Glossier, Postfeminism, and Spreadability

The beauty brand made for the Internet. (WGS.111 final project)

Emily Weiss announced the launch of her cosmetics company, Glossier, in a 2014 post on her popular beauty blog, Into the Gloss. In the post, she outlines the company’s central principles:

Glossier is about living in — and embracing — the now, not the past, and not the future. It’s about fun and freedom and being OK with yourself today. It’s about being nice to people and knowing that a smile begets a smile. Snobby isn’t cool, happy is cool.

Since then, Glossier has received much positive publicity: Refinery29 called it “your new favorite makeup line,” The New York Times published a profile of Weiss, and its products are well reviewed on MakeupAlley. Based in New York, Glossier has run ad campaigns on multiple public transit systems, including those of New York and San Francisco. These campaigns have propelled the brand’s aesthetic — young female models with dewy skin, black and white text on pale pink backgrounds, cutesy stickers— into the public eye.

Glossier advertising in a MTA subway station. Stickers on the left, white text on the right.

Much of the brand’s success has also relied on social media. An article on Racked.com mentions that an aim of the brand is to “[engender] a feeling of friendship in customers” and describes the brand’s endorsements by well-known influencers, its attempts to connect with rising beauty bloggers, and its referral program. Forbes calls Glossier “a beauty brand for Generation Instagram.”

Due to its unique position as a beauty startup connected to a blog, the brand acts simultaneously as a commercial product, a purveyor of messages about femininity, and a social media phenomenon. This essay will place Glossier’s branding in the context of postfeminism and spreadability, drawing comparisons to that of Clinique, an established cosmetics brand.

Glossier + Postfeminism

Our analysis of postfeminism draws heavily on the characteristics of postfeminism that Rosalind Gill outlines in “Postfeminist Media Culture?”. According to Gill, postfeminism “treats feminism essentially as ‘a lifestyle, an attitude, and identity’ and ‘assiduously avoids reference to feminist politics’” (253); it holds central “notions of choice, of ‘being oneself, and ‘pleasing oneself’” (259); and it touts effortlessness and women’s appearing “entirely confident, carefree, and unconcerned about their self-presentation” (262). Postfeminist media is also “intersectional” and “can never be examined separately from ‘race’” (250–251).

Glossier packaging. One of Glossier’s slogans is “Skin first, makeup second. Smile always.”

We first note Glossier’s feminine aesthetic and analyze its relationship to feminism. Outwardly, Glossier’s branding appears to celebrate femininity: its signature color is baby pink and all of its advertising includes only women. Upon comparison to Kirkham and Weller’s analysis of Clinique’s men and women’s lines, we note that like Clinique’s women’s line, Glossier channels femininity by using pastel colors in both its ads and its packaging. Typical of postfeminist media, its aesthetic appears to be a reaction to previous waves of feminism — in this case, versions of feminism that condemned girliness and conventional femininity. However, for all its celebration of femininity, neither the brand’s ads nor its social media profiles endorse any political views. Again consistent with Gill’s characterization of postfeminism, the brand sells a liberal vision of femininity but eschews feminism.

Glossier ad on the MTA.

One Glossier ad reads “Everyone says they’re ‘low-maintenance’ (It’s okay neither are we).” This ad captures several of the campaign’s postfeminist qualities. It speaks to the viewer in a “knowing” tone, targeting young female viewers who are likely to understand what it means to be “low-maintenance.” The ad “[hail] audiences as knowing and sophisticated customers, flattering them with their awareness of intertextual references” (Gill 266). It confronts a reality that Gill also acknowledges: women and girls are required to maintain femininity via rituals such as spa visits and skincare routines while trying to appear carefree — “low maintenance.”

Xiao Wen Ju for Glossier.

But Glossier is, after all, a cosmetics company, selling the very products that enable women to continue with this “maintenance.” In the end, Glossier’s acknowledgement of the situation does little to alter the social forces that lead women to call themselves “low-maintenance” in the first place. In “Am I Thin Enough Yet?”, Sharlene Hesse-Biber laments the modern woman’s struggle to maintain physical beauty at the expense of her control over “important aspects of selfhood that may challenge the status quo” (616). For all the social consciousness displayed in its ad, Glossier’s commercial interests squarely favor the status quo in which women spend their money on grooming themselves. Ultimately, it does little to alleviate women’s self-consciousness, and, for all its emphasis on happy women, sells products that still encourage drawing connections between a woman’s self-esteem and the appearance of her skin.

Gill states that “Notions of choice, of ‘being oneself’, and ‘pleasing oneself’ are central to the postfeminist sensibility that…suffuses contemporary Western media culture” (259). And indeed, Glossier’s branding suggests that women choose their skincare and beauty rituals to make themselves happy, ignoring the sorts of social pressures that may lead them to believe that skincare and beauty routines are essential in the first place. Below is another excerpt from Weiss’s 2014 announcement:

Foundation is not necessarily a skin-colored fluid. It’s your skin, your expression — that you choose to build on (or not). We’re laying the foundation for a beauty movement: one that celebrates real girls, in real life.

Consistent with Gill’s description, this excerpt and the Glossier slogan “Skin first, makeup second. Smile always.” convey the message that the choice to apply foundation is an act of female liberty, that Glossier seeks to lead a movement celebrating “real,” happy girls. Typically, when a woman in a subway station is told to smile, a man is on the other end of the message; Glossier attempts to subvert this message by printing it on a pink background in an ad campaign altogether devoid of men and masculinity. The message is that women should choose to be happy for their own sake, though possibly via the ritual of skincare and the consumption of Glossier products. Like Dove’s #RealBeauty campaign, Glossier’s focus on skincare suggests that it is not interested in fixing a woman’s flaws. It is merely interested in accentuating a woman’s existing beauty: in this case, through her skin.

Still, despite its purported emphasis on skincare and its attempts to distance itself from the makeup-oriented cosmetics industry, Glossier ads do not show its products clearing women’s acne. Like Clinique’s ads for its women’s products, Glossier’s ads do not contain much explanation or illustration of their purpose — they mostly show beautiful women holding their products. We observe that the models featured in these ads are already conventionally attractive, slender, young, and smooth-skinned. As Buzzfeed puts it, “The line promises a barely there, lit-from-within effect that plays up features instead of masking flaws, though of course this works better when your ‘flaw’ is a cute scar, winsome snaggletooth, or freckles — not cystic acne, purple under-eye bags, or a hirsute chin” (Tiku). Glossier celebrates natural beauty — insofar as it fits neatly within the boundaries of existing beauty standards. Despite the brand’s focus on “real girls,” it generally casts conventionally attractive models with well-established careers, women whose beauty requires no explanation.

Glossier ads in the subway. Note that in two of the images, no products are pictured.
Glossier’s site uses women of color to model of different shades of concealer. The brand also uses these models in its advertising.

Some Glossier ads do not even include an image of a product, relying purely on the assumption that women passing through the subway station understand why one would want to look like the models in the ads. In their analysis of Clinique products, Kirkham and Weller note that “Clinique advertisements do not directly imply `use this product and become more appealing to the opposite sex’…but…they draw on and are read in the context of that notion which occupies a powerful position in our culture” (271). This observation also applies to Glossier’s advertising; no men appear in any of the ads, the women do not appear to be posing to attract male attention, and there is no mention whatsoever of impressing men, but Glossier’s image of femininity is well aligned with existing beauty standards that arose in part due to patriarchal pressures.

A final manifestation of Glossier’s postfeminism occurs in its ad campaigns’ and website’s inclusion of women of color. Gill mentions this intersectionality in her description of postfeminism. We observe also that despite its inclusion of a variety of (thin, young, conventionally attractive, and dewy-skinned — but racially diverse) women, Glossier does not make explicit political statements about race. Like feminism, racial inclusiveness is taken as a given; it underlies the company’s aesthetic and helps the company sell its product, but it is never discussed in political terms.

Glossier + Spreadability

Before Glossier’s birth, Weiss’s blog Into the Gloss (ITG) helped popularize and normalize beauty routines. Aimee Williams, who has taught fashion courses at The New School and Parsons, describes her experience on ITG in the Fashion Studies Journal: “With each new feature, the site’s editorial candor framed the aspirational as quotidian — it normalized the idea of luxury for a mass audience. During the height of beauty blogging, Into the Gloss helped legitimize beauty as a collective cultural practice.” Indeed, ITG has amassed a considerable following: as early as 2012, it attracted over 220,000 unique visitors per month.

Glossier’s launch enabled Weiss to blur the line between media and business, with her readers becoming her consumers. Her loyal following on ITG enabled her to keep her audience-turned-market intimately engaged in the goings-on of Glossier. For instance, last year, Weiss published a letter detailing Glossier’s Series B funding. In the letter, Weiss emphasizes her readers’ importance, stating, “Including you is what we do” and “Thank you for being a part of this story — the reason for our being — and for writing this book with us.” Her tone remains casual, conveying the sense that she sees her audience as friends, as peers she intends to serve through both her media and her products.

The post has 102 comments. The ITG community regularly engages with Weiss through their comments on her posts, Instagram photos, and tweets. Jay Rosen’s “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” traces the rise of self-published outlets such as blogs and podcasts, reducing audiences’ total reliance on Big Media. Weiss was herself a blogger, a member of “the former audience” who began producing her own media, but now she grants her own audience an even greater role in her own media — her readers are now Glossier customers, a group with a direct stake in her financial success.

Outside Glossier’s NYC showroom.

With Weiss’s considerable social media prowess at Glossier’s helm, perhaps it is no surprise that the brand’s marketing strategy focuses heavily on spreadability and word of mouth. For instance, its showroom — the brand’s only brick-and-mortar location thus far — is designed not for ease of shopping but for ease of sharing on social media. It calls itself the “most Instagram-able room in SoHo.” In the language of “How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising,” we observe that Glossier understands “what it is that we want people to do not only with the product but also with the message, and how to get them to do it” (Vedrashko). That is, Glossier uses its store to create an experience that people will share with each other (the “message”), so that their product is advertised without the direct intervention of the company. The Glossier showroom provides consumers with the opportunity to create their own spreadable media by posting photos of the showroom’s interior. Because the target demographic consists of young women who are likely already active on social media, this marketing strategy is especially effective: even a woman who does not follow the cosmetics industry may see an image of her friend the showroom and be enticed to make a visit herself, if only to take a selfie.

Glossier also leverages social media by recruiting “Glossier girls,” often up-and-coming beauty bloggers — often city-dwelling twentysomething women — to share referral codes and images of Glossier products. Perusing the #glossier hashtag on Instagram gives the impression that the company has tight control over what sort of imagery it wants associated with it (an endless feed of dewy skin, selfies in Glossier showroom mirrors, pastel colors, and minimalist composition). A Racked.com article confirms that the brand attempts to nudge bloggers into producing specific content: the blogger Tracey E. Robey writes that she received a message stating, “We’d love for you to put together a post on your blog that features some of your beauty essentials that allows you to highlight (instead of hide) your natural beauty.” By reaching out to bloggers with explicit instructions, the brand can receive endorsements of bloggers — whom audiences may trust more than brands — in a style that remains consistent with company branding.

@glossier on Instagram.

Were Glossier merely a makeup company, perhaps it would not insist on such firm control over the message conveyed by its reviewers. Like other makeup brands, it might send bloggers free samples in hopes of receiving a positive review; after all, if the product were central, the brand would benefit most from testaments to the cosmetics’ quality. But Glossier sells not just a physical product — it also sells a concept, an aesthetic, the chance to be a carefree, effortless, cool. Although this is already somewhat visible in its endorsements from high-profile models (e.g. Karlie Kloss, Phoebe Tonkin) and the imagery of its subway ads, nothing makes this clearer than a look at the @glossier Instagram page. Glossier’s Instagram page does not use most of its space showcasing its products. Instead, it posts inspiring mantras, staged still lifes, and images of beautiful women. By curating this page, women can glimpse Glossier’s artistic vision and are invited to participate in it by purchasing their own Glossier products. The page suggests that purchasing the brand’s products will allow women to embody the sort of youthful vitality and femininity present in its branding.

Conclusion

Glossier’s branding is postfeminist; many features of its packaging and advertising align with Rosalind Gill’s characterization of postfeminism. The brand also relies heavily on spreadability and social media to expand its reach, whether through its connection to the blog Into the Gloss, its carefully curated showroom and Instagram page, or its “Glossier girls.” In doing so, it sells not only a cosmetic product but also a lifestyle, an image to aspire to. These strategies effectively target the desired demographic of young, upper-middle-class women: they are the ones who are likely to “get” the postfeminist messaging and humor, and they are also active users of social media. Glossier’s marketing bears some superficial similarities to Clinique’s advertisements, but Glossier is a hyperfeminine and celebrity-endorsed version with the full force of social media behind it. These characteristics distinguish it from previous cosmetics companies and explain its rise.


Works Cited

  1. Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture?” Gender and the Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. 250–71. Web. 15 May 2017.
  2. Hesse-Biber, Sharlene. Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Web. 15 May 2017.
  3. Kirkham, Pat, and Alex Weller. “Cosmetics: A Clinique Case Study.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-reader. By Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 268–73. Web. 15 May 2017.
  4. Rosen, Jay. “The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine. New York University, 27 June 2006. Web. 15 May 2017.
  5. Tiku, Nitasha. “Inside Glossier, The Beauty Startup That Just Happens To Sell Makeup.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed Inc, 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 May 2017.
  6. Vedrashko, Ilya. “How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising.” Spreadable Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017.
  7. Williams, Aimee. “Beauty in Real Life: Glossier’s Post-Feminist Beauty Agenda.” The Fashion Studies Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017.