Whither Glossier?

(Both Rs are silent, you plebe!)

In recent months, there has been much chatter about the future—and the present—of Glossier. In January of this year, the brand laid off eighty employees, spawning a swarm of articles with titles like “What Went Wrong at Glossier?,” “How Glossier Lost Its Grip,” and “Glossier’s Fall by the Numbers.” It emerged that Glossier’s sales had dipped significantly in 2021. On Reddit and in lazy clickbait pieces sourced entirely from Reddit, theories abounded. Some people traced Glossier’s decline to the launch of the poorly received sub-brand Glossier Play in 2019, or to Glossier’s decision to axe Glossier Play the very next year. Other theories revolved around the Outta the Gloss Instagram account, which called out Glossier for discriminating against retail employees of color; or Emily Weiss’s push to make Glossier into a tech company as well as a beauty brand; or Glossier’s baffling refusal to extend international shipping to more than a few countries. Commenters on r/glossier went into conspiracy mode, speculating about unannounced reformulations of popular Glossier products (e.g. “Puffgate”) and declining quality control.

Weiss stepped down as CEO of Glossier at the end of May, prompting a new wave of thinkpieces. “The Sunsetting of the Girlboss is Almost Complete,” proclaimed the New York Times in an article arguing that “at these female-focused startups, there is a new new kind of boss. One who doesn’t brand herself as a feminist icon and doesn’t seem as likely to become a household name for millennial women.” Meanwhile, Glossier partnered with Olivia Rodrigo to attract Gen Z customers, launching an “Olivia’s Favorites” set and a new Balm Dotcom in Rodrigo’s favorite color, lavender. Clearly, the brand is taking steps to shake up its company culture and expand its customer base. But will those steps be enough to halt its decline?

As a blogger who has been writing about Glossier since early 2016, I’ve been following these developments with great interest. Glossier’s practice of building parasocial relationships with its customers has always fascinated me. And, on a less abstract level, I enjoy Glossier’s products and aesthetic. Though I’ve found cheaper and/or higher-quality dupes for some Glossier products over the years (more on that in another post, I hope), I’ve remained faithful to Cloud Paint, Lidstar, and Haloscope. Despite my habit of snarking on Glossier for pretty much every conceivable reason, I find myself oddly annoyed at all the bandwagon hate it’s been receiving. Could I, too, have a parasocial relationship with Glossier? Could I, too, be susceptible to advertising???

Today’s beauty book is Makeup Your Mind, by François Nars (2002)

What interests me most about this situation is that Glossier has become the victim of its own marketing success. The brand built its popularity by treating customers as friends and collaborators: for instance, Weiss used Into the Gloss’s comment section to collect readers’ visions of their “dream face wash,” which eventually became Milky Jelly. If customers view a brand as a personal friend, they’ll defend it passionately against detractors—but they’ll also take it personally if the brand does something that they perceive to be wrong. They’ll feel not just disappointed but betrayed. And it doesn’t take much to push popular opinion from “this brand can do no wrong” to “this brand can do no right.” Once the bandwagon starts rolling, it can’t be stopped, and everything that the brand does becomes further evidence of its incompetence or malevolence.

So what did Glossier do wrong, exactly? What tipped the balance? I don’t think the decline in sales can be blamed on any one factor, but I think the largest factor is that Glossier rested on its laurels while the rest of the industry caught up. In 2014, Glossier pioneered a backlash against heavy, multilayered, glowing-for-the-gods Instaglam makeup. But as it grew in popularity, other brands imitated its dewy, fresh-faced aesthetic. Before too long, Glossier was competing with Kosas, Merit, Milk Makeup, Rare Beauty, and Tower 28, to name just a few. And because most of the new brands were available in Sephora, customers could swatch them easily and impulse-buy them while shopping for more familiar staples. Western beauty lovers also became more aware of the Asian skincare and makeup that Glossier had copied back in 2014. Glossier was no longer exclusive, and so its prestige began to fade.

Once that process was underway, complaints about quality grew more frequent. The thing is, there have always been glaring flaws in Glossier’s formulas and quality control. In 2015 and again in 2018, I found freaking hairs in new Glossier products. Glossier twice reformulated and repackaged its Generation G lipsticks, but never managed to create a tube that didn’t crack in people’s makeup bags. The Cloud Paint tubes dispensed too much product per squeeze; many of the skincare products contained heavy fragrance. Fans were willing to overlook those deficiencies while Glossier was new and cool. But as the brand lost its cachet, people began pointing out the issues that had existed since the beginning, but that now seemed new because customers had previously been blinded by Glossier’s aura of woke-up-like-this sprezzatura.

It also became clearer to customers that for all Glossier touted its “people-powered beauty ecosystem,” it often failed to heed customer feedback, either by improving its existing formulas and shade ranges or by creating highly requested new products. Again, this pattern had existed for some time, but complaints about it exploded in the summer of 2021, when Glossier launched Solar Paint. Ever since the debut of Cloud Paint in 2017, customers had clamored for bronzers in the Cloud Paint formula and packaging. But when Glossier finally released a bronzer four years later, it was shimmery and it came in a tube with a doefoot dispenser, and it flopped.

So there’s no denying that Glossier has passed its first peak. But how much of a decline are we talking about, really? As someone who spends a fair amount of time on Reddit, I’m used to reading constant prognostications of doom for brands that are objectively doing just fine. People often speculate that MAC is about to go under, for instance, because its limited-edition collections no longer sell out in the United States—never mind that MAC counters are crowded in Asia and Europe and that makeup artists worldwide, including in the US, rely on MAC for staples. But everyone loves a doomsday headline, and “How Glossier Lost Its Grip” attracts more clicks than “Glossier Seems to Be Going Through Some Internal Issues but Will Probably Be OK.” A “women’s news” website posts an article summarizing what mspotatohead69 and cucumber_farts are saying on Reddit, and mspotatohead69 posts that article to r/glossier, and the commenters there react to it, and another lazy journalist collates the comments from that post into another clickbait article, and the cycle continues, an ouroboros of half-assed takes.

The sheer number of takes suggests to me that Glossier maintains a lot of cultural relevance—you don’t hear that much buzz about Revlon’s plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And that’s because Revlon hasn’t made itself the face of an entire generation. Glossier’s decline in coolness is shorthand for the millennial generation’s decline in coolness, because, unfortunately, so much of our identity is bound up in brands (I warned you, damn it!). As a 34-year-old woman who teaches teenagers, I’m acutely aware that I’m no longer every brand’s target consumer. There’s a lot of relief and freedom in that, but also some sadness. I’ll spare you my meditations on aging, both because they’re fairly unoriginal and because this post is long enough already, but I do think much of the current Glossier discourse is no more than millennial anxiety about being culturally replaced, and that Glossier will pull through if it succeeds in attracting younger customers.

(And to my fellow thirty-somethings who can’t stand that a 19-year-old singer is the new face of Glossier: get over it and stop whining on Reddit. You’re making us all look bad.)

For me, the biggest sign that Glossier will persist is that reputable budget brands are still copying its products! Take a look at these CoverGirl Clean Fresh Tinted Lip Balm tubes and tell me they’re not Glossier-inspired:

And how about the Maybelline Cheek Heat blushes, which look just the tiniest bit like Cloud Paint?

But wait, didn’t I say that was Glossier’s problem in the first place—that other brands were knocking off its products? Well, yes. That’s the crux of the issue: that the evidence for Glossier’s continued relevance could also be the harbinger of Glossier’s imminent decline. In order to stay relevant enough to be imitated but not eclipsed, Glossier has to keep innovating and improving. Can it do that? Don’t ask me; I have a PhD in Renaissance literature.

5 thoughts on “Whither Glossier?

  1. God I cannot STAND the semi-regular posts on Reddit where people discuss what brands might go under, and they name mega brands like MAC and Colour Pop with the rationale is that “no one” finds their products interesting anymore. As if a small section of people on the internet not finding neutral palettes interesting would sink a juggernaut of a brand like Colour Pop lol

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    1. Urban Decay is another one that attracts constant predictions of collapse. Temptalia loves giving negative reviews to Urban Decay and speculating about their downfall, and Reddit commenters often follow her lead.

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  2. Very interesting post! I have to admit that pretty much all of my exposure to Glossier has been through your blog (I am not a millennial). But I have enjoyed your considered, and snarky, assessments of their products/sales tactics, and it even led me to purchase one or two things myself. They were fine, but I didn’t repurchase or anything, so I guess I will not be the one to save Glossier – not that they were aiming for my GenX self anyway 🙂

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    1. Just curious, do you feel that GenXers ever identified themselves with beauty brands the way millennials did with Glossier? I’ve definitely read some GenX complaints about Urban Decay’s decision to stray from its original edginess, but I’m not sure that’s the same phenomenon.

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      1. Yeah, I don’t think it was ever to that same extent of generational identification. Like there might have been certain techniques or effects that people did with makeup, but – at least as far as I remember/was aware – it wasn’t super oriented to the brands as such. When it came along Urban Decay kind of was heading in that direction, and certainly there were complaints when it became less, well, decayed. But, as you say, I don’t think that was quite the same.

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