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How the Beauty Industry Is (Trying) to Sell to Gen Z

How do you market to a group who hates marketing?
L'Oréal brand ambassadors Thylane Blondeau and Elle Fanning. Photo: @lorealmakeup/Instagram

L'Oréal brand ambassadors Thylane Blondeau and Elle Fanning. Photo: @lorealmakeup/Instagram

"Get off my lawn"-ing the youths is an age-old tradition. Kids these days, they're doing it wrong, they like bad things and don't like the good things that I liked when I was young! As resistant as we might be to the trends and behaviors of the younger generations, they're a crucial marketing demographic for brands. In industries ranging from television to toothpaste, 18- to 34-year-olds have been the crowning glory of sales goals for essentially as long as humans have been tabulating such things. So, we suppose it makes sense that with the much lauded, much maligned millennial generation rapidly aging out of that most desirable of brackets (take a second to feel old with me, guys), the marketing world has begun to turn its gaze on the most literal of '90s babies.  

Depending on your source, the starting point for Gen Z can vary anywhere from 1990 to 2001. But they're more than simply young, they're unique, particularly to the marketing structure of the beauty world, which has always thrived on easily defined ethnic, age and gender groups. About 48 percent of Americans under the age of 18 are non-white, while only 48 percent of them self-define as "exclusively heterosexual." With more demographically hard-to-pin-down multiracial individuals than any previous generation, Gen Z also throws off the scales by skewing away from the traditional gender roles that have defined the fashion and beauty industries for decades. A mere 44 percent say that they only buy clothing designed for their gender, some of which may come down to a simple refusal to define themselves as a single gender at all — more than half of 13- to 20-year-olds polled by trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group knew at least one person who identifies using gender-neutral pronouns. With more than half of teens reporting that the thing they'd most like to see in beauty advertising is "someone like me," these young consumers have sent advertisers scrambling to figure out exactly what "someone like me" will mean for the most diverse generation in American history. In an era where disruption has become the new improvement, Gen Zers are poised to become the ultimate retail disruptors.   

Look at most stories about the buying power of Gen Z and you're bound to find phrases like "glued to their phones" and "fickle." It's not hard to see why, from an outside perspective. They can get hold of information and perspectives from across the globe instantly, and what they do get is carefully chosen, filtered to maximize their interests and minimize the time they have to waste on things they don't care about. Gen Zers don't just enjoy being masters of all they consume — they expect it. This, no doubt, is why 69 perecent of Gen Z use ad blockers

Furthering the problem, Gen Z has become known for their skepticism. Clarity and honesty are essential to Gen Z's buying habits, with a general distaste for the kinds of A-list celebrity endorsements that have been a mainstay of traditional beauty advertising. Instead, Gen Z favors a peer-to-peer model and online research for finding information about new products. 

This poses an obvious problem for beauty brands. How do you market a product to someone who refuses to look at your ad? One solution, as with Gen Z's millennial counterparts, has proven to be through the use of influencers. More specifically, microinfluencers, a subset of influencers with highly specific, highly engaged audiences who know how to tell the stories that will resonate with younger consumers. Brands like Elf, La Mer and Origin have begun investing in this type of marketing. 

As we noted before, authenticity is more than just a buzzword for Gen-Z consumers; it's a make-or-break issue. With big-name celebrity influencers coming under fire for trying to slip in paid advertisement under the guise of honest opinion, it's only natural that Gen Zers would gravitate away from these social posts. Rather than the product selfies and canned taglines that became the prototype of celebrity influencer endorsements, new types of arrangements utilize microinfluencers' relationships with their audience to encourage sales. 

Instead of the aspirational quality that multimillion-follower influencers evoke, microinfluencers come off as friends, and that relationship can pay dividends in content engagement for young consumers. "Advertisers are struggling to find things that really work," says James Nord, co-founder of Fohr Card, a company that connects influencers with brands. "You have this community of people who have inspired millions of followers to listen to what they have to say about products, about travel, about lifestyle, and it makes sense that brands want to be a part of that. It works really well, so it's not hugely surprising that it's been growing." 

Influencer lines have also made a huge impact on the industry, with megahits like the Jaclyn Hill x Becca Champagne Pop highlighter collaboration selling out within minutes of its launch. Youtube stars like Jeffree Star, Makeupgeek and Michelle Phan have found success with their own lines, while others like Nikki Tutorials and Grav3yardgirl have collaborated with Tarte and Too Faced.   

Tapping young talent isn't exactly a new tactic for the beauty industry — but most of the fresh faces in the ads have traditionally been just that: faces that were fresh. That meant they didn't necessarily carry name recognition or a built-in, devoted fandom. Today, that's the name of the game. Plenty of beauty brands are tapping teen model/influencers (many of whom also happen to be celebrity offspring) for major campaigns: 17-year-old Lily Rose Depp for Chanel, 15-year-old Kaia Gerber for Marc Jacobs, 16-year-old Iris Law for Burberry and both 16-year-old Thylane Blondeau and 19-year-old Elle Fanning for L'Oréal. In addition to being Gen Zers themselves, these young models each bring impressive social followings and direct engagement with their fans to the marketing table.

But it's not enough to simply have young, pretty, influential models representing a brand on social media. As Gen Zers have been less drawn to in-store shopping, enhancing the brick-and-mortar experience has become all the more important. Sephora, of course, has become known nearly as well for its model of wide-selection beauty and free testing as it has for a community of sales-floor beauty advisors. Where previous generations have turned to department store beauty counters with simply made up, uniformly styled beauty professionals to teach them The Right Way of doing things, Gen Zers have come of age in an era when Youtube beauty videos reign supreme (65 percent of young women report using vloggers as a primary source for learning about new products and techniques). 

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Sephora's sales staff often sport color-swatched hands and individualized makeup looks as a means of marketing at the point of sale. "This is my style," their looks seem to say, and perhaps more importantly in attracting young consumers, "You're seeing who I really am; you're getting my real opinions." It's a setup that's worked well for the retailer; as the number-one specialty beauty retailer on the planet, according to Euromonitor International, Sephora has helped prestige beauty brands grow 6 percent year-over-year, totaling a whopping $15.9 billion. 

There's been plenty said in recent years about the "Sephoraization" of beauty retail, with dozens of imitators cropping up with their own versions of the open-tester, consultant model. Last year, Barnes & Noble opened its own foray into youth-targeted beauty marketing by developing The Glossary, miniature beauty stops on college campuses where the booksellers already had a foothold. Bloomingdale's, long famous for its army of beauty counters, will soon begin a major restructuring of its in-store beauty department, focusing on integrating more technology to mimic Sephora's highly successful Pantone Color IQ program and new developments like virtual makeup testing in a newly opened Herald Square location. A Macy's store in Dallas will reportedly feature "staff favorites" in its beauty department to appeal to the personal quality Gen Zers are looking for while other mass stores, like drugstore chain Walgreens, have responded by revamping beauty sections with "beauty consultants," trained to help shoppers navigate finding the right colors and formulas for them among the aisles. 

Despite their dedication to the internet, compared to their millennial counterparts, Gen Zers switch things up with their shopping in some unexpected ways. For example, while one survey from marketing research agency NPD Group showed that about 58 percent of both millennials and Gen Zers still hit brick-and-mortar stores for buying and browsing, Gen Zers generally hit the "add to cart" button more often than their older counterparts. Most interestingly, though, the survey also found that younger consumers are less likely to browse online and then buy in-store, or to browse in-store and then buy online. 

They're also specializing more in the types of shops they hit. Lush is one example of a niche beauty brand that's found success among Gen-Z shoppers. The brand hits on plenty of Gen-Z-favored check marks: Its colorful, fizzy bath bombs and the like are highly shareable, natural, customizable and made in small batches on-site (yep, that personal touch comes back again). "The younger set significantly over-indexed at retailers like Lush," according to NPD Group, though Lush is by no means alone on that front. Gen Zers are overall more likely to spend at specialty beauty retailers for their cosmetic needs than millennials have been — good news for mega beauty locations like Ulta and the single-brand brick-and-mortar outposts that have struggled to gain ground in recent years, but more worrisome for all-in-one department stores which have seen steady declines in recent decades. 

All of this isn't to say that Gen Zers are beyond the lure of convenience. According to another study through CivicScience, both millennial and Gen-Z shoppers do nearly half of their beauty shopping at superstores like Walmart and Costco, with Gen Z whipping out those membership cards even more. Many have responded by upping the shelf presence of small-batch, creator-owned and imported beauty products, like S.W. Basics and W3ll People at Target or Korean sheet mask brand Masque-ology at Walmart. 

Non-beauty retailers with a younger customer base have also put some serious bank into increasing their beauty offerings, identifying the category as a prime opportunity for engaging younger consumers. Urban Outfitters stocks social-savvy brands like Milk Makeup and Frank Body, as well as higher-end festival-set companies like Lime Crime and Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. The retailer is also taking a shot at transforming itself into a replacement for beauty-only stores, eating into the product selections fans might recognize from stores like Ulta and Bluemercury (think Anastasia Beverly Hills, Stila and K-beauty fave Tonymoly). Forever 21 has also ramped up its beauty offerings, focusing on inexpensive options primed for impulse buys like NYX and Elf. H&M went out on a limb in 2015, launching its own line of makeup, skin and body products and doubled-down with a separate line of organic, eco-conscious products the following year. 

While niche stores and nontraditional beauty retailers have worked to snatch up the loyalty of younger buyers, legacy beauty brands have had a greater challenge. For generations, they've relied on early buy-ins to develop devoted user bases, courtesy largely of department store beauty counters and mall stores. But because Gen Zers have had access to alternative brands from the get-go, they're less likely to use a brand simply because it's the one their mothers used. 

The internet works at a breakneck pace, so predicting what Gen Zers will be into has proven practically impossible for major corporations. Thus, a beauty company's ability to successfully reach Gen-Z shoppers can depend on its basic structure. With the pace of traditional beauty manufacturing, rushing to craft a product to fill, say, the yellow blush trend can leave the bigger companies with cases of fad-inspired cheek tint no one cares about when it actually hits store shelves in six months. Where smaller, leaner brands have excelled is in their ability to respond immediately to what captures the young beauty community's collective attention. 

To combat this, some brands have begun to take a one-step-to-the-left approach to trends, building off of established must-haves and then devoting their marketing to hyping "The Next Big Thing" (see: holographic makeup, the natural lovechild of strobing and rainbow makeup). Many smaller brands, like the ones that often back influencer-branded lines, also have an advantage in selling directly to consumers and with the lower overhead of crafting formulas from an existing stable. Remember a few years back when it came out that Colourpop and Kylie Lip Kits were made in the same facility? That kind of arrangement isn't uncommon, and it comes with a major advantage for brands. 

Time has yet to tell how these gambits will pay off for Gen Z-courting brands. Like every generation, Gen Z is growing up, and with age, their tastes and their needs will evolve. What that will mean for the beauty industry is still up in the air, but there's no getting around the reality that whatever they bring, Gen Zers will represent a major marketing shift for traditional brands, and there's no guarantee that all of those brands will make it through the transition 

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