloss, but with an opportunity to turn her written content into tactile products. She said,

With years of insight on what women want and expect from their products, and having tested and scrutinized countless products ourselves, we launched our vision of the modern beauty essentials . . . Our editorial approach is the key ingredient to Glossier’s success—we’re product experts, we’re content experts, and we’re experts at building our community. We’re reinventing the beauty experience for girls who aspire to be proud of who they are. We believe in democratizing beauty . . . having conversations, the power of individuals, beauty in real life. Glossier will be a modern beauty brand made by editors in NYC who “get” what works, inspired by what girls want in real life.

Partnering with a chemist and a contract manufacturer, she developed plans to launch four everyday essentials for which her readers were clamoring. She also began talking to Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures. Recalled Green, who provided $2 million in seed capital, “I see a lot of beauty brands that are beautiful, but we’re trying to work with founders who are looking at the entire thing holistically, from a unique viewpoint. What Emily was pitching was a multilayered vision. She wasn’t out there pitching Glossier; she was really thinking differently.” 8 A few months later, the products were ready for Glossier’s October 2014 launch. Into The Gloss’s readers were the first to hear about it, via a friendly, personal blog post from Emily (see Exhibit 3 for excerpts).

Taking on Big Beauty Glossier was operating on the forefront of an emerging, more democratic beauty paradigm, one

fueled by consumer-to-consumer conversations on social media that challenged the previous hegemony of big brands. Emily described it as follows:

In the past, there was homogeneity in beauty. Women were told by the big beauty companies what was beautiful and then aspired to achieve that image. There wasn’t a plethora of options, there wasn’t a plethora of influence. Today, beauty is all about individualism. It’s about making individual choices based on an endless array of beauty content. It used to be that brands were the sole owners of opinion; that’s no longer the case. Influence has been completely decentralized and now is in the hands of individual consumers. You don’t have to listen to a brand, you can listen to literally hundreds of people. Social media is the gateway to this transformation. Sixty percent of women say that the #1 reason they are persuaded to buy a new beauty product is because of a peer’s

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This document is authorized for use only by Jia ye Li in MIS 441 – Global E-Commerce-1 taught by Richard Johnson, Washington State University from Jan 2022 to Jun 2022.

519-022 Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community


recommendation. That doesn’t mean sitting across from each other in person. That means finding peers on YouTube that you’ve never met who are creating videos or your friends on Instagram from around the world whom you follow.

We learned a lot from listening to people. We realized that big beauty brands were irrelevant to consumers. They didn’t know where products were coming from, they didn’t know the brands behind them and what their values were, and they didn’t care. There was product loyalty, but the products were becoming separated from brands. A woman might say, “I love my Great Lash mascara, but I don’t really give a f*&% about Maybelline.”

We want to reframe and create a new type of beauty brand, a new paradigm for what a beauty brand can be to a generation that is really disconnected from existing brands as a result of years of distancing. How can we make a beauty brand whose sweatshirt you want to wear? Why, in fashion, are there cultlike followings, strong affinities, and tribes forming around certain brands, but in beauty, products are just commodities?

Emily was taking on the $433 billion global beauty industry, projected to grow to $750 billion by 20249 and dominated by eight companies (see Exhibit 4). While big brands had ruled for decades, more recently, niche brands were gaining ground. Over the past five years, the largest brands had lost market share to smaller brands.10 Observed an investor in the category, “Beauty is a quarter-trillion-dollar industry, and the majority of that market is comprised of products made by stodgy, slow, offline competitors that sell through third-party retailers. These are companies that only hear from their customers through focus groups and outsourced surveys. Product development is limited by shelf space constraints and quarters-old sell-through data . . . Glossier is positioned to disrupt this.” 11

While over 80% of beauty and personal care products were still purchased through physical retailers, direct-to-consumer digital brands were gaining traction. 12 Consumers were increasingly fickle and easily swayed by peer influence, explained Adweek, “Whereas older generations of consumers pledged loyalty to one of two department store beauty counters, today’s young women are comfortable going on to purchase a product they only just learned about from a YouTube vlogger.”13 Consumers were turning to peers for product recommendations, viewing YouTube video tutorials and combing through celebrity influencers’ Instagram feeds. Explained Adweek, “It’s clear that Instagram has replaced the magazine rack as the dominant platform for discovering, engaging with, and buying beauty products.”14 As a result, all brands were leveraging social media and influencer marketing to speak directly with consumers. Big brands were fighting back by launching incubator and accelerator programs for nascent brands, acquiring brands currying favor with consumers, and doubling down on research labs to search for the next wave of ingredients, technologies, or trends that could drive growth.

Community Inspired R&D From the start, Glossier used the information its community provided in daily conversations on Into

The Gloss as fuel for its research and development (R&D) engine, which was tasked with delivering a continuous stream of new products—launching one, on average, every six weeks, produced by contract manufacturer partners. By 2018, the company offered a carefully curated, edited line of 26 products (see Exhibit 5), which ranged from $12 to $60, placing the brand at a higher price point than mass- market and drugstore brands, but lower than most brands sold by specialty retailers or in department stores. Emily explained, “We don’t offer 1,000 SKUs and 500 shades: we only make products that that the Glossier girl wants and needs.”

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Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community 519-022


Glossier was riding trends for natural skin. Rather than covering up with cosmetics, consumers were looking to show off their healthy skin, carefully contoured and highlighted to accentuate natural features without appearing overly fussed over. A Google search for “no makeup” yielded over 5 million results, many of which were links to tutorials on using cosmetics to achieve a fresh-faced look. New York Magazine described Glossier’s aesthetic as “makeup for people who are already pretty . . . It’s the idea that peeling away artifice and pomp leads to an even more thrilling beauty: the real thing . . . The makeup is for gilding your lovely lily, for people who reject the beauty-queen, done-face ideal.”15

Emily personally responded to comments as she asked Into The Gloss readers for their opinions on every aspect of her company. For example, as she was considering developing a new facial cleanser, she reached out via a blog post entitled “What’s your dream cleanser?” Nearly 400 comments helped her shape the Milky Jelly face wash. Her direct and timely responses and friendly, conversational tone made readers feel like they were talking to a real person rather than a nameless, faceless corporation. As a result, customers “[felt] like the brand itself was a close friend—a friend who was maybe a little older, and maybe a little cooler, who maybe moved to the city when you stayed in your hometown but never lost her sense of humor or humility—more likely to cross her eyes in a photograph than make a duck face.”16 The company initiated a Slack group and invited 100 of its top customers to engage with company representatives. Top NYC customers were invited to Glossier’s office for pizza and rosé, where they swapped stories and tested products alongside Glossier team members.

These activities stemmed from Emily’s belief that consumers were the ultimate authority on beauty. She expressed, “It doesn’t really matter what Glossier says. Like who are we to say which products are great? We are not an authority. Our voice is no more important than anyone else’s. We are a conduit and an enabler and a creator and a listener. The more we can connect consumers to each other is what’s important, not how much we connect them to us.” She continued, “The need for brands as bearers of truth, as arbiters of taste, is kind of a thing of the past. I think beauty has become liberated, democratized, and Glossier is just a brand built on those principles.” 17 Davis concurred,

What does it mean to be a Glossier customer? You’re a stakeholder in all this. We’re listening to you. The brand, the products, everything we do reflects your input. We create this type of brand-customer interaction that’s much more “brand as peer” versus “brand as authority.” Think of what luxury brands do. They build this amazing temple and then chisel off a tiny bit of marble and give it to consumers and expect them to feel good about it because they get to own a small piece of something amazing. We’re building a temple and inviting consumers to come inside and be an integral part of it. If you can create a branded environment and experience for people where they can get that fix of “I just want to be a part of this”—then, it’s not about buying things. It’s about belonging to something.

Other brands, such as ColourPop, were using big data to generate new product releases in a process that replicated a fast fashion model to capitalize on of-the-moment trends in color, ingredients, or style. Glossier preferred to listen, research, and release more slowly. Due to Emily’s commitment to excellence, often a full year passed between the time Emily solicited input from the community and a new product was available in the market. For example, she experimented with over 40 formulas for the Milky Jelly product before she landed on a solution. Glossier’s community-inspired product strategy was bearing fruit. Its initial products were an instant success and many subsequent products sold out within days or weeks. By mid-2016, Glossier had 60,000 people on product waiting lists. When asked if sell-outs were a scarcity tactic designed to generate additional buzz and demand, Emily ruefully shook her head, answering, “It makes us so sad when we can’t give people what they want. Period.” 18

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519-022 Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community


As the team considered the future, they debated whether community input should continue to be the driving force for innovation or whether the company should invest its resources in scientists to fuel a R&D lab and exert more editorial control. Mused Emily, “You can learn what consumers want by going to Google trends to see that contouring has gone up in the last 30 days. When you have the volume of people we have on our platform, 50 million people, then we can look for trends within our own ecosystem and ask ourselves ‘which ones should we follow?’ But perhaps, we should have the final say as editors. Maybe we are approaching a time where we shouldn’t listen to the customer because we have to trust our vision for the brand.” Weiss concurred, “Our customers have asked for every type of product. We need to combine what we hear from them with our editorial instinct, which helps us understand what will make it better and different from what is on the market.”

The Glossier community grew larger and more heterogeneous, attracting new customers beyond the bicoastal millennials originally attracted to the brand. How could Emily keep up with listening to, responding to, and incorporating feedback from the now hundreds of thousands of customer comments that were coming in each week? Worried Davis, “I think authenticity is key and bringing the customer along on the journey with you. That comes from being very close to consumers. It’s hard to do if you’re a big company, but today, we’re small, we’re nimble, and we have lots of feedback loops. So, how do we sustain that as we scale?” The team also wondered whether Glossier should democratically listen to all of its customers or just a select few as it solicited new product ideas.

The team was conflicted about whether to focus new product development on hero products that would create product loyalty or to think more broadly about how to create a fuller line that would engender broader brand loyalty. Emily noted an increasing number of consumers buying multiple Glossier SKUs. She saw potential in thinking beyond individual products to building holistic consumer-brand relationships, noting, “We want to be more than just the company that makes your moisturizer. I see Glossier as the first beauty lifestyle brand. I believe Glossier is more than just beauty or beauty products. It’s a way of life.”

Building a Social Brand As Emily thought about what she wanted her brand to be, she realized that, unlike other brands

that prospered by making women feel insecure about their appearance, she wanted her brand to make them feel good about it. (Exhibits 6 and 7 highlight Glossier’s initial brand inspiration board, its mission, and its brand proposition.) Emily envisioned her prospective customers as close friends and developed a brand voice that reflected this aspiration. This was reflected in website copy that read: “Trust us, we’re you. Geeking out over beauty is fun, and we’re lucky to have a community of likeminded customers and readers who get it. We’re the beauty brand that wants to be friends with you—mostly because we’re not so much a brand as we are real people over here just trying to rethink the beauty industry and have a good time doing it.” Copywriters were given the following instructions:

Would you talk to your friends that way? We should talk about our products like we talk about any product on Into The Gloss—thoughtful, informative, down-to-earth, and fun to read. Typical branded copy can feel stiff, like there’s a hired agency machine behind the words rather than an actual person who lives and breathes whatever they’re writing about. When writing copy for Glossier, pretend you’re writing to a good friend.

The brand’s identity featured a simple logo, a curvy graphic G on a field of soft, washed-out pink so distinctive that consumers began taking photos of it as it appeared in nature or in everyday life and tagging them #glossierpink. The brand’s own photography featured diverse women, described by Emily as “real girls that easily convey the Glossier spirit—hopeful, positive, natural, and inspiring. We

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Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community 519-022


select a mixture of posed and off moments . . . We embrace natural skin texture and actual product payoff—shine, coverage, etc. Pores and blemishes are welcome.” Many were not professional models, but rather Glossier consumers.

The brand was built to be social media–friendly. Minimalistic packaging and graphics were used because they would photograph well. Explained Emily, “We think of things from a content perspective: How would this show up in a user-generated photo?” 19 Each shipment contained stickers to personalize products or festoon phones. Items were packaged in signature pink reusable bubble wrap pouches to protect them during shipping, and which were also widely used by on-the-go consumers to transport beauty essentials (see Exhibit 8). Weiss likened them to Apple’s highly visible ear buds: “Our pink pouch has become like white AirPods, where you see someone with one of our pouches and you just know that they are part of the Glossier community. Oftentimes, they spark conversation among strangers because that pink pouch means you have a shared connection with them.”

After customers clamored for a Glossier sweatshirt worn by model Karlie Kloss in an Instagram selfie, the team launched branded merchandise including sweatshirts, totes, headbands, and logo pins, to “give our customers a way to incorporate Glossier into her life beyond the medicine cabinet,” said Emily. She continued, “We aim to get you to be brand inspired and to have some relationship to our brand. It should be because our brand is fun; it gives an extra layer of meaning to your morning ritual and to your engagement with the product. That makes it no longer a commodity.” Added Davis, “Many brands represent something that doesn’t get beyond the bathroom. They’re tools. There isn’t that visceral response in the way that there is to a fashion brand. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

The Cult of Glossier Consumers responded enthusiastically. Entrepreneur proclaimed, “Glossier inspires a kind of

devotion and intrigue unmatched in the traditionally fickle beauty space,” while BuzzFeed remarked “the brand quickly ascended to cult status.” 20 Consumers acted like fan girls, posting incessantly on social media (see Exhibit 9) and waiting feverishly for new product releases. The continuous flow of products spurred them on; the six-week release cycle allowing time to order, use the product, share on social media, and then move on to the next one. Explaining her obsession, customer and beauty editor Tynan Sinks wondered, “Maybe it’s because Glossier feels inclusive, like any of us could be a Glossier girl.” 21 Customer and beauty blogger Claire Carusillo proclaimed, “There’s something intimate and cliquish, almost conspiratorial, about the brand. You’re part of this crowd and you don’t want to stray from it too much.” 22 Emily defined Glossier as a cult brand rather than as a niche brand for a particular sort of woman because it engendered a sense of belonging and a community for many different types of people. She explained:

You build a cult brand by focusing on values. Think about how you pick your friends, you gravitate toward people who share the same interests, beliefs, and ways of looking at the world. I want people to say, “Oh, Glossier is a brand I want to be friends with.” I want customers who I want to be friends with. It cuts both ways. That comes from a value system that’s deeply embedded and trickles down to who we hire, how we involve consumers, how we respond when they are happy and when they’re not. It’s a culture of optimism, thoughtfulness, and inclusivity that creates a cult. What is a cult if not a shared belief system and a way of living? So, a cult forms, it is not created. Like attracts like.

When asked why Glossier consumers were so engaged, Jessica White, Executive Director of Customer, cited the Customer Experience (CX) team. She elaborated, “Most CX teams are run like an operations function, where all they care about is reducing cost per customer interaction. We flipped

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519-022 Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community


this principle on its head. We actually want to talk to our customers because we believe that talking to you is valuable—valuable to you and valuable to us. So, we actively listen and care what you think.”

The company focused on empowering Glossier’s customers to share their passion for the brand, outsourcing many marketing tasks to them. During the first year, the team spent little on paid marketing; instead, it drove nearly 80% of its sales from owned and earned media. Emily recalled her surprise when one month, the company sold what the team thought would be a f

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