Glossier’s Next Chapter

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Readers, let us not forget this: Emily Weiss, after founding a wildly successful blog that spawned an even more wildly successful beauty brand, is still only 37 years old. Thirty. Seven. She’s achieved more creative, business, and IP success in her tiny time on Planet Earth than most of us can even fathom.

Fading Supernova

Human nature being what it is, however, the knives have been out for Weiss for a while. When she announced in May that she was stepping down as CEO following a good 12 months of spectacularly scathing stories in the business press, the schadenfreude was deafening.

In a post on the Glossier website, Weiss, who is expecting her first child, openly stated that she felt she was no longer “the champion that a company looks to, to lead it into tomorrow.” Because of that revelation, Weiss said she would be assuming the title of Executive Chairwoman and handing over the CEO moniker and day-to-day reins to COO Kyle Leahy.

Weiss will either use her reclaimed bandwidth to right the ship and make Glossier bigger and better than it’s ever been, or she’ll start something new. Girl’s got the “vision thing” down cold.

Has Weiss made crucial missteps in running her eight-year-old brand? Without question, and we’re about to get into all of that. But I’m sorry, my money is very much still on her. Now that she doesn’t have to dot every i and cross every t, I predict one of two things will happen: Weiss will either use her reclaimed bandwidth to right the ship and make Glossier bigger and better than it’s ever been, or she’ll start something new. Girl’s got the “vision thing” down cold.

But before we get to the possible future of Glossier, let’s look at its troubled recent past.

Major Misstep One: Glossier Play

For a “skin first, makeup second” crowdsourced brand that eschewed that whole Kardashian mega-contour, put-it-on-with-trowel look, the launch of the sparkly, super colorful Glossier Play in 2019 could not have been a more blatant departure from its core ethos.

Landing on doorsteps in planet-destroying foil wrapping (as opposed to the reusable, signature Glossier-pink bubble bags fans like my teenage daughter horde), the glittery eyeshadows and glosses were so off-brand one had to wonder just what Weiss thinking.

Adding insult to injury, at least from an investor perspective (Glossier has reportedly raised $260 million in VC money to date), Weiss hired a DJ/ producer pal of hers, Charlie Klarsfeld, to helm Play as freelance creative director.

Granted, Klarsfeld, the son of acclaimed fashion photographer Pamela Hanson and deceased L’Oréal executive George Klarsfeld, is an extremely cool dude with a tidy crop of A-list clients. And he was already in charge of “sonic branding” for Glossier when he got recruited to conjure Play into being.

It’s just that maybe Klarsfeld’s music chops weren’t translatable into crafting a radically different makeup collection for a brand that reached the $1 billion valuation mark largely on the strength of minimalist, “you, but better” products like Boy Brow and Cloud Paint. The antithesis of Glossier’s “no-makeup makeup,” Play didn’t work and was quietly shuttered in 2020.

Major Misstep Two: The Failed Tech Pivot

While I obviously have no idea whether this is the case or not, I’m betting Weiss regrets this comment she made to Vanity Fair in 2019: “People often ask, ‘Are you a tech company? Are you a beauty company?’ And I say, ‘Yes, we are.’”

Perhaps more than anything else, the perceived hubris of Weiss’s mission-creep into tech circa 2018 seems to have pissed off industry watchers. Basically, I guess the idea is she should have been grateful for the success she’d already had and shouldn’t aspire to more?

The naysayers needn’t have worried, however, because the tech pivot didn’t work either. Despite hiring a battalion of former Facebook, Amazon, and Instagram executives to concept and build out a social media platform that would combine both community and commerce, the plug was pulled on the project sometime last year, precipitating layoffs in January of an estimated one-third of its corporate ranks.

No one could accuse Weiss of not trying her damnedest to make the tech thing work. When initial high-profile hires fled the ill-fated project, she doubled down and recruited more. But ultimately with no clear vision of what the platform would actually be and do, and a gross miscalculation of how much creating the beauty equivalent of Reddit or Facebook would cost, the pivot was doomed.

Add to that garden-variety pandemic woes, store closures, and the formation of an Instagram account by former retail employees named “Outta the Gloss” that alleges a lack of diversity and champions the hashtag #BoycottGlossier, the past few years have not been kind to this once-invisible juggernaut.

Can this Much-Copied Brand Get Back on Track?

I literally can’t tell you how many Glossier wannabes continue to clog my inbox and mailbox; right now, I’m staring at two that were sent to me just in the last week.

From the design and cheeky names to the D2C distribution strategy and overall gestalt, it’s clear that the competition continues to crib from the Glossier playbook. Chances are many of them have even bought the 2019 Harvard Business Review case study of the brand. The report, “Glossier: Co-Creating a Cult Brand with a Digital Community,” is available for a perfectly reasonable price of $8.95. Given how groundbreaking Glossier was, and how influential it continues to be, one could hardly fault new CEO Leahy for wanting to walk back the tech talk and re-focus on what the brand does best: create clever, affordable, problem-solution products that lead with the idea that you’re fine just the way you are — but, hey, maybe you might want a new lip gloss or jelly cleanser anyway?

The tagline on the website currently says: “Skincare & Beauty Products Inspired by Real Life.” While that might sound humble for a brand that Weiss has reportedly said she wanted to become “the beauty version of Nike,” it’s a great – no make that fantastic – place to start Operation Reclaim Glossier’s Glory.

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