The Last Frontier of Brick & Mortar: Cult Followings of the Makeup Industry

December 16, 2021
8 minute read

Andie Smith

Content Marketer
Andie is a digital storyteller of written and visual forms. She is interested in the intersections of generational consumption in eCommerce and contextualizing the business industry with history.
With both sides of the coin pointing to a consumer-base of cult-followings, and the hold out of brick and mortar retail stores like Sephora and Ulta, what will ultimately win on D2C: celebrity fandoms, or authentic brand trust? 

The Last Frontier of Brick & Mortar: Cult Followings of the Makeup Industry

This is a time of revival protest; Breonna Taylor’s murder, political unrest, a 20th century racial war, and protestors building a mock guillotine in front of Jeff Bezo’s Washington home. There are a lot of things to be angry about, and if we zoom to perhaps a much more trivial level of the beauty industry, it begins with a simple question: why are celebrities and reality/social media stars reigning king over makeup and skincare?

The sensation of influence plagues the eCommerce world. But influence was not born with the conception of the Internet; persuasive rhetoric was first distinguished by Aristotle with pathos, logos, and ethos. There were the likes of influence by infamous cult leaders, notably in the United States’s 1960s and 70s, or political pull from one side to the other throughout our world history. The art of persuasion shows up with bright red check marks in our global economy and politics, and in the digital 21st century, it just has a glossy new name: influence. 

Since about 2000, the makeup and beauty industry has been held captive by the influencers who consumers uphold to the utmost standard of beauty and glamour. While mega-celebrities Selena Gomez or Tik Tok star Addison Rae launch their makeup lines Rare Beauty and Item Beauty, respectively, there’s also the cult followings of D2C brands like Glossier and Milk Makeup. There is a side of the celebrity beauty empire, with the likes of Kylie Cosmetics, KKW Beauty, and Fenty, and the grassroots D2C brands, which have leaked their influence into brick and mortar in addition to digital spaces. Racked writes how customers begin to act like evangelists when buying makeup: because beauty products have the ability to dictate a consumer’s self-image and mental well-being, brands develop a cult-following. Influencers “swear by” a product, claiming it can do wonders for their skin and physical appearance, which therefore reflects an outward-focused concept of the buying market for makeup at large. With both sides of the coin pointing to a consumer-base of cult-followings, and the hold out of brick and mortar retail stores like Sephora and Ulta, what will ultimately win on D2C: celebrity fandoms, or authentic brand trust? 

Makeup Cults and the Beauty Guru Era of Youtube 

To define the cult following phenomenon that follows the beauty industry, and contextualize the current celebrity beauty empire, the consumer should remember where it all started: the beauty gurus of Youtube in the early Y2K/2010s. If you’re familiar with JuicyStar07 and Michelle Phan, then you likely understand the community effect of following these early Youtube stars. 

The landscape of Youtube has evolved exponentially since its conception in 2005. Around 2010, an influx of young women, fueled by various desires to seek online communities aside from their physical ones, began vlogging and filming their reviews of beauty products, tutorials, and lifestyle routines. 

In the beginning, Youtube offered close to nothing in terms of financial incentive to produce videos. Many beauty influencers like Michelle Pham, Lindsey Hughes, or Meghan Reinks simply found an escape from reality and an opportunity to connect with like-minded people online. But as views climbed to the millions per day, Youtube began monetizing videos and allowing ads starting in 2009. 

Soon enough, this influx grew to an entire macro-community of makeup vloggers, and the term “beauty guru” started circulating the platform. Events sprang up around the country like VidCon and BeautyCon, where these influencers could further their reach and engagement with viewers and subscribers.

Thus, the cult following effect was perhaps not born, but monetized and exponentially scaled in the beauty industry. It may have existed before with women choosing loyalty in this Maybelline product or that L’oreal mascara, but the rise of beauty celebrities on YouTube fostered a phenomenon of hype around brands and products that they promoted, inexplicably free of charge before the world of paid endorsements. 

The significance of contextualizing this continuing era of celebrity on free platforms like Youtube is two-fold: for one, there is the ability for any average Joe with a computer and wifi to upload content and potentially gain a following (which works for Instagram, Tik Tok, etc.), and two, it altered the standards for true authority on makeup expertise. Before, the print magazine and teleshopping offered a gratuitous, yet incentivized outlet for what beauty products to buy to have the best skin and makeup. With the dawn of platforms like Youtube and beauty gurus, women could access a free authority on the best of the best. A consumer with bare knowledge on makeup could always walk into a drug store and pick out a new mascara. Or, they could watch a 10 minute video by Michelle Phan on “The 5 Best Drugstore Mascaras” and have a better direction. 

The Rich and Famous

Selena Gomez launched Rare Beauty just a few weeks ago, and the Instagram followers for the brand have climbed to almost 2 million. While established celebrity companies like Kylie Cosmetics have generated millions in revenue, the brands are wholly planted in the roots of celebrity. As arguably some of the most famous women of the 21st century, Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, and Kim Kardashian could easily slide into the beauty industry on the coattails of their fame. Social media and press coverage are a launching pad for their businesses, as all it takes is a quick debut on their personal instagram to promote a new side hustle. But to a Kardashian or R&B queen, the side hustle is merely a toe dip into a seemingly bottomless market.

With an already crowded industry, leagues of influencers and Tik Tok stars are driving their entrepreneurial efforts into beauty and skincare. Hailey Bieber, Cardi B, and Gwen Stefani have recently filed trademarks for future product line launches. As discussed, celebrity endorsements, collaborations, and partnerships with beauty brands are not new. Marilyn Monroe promoted Vaseline back in the 1950s. But with the shift to influencer branding in the 2000s, stars are beginning to claim ownership over an entire beauty company itself instead of merely a collaboration, even if they don’t want to do all of the work. 

This is where operational firms come in; they include a network of groups that specialize in rolling out celebrity beauty lines, doing everything from product development to distribution. All the celebrity needs to do: offer up their face and Instagram password. 

These kinds of firms are the brains and brawn behind billion dollar companies like Kylie Cosmetics, KKW Beauty, and Fenty. Some are responsible for younger brands like Drew Barrymore’s Flower Beauty. Their strategy is to find stars preordained towards the beauty industry, which is a glossed-over rhetoric of working with Hollywood’s most beautiful and glamorous stars.

While they may help the star’s business opportunity come to life, the strategy of acquiring and developing the brand lies on shaky ground: they will not work with just anyone, whether professionally experienced or not, unless they have a large, leverageable following. Therefore, the celebrity beauty empire strategy could be problematic. Is the standard of celebrity and large following supersede the idea of brand building itself? Branding has everything to do with building a personality around product and community, so if the operation intends to use celebrities as launching pads, how will the brand ever outlive the founder? A brand can’t sustain a long-term road map when it counts on the reputation of a single individual in the spotlight. There is simply too much wiggle room for a 2007 Britney Spears breakdown, and cancel culture has clearly demonstrated it’s voracious appetite for powerful people with attackable vice. 

However, the celebrity factor oftentimes does lead to high engagement. 

Selena Gomez launched Rare Beauty on September 3rd. With her personal Instagram follower count at 193 million, Rare Beauty’s Instagram climbed to 1.9 million within two weeks. Coupled with a high conversion rate, this high engagement suggests that devoted fans and followers were converted into customers and followers of Rare Beauty at an astonishing rate. But what is Rare Beauty selling that is much different than other beauty product lines? 

The Cult-Following of Grassroots D2C Beauty

In bi-annual surveys completed by Piper Jaffray, the numbers show that 91% of Gen Z-age female consumers prefer to shop for their makeup in stores rather than online. Brick-and-mortar is hanging on by it’s fingernails in the beauty sphere. When makeup moves online, it lacks tactility; it’s difficult to purchase a foundation shade without testing if it matches in-person. Furthermore, test-and-return can’t exist in the beauty industry because of contamination once the product is opened. The nature of makeup products is touch-oriented, and without that brick-and-mortar aspect of shopping, it’s less likely for a beauty brand to succeed on D2C. 

There’s a few brands to explore that challenge this commitment to brick-and-mortar, specifically that fly under the gargantuan influence of companies like Kylie Cosmetics or Fenty. The secret might be their level of engagement with consumers that transcends a celebrity fandom and into a commitment to brands that hold ethical concerns, high brand personality, and quality products. The biggest distinguisher is framing the branding around a concept or idea rather than a figurehead. 

Milk Makeup was founded in 2014 in a New York City creative studio, and the brand pledges it’s products to be vegan and cruelty free. The edgy aesthetic observes products labeled “Kush” and a line of stick concealers that offer multi-purpose solutions. While it’s first retailer was Sephora, most of its sales occur online. The hook with their branding is a persona they have created and emulated: “The Milk Girl.” They intend their products to be used by a girl-on-the-go, who doesn’t need a dozen or more products to complete her makeup, i.e. products that can be applied with a finger and have multi-purpose. This cult-following differs from the celebrity type. Instead of warranting a need to look just like Selena Gomez, the consumer can look just like themselves, but quicker and edgier. 

Stowaway is a fellow 2014 NYC business that produces a line of smaller travel sized makeup without compromising the amount of product per unit. This reduces their overall waste and increases transparency. Branding pivots on the concept of “right-sized,” which challenges the $60 billion makeup industry sizing standards with transparency of how much product you’re getting for your dollar. 

Glossier, is of course, a top pick in terms of high scaling and top-tier engagement for D2C cosmetics. They reported an annual revenue of $100 million and have established a media arm with Into the Gloss. Emily Weiss’s brain child has proven to be a trailblazer in the realm of D2C with a minimalistic roster of just 36 products. Glossier has standardized the brand personality and construction required to compete with celebrity beauty brands, those that succeed based on fame and cult-followings of television stars. With an Instagram following of 2.8 million, Glossier is a testament to the ability for a small D2C to gain a cult following too.

Instagram Marketing Strategies

With a multi-faceted approach to marketing that tackles content, individuality, and brand persona, D2C companies such as these are making a run for their money in a race against brick and mortar retail. When the consumer trusts a brand and their values through their digital site, they will be more likely to commit to buying a product D2C before handling it in-person. 

The Makeup Recession of 2019 and a Shift to All-Natural 

In 2019, traditional makeup brands saw their revenue numbers fall. Referencing NPD, Stila fell 27 percent, Lorac was down 48 percent, and CoverFX was down by 31 percent. A shift occurred early of last year where makeup and beauty consumers became more concerned with natural beauty and skincare. While social media may boast an explore page of elaborately done makeup with heavy eyeshadow and contouring, the average individual showing up to work or class is likely fresh faced. 

COVID-19 only emphasized this shift. With the population staying at home and focusing more attention on daily routines and domestic life, consumers wanted to invest their time and money into self-care and skin care routines, rather than putting on a full face of makeup to sit in their living room all day. 

Brands have emerged that not only value skincare over makeup, but focus their branding and marketing towards age demographics of women. Blume is a D2C skin care brand that targets their audience to the adolescent woman going through puberty. They intend to normalize and celebrate the ways female bodies change through periods and their adolescent lives. The Arfa Collective brand State Of similarly focuses their consumer base on women going through menopause, orienting their products to relieve pain points of this natural process women experience in their later lives. 

Bye Bye Brick and Mortar

Whether the makeup industry turns it’s attention to the growing celebrity beauty empire, or continues to uphold the authenticity of grassroots D2C brands that commit themselves to quality and ethical concerns, the brick and mortar model for makeup might just vanish completely. 

The question these brands have to answer is how to make the consumer comfortable and confident in buying a product online. The makeup industry holds an enormous amount of our society’s self-image and mental health. Men and women count on skincare and beauty to emphasize and quite frankly, improve their physical appearance. The collective ego is calling, and the consumers must go. 

When choosing a new product to order online, Instagram and social platforms have everything to do with marketing towards the consumer. A follower of Kylie Jenner or Selena Gomez may inherently and recklessly put trust in their brand, while the more analytical, (and likely older) consumer will search for a brand that aligns with their own values and pain points they’re trying to solve. For that reason, the grassroots D2C brands thriving today, like Glossier or Milk, are bound to maintain longevity in the industry and outlive their celebrity counterparts. 

The Problem With Influence 

Maybe there is a problem with fandom, just like cult-followings, when it offers a divine excuse from wrong to it’s idols. 

The phenomenon of cult-followings has yet to show up in other industries as intensely as it has in the beauty realm. The psychology behind committing to a beauty brand relays a psychology in depending on a brand to make oneself look better, consistently. Do you want to be a Milk girl or do you want to look just like Addison Rae? Either way, the consumer doesn’t need to step into a Sephora to answer that question for themselves. 

With data becoming increasingly more accessible to the average consumer, the incentive to research and understand where products originate from will only magnify from now on. Before, tactility was the driving factor behind brick and mortar shopping. But when the shopping experience shifts from product into singular person, the beneficial effects of buying in-store vanish. Are you buying a product you believe in, or are you buying a name? And how is that much different than voting for the party you or your family have always voted for, or choosing to uphold the values of a religious, social, or political leader even though their rhetoric is far from your own individual ethics?

See: influence shows up everywhere, and it doesn’t matter if it’s about makeup or world affairs.  

With both sides of the coin pointing to a consumer-base of cult-followings, and the hold out of brick and mortar retail stores like Sephora and Ulta, what will ultimately win on D2C: celebrity fandoms, or authentic brand trust? 

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