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Modern Mystery Shopping: Glossier

Jim Babb
Jim Babb
Modern mystery shopping - Glossier

In this series from Part + Sum, we — and a team of eagle-eyed volunteer mystery shoppers — set out to discover how today’s smartest brands deliver their message, from social media to targeted ads to a package on the doorstep.

The Subject: Glossier

Former Vogue assistant Emily Weiss launched Glossier with just four products in 2014. Today, the beloved-by-millennials beauty company has raised $86 million in funding, sells dozens of products and boasts over 1 million Instagram followers. Content marketing is part of its DNA: Weiss developed Glossier after building a platform with her blog Into the Gloss, which racked up millions of pageviews each month. Into The Gloss remains a destination for beauty addicts, even those who don’t shop Glossier — it features interviews, tips and how-to’s that often make no mention of Glossier at all.

The vast majority of Glossier’s skincare, makeup and fragrance products are sold directly to consumers through its website. The brand’s sole permanent brick-and-mortar showroom is located in Manhattan, but a recent pop-up shop in San Francisco suggests more IRL sales are on the way.

The Background

Beauty and skincare is an intensely personal retail segment. This is stuff you put on your face, by yourself, in the privacy of your own bathroom. The shift from traditional marketing to modern marketing systems has created a unique set of challenges and opportunities for beauty companies.

Beauty brands customer touchpoints evolution

Once upon a time, shoppers in search of the right product relied on one-on-one conversations with brand reps at cosmetic counters. That’s not the case any more. As Deborah Yeh, SVP of marketing at Sephora, explained in a 2017 interview: “The lady at the counter has been replaced by hundreds of people on YouTube. There are more voices. And we are trying to cut through the confusion.” In other words, there are more ways than ever to influence customers, which means it’s critical to be clear, creative and ready to adapt as new trends emerge.

Luckily, the visual appeal of beauty products dovetails with the image-centric nature of social media. In addition to YouTube tutorials and blog posts, shoppers can check Instagram to see swatches, packaging reveals and quick demos as soon as new products are released. For beauty brands, looking good has never been more important.

The Methodology

For this experiment, we divided our six mystery shoppers into three customer personas:

Each persona was assigned a series of actions to be performed on the Glossier website, its social accounts and search engines. Then, with ad blockers disabled, shoppers documented all Glossier content they saw for the next two weeks: emails, ads, suggested posts and so on. See our complete methodology here.

Our shoppers identify as female, range in age from 24 to 37 and live in the United States. They report spending 6–7 hours per day online, with about 2–3 hours of time spent on social media. We paid each shopper a small honorarium for their efforts.

The Results

Of our six shoppers, two saw no Glossier targeted ads or social posts at all. Of the remaining four, only one saw any display ads. These four saw several sponsored posts on Instagram and Facebook.

Here’s the final breakdown of sponsored posts/ads/emails seen by each shopper. Note: only the researcher and loyalist customers (Jackie 1, Jackie 2, Kelly 1 and Kelly 2) were asked to sign up for Glossier emails.

Glossier experiment recap

A Hit: Product Launch

During our test, Glossier launched a new product: Lidstar, billed as a “glistening eye glow” that’s meant to be dabbed on and blended with your fingertips. It debuted with much fanfare at the Academy Awards, as Taraji P. Henson, Allison Janney and Tracee Ellis Ross walked the red carpet in it. The product went on sale to the public the next day. One of our shoppers said the celebrity models motivated her to browse Glossier’s Instagram during the Oscars telecast: “It made me think that the products were higher quality.”

Post-launch, five out of six shoppers saw Lidstar promotions via email and/or social media. They saw a variety of creative on different platforms: Some posts featured the product alone, others showed models wearing it.

Glossier retargeting and newsletter emails

Our shoppers also saw plenty of Lidstar-related content on Glossier’s own social channels, including short videos, swatches, close-ups of finished looks and a detailed look at the applicator. But none of it was repetitive. A couple of our shoppers also mentioned being pleased to see the product worn by models of different ethnicities.

Glossier multicultural ad
Glossier multicultural representation eyeshadow ad

A Hit: Customer Service

We asked two shoppers to contact Glossier customer service (dubbed “the gTeam” by the company) with a question about Boy Brow, the product they were considering. We wanted to test the gTeam’s reputation for conversational, social-first service. In keeping with this, our volunteers sent their questions via Facebook, where Glossier carries a “typically replies within a few hours” response rating.

Best in class ecommerce customer service - Glossier

The gTeam hype? It’s real.

Not only was Laine’s reply prompt and helpful, everything about it — from the salutation to the closing emoji — reads like a text from a friend. This exemplifies the new “counter conversation” that can drive beauty sales: turning electronic communication into a personal connection.

Our other shopper asked a question late on a Sunday night — and had her friendly response first thing Monday morning.

The gTeam also wades into their Instagram comments on a daily basis, responding to questions in the same upbeat tone, even if the questions are completely unrelated to the post they were left on. This is a super-smart move, considering Glossier’s 1 million Insta followers and its young female audience: According to a recent Bustle survey, 40% of millennial women say Instagram is the best way to reach them.

Instagram Glossier DM exchange
Instagram Glossier DM exchange p2

A Hit: Product Packaging

Allow us to quote ourselves: “All touchpoints are points of sale.” Glossier takes this concept and runs with it, delivering physical product in a way that brilliantly reinforces the brand.

Product packaging as a branding moment

Glossier ships in standard cardboard boxes with a simple brand label. But inside, the product is tucked inside a pink plastic zip-top pouch that’s become something of a cult item. It’s literally a quart-size plastic bag with bubble padding, but because it’s made in “Glossier pink,” it stands out and seems worth coveting.

Packages also include a friendly note from the gTeam and a pack of cute, on-brand stickers. Those stickers wind up on water bottles, lighters, phone casesand notebooks — and then, of course, on Instagram for the user’s friends to see.

These extra touches may seem excessive, especially for shipments that just contain one item, but think about it: Isn’t it fun to get a little surprise from a friend? Glossier’s packaging deepens the brand’s connection to customers and creates more opportunities for shoppers to spread its message and image on the platforms where it counts most. Plus, beauty products get used up and the empty containers go in the trash. Leaving something behind might just remind you to repurchase.

Glossier packaging

A Miss: Repetitive Social Ads

Let’s take a moment to consider the plight of Suz 1, who endured a barrage of 30 Facebook sponsored posts — almost all of which were identical. Over the course of two weeks, Suz 1 saw the below ad 14 times, sometimes several times in a day.

Digital retargeting ads

If you look closely, this sponsored post features multiple products, but you have to swipe horizontally to view them. If you don’t interact with the ad, or just glance at it in the feed, it appears to be showing nothing but Glossier You Perfume Solid… over and over again. There’s a “peekaboo” slot to the right of the hero image, but with all the white space, there’s no visual cue to swipe in. As it happens, this was an especially bad fit for Suz 1, who prefers ads in which she can see a product in use. And while the perfume solid wasn’t offensive, “I think if there had been a wider variety of products advertised I might have responded more favorably,” she said.

Glossier dynamic retargeting ads

Glossier also ran a promotion during our test: $8 off when you buy Boy Brow and Haloscope highlighter together. Three of our six volunteers saw multiple ads for this offer; one person encountered it six times, seeing this offer more than any other from Glossier (including the Lidstar launch promotions). “If someone tells me I’ll get $8 off the Boy Brow/highlighter combo again, I’ll scream!” she said. Another shopper saw the Boy Brow/Haloscope offer eight times, the same number of times she saw Lidstar promotions.

Unlike the Lidstar campaign’s creative variety, however, the Boy Brow/highlighter combo ad came in only two versions, both in muted colors — an oddity for Glossier, which is typically awash in its signature pink and pastel shades.

Boy Brow and Haloscope promotion
Boy Brow and Haloscope promotion

It makes sense that this campaign had less variety than the Lidstar launch; it’s a time-limited offer, and both products have been around for a while, so they need less introduction. Still, our shoppers were sensitive to the repetition. Notice that both of these ads contain special offers: save 10% on your first order plus the package-deal $8 discount. For our shoppers, at least, that enticement didn’t outweigh the annoyance of seeing the same uninspiring content over and over.

So What Did We Learn?

You don’t have to be into beauty products to see that Glossier does marketing very, very well. But too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

“Getting emails and targeted social media ads daily from a company I just purchased from does seem a bit excessive,” said one shopper who purchased Boy Brow, per our instructions. Another noted, “As a general consumer, I appreciate not being flooded with content and marketing for showing interest or even purchasing a product.”

This is an ongoing conundrum for marketers, especially today, when the same person may encounter your message in their inbox, on Facebook, on Instagram and elsewhere on the web, all in the same day. Seph Zdarko, director of data and modeling at Quantcast, shares a personal anecdote that illustrates the fine line between reminding people of your existence and turning into a stalker. He writes:

I vividly remember my wife telling me that she was “never going to shop” at a particular online retailer again because she was so annoyed by constantly seeing its ads everywhere she went online. She asked me, “Is this your fault? This is so annoying! I am done with them!” And that was that. She hasn’t bought anything from that retailer since. What was once an ideal and loyal customer is now lost.

As we’ve seen, however, quantity of content alone isn’t the problem. You can get away with showing people a lot of content, even promoting the same item, if you do so creatively and with plenty of image and text variety. Approving one or two ad designs might feel like the safe thing to do, but what you gain in consistency you could lose in customer interest and loyalty.

With its Lidstar launch, Glossier also demonstrated that you can offer variety while remaining true to your brand aesthetic — and Glossier is all about its aesthetic. One shopper noticed that its Instagram includes “just… things? Like a picture of flowers” and other pink-hued scenes. These posts aren’t selling products, but they reinforce the brand, appeal to people who enjoy seeing pretty images in their feed and offer yet another low-pressure opportunity for Glossier fans to interact with each other and the gTeam.

Our shoppers were somewhat divided on the Glossier aesthetic: “I really love their design,” enthused one. Another came to believe that Glossier products “want to make you look like an Instagram filter,” while a third homed in on the fact that the products are just one part of what Glossier’s about: “It seems more like a lifestyle brand.” But after a couple weeks of being exposed to all things Glossier, one tester “started to get annoyed,” saying the pink-on-pink vibe began to “seem childish to me.”

Overall, four of our shoppers reported a positive experience interacting with Glossier and its marketing, and two declared themselves neutral. One was “very likely” to recommend the brand to a friend; two were “likely” and two “might recommend.”

Only one shopper decided she “would not recommend” Glossier to a friend, simply because the “products seem expensive” for her budget. Price check, aisle one: Glossier’s Boy Brow retails for $16 plus shipping if your order doesn’t total $30. That’s less than Benefit’s Gimme Brow ($24 plus shipping at and Anastasia Beverly Hills’ Tinted Brow Gel ($22 at Sephora stores and online), and significantly more than popular dupes NYX Tinted Brow Mascara ($6.99) and Essence Make Me Brow ($2.99), both available in-store at Ulta. But none of these come with stickers.

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This post was made in collaboration with the talented Mary Phillips-Sandy and Cody Bond.