When Fortune magazine released its 2018 “40 Under 40” list — its “annual ranking of the most influential young people in business” — Emily Weiss, founder of cult beauty company Glossier and the list’s 31st entrant, took to Instagram to share her thoughts on the honor.
The booming beauty industry, she mused under the image of her headshot in Fortune, was now valued at $450 billion and growing, defying investors who she claimed initially devalued beauty startups like her own.
Because beauty, Weiss wrote, is “not frivolous; it’s a conduit for connection. I’m so happy it’s finally getting taken seriously — which means women are getting taken seriously.”
We have come to talk about these companies not simply as potential moneymakers, but as a reflection of the zeitgeist — or even potential agents for change.
Weiss’ tacit correlation of her brand’s success to the overall empowerment of womankind is one indicative example of corporations’ broader shift in how products are being sold to women, by women. By acknowledging that women, as consumers, have historically been poorly served and misunderstood in the marketplace, emerging brands are claiming to be attuned to women’s lived realities like never before.
Here’s what women consumers are marketed: They can purchase not just the product but also the empowerment that comes from it being specially curated to improve overall living.
Be it Glossier’s “no makeup makeup” mantra (“Skin First, Makeup Second, Smile Always” is emblazoned on their cheery pink packaging); Fenty Beauty’s industry-changing 40-shade foundation range; ThirdLove’s purported mission to design the perfectly fitted bra; or the deluge of personalized and highly customizable product ranges like hair care line Function of Beauty, these brands identify as a safe port in an otherwise unfriendly storm of consumerism.
They’re offering an authoritative voice on the female experience, and they have effortlessly aspirational female CEOs like Weiss, Jen Atkin, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Rihanna to prove it.
As ThirdLove’s co-founder Heidi Zak told Inc., “Women founders are starting companies because they have a certain issue they encounter in their life and they think they can create a better experience.” We have come to talk about these companies not simply as potential moneymakers, but as a reflection of the zeitgeist — or even potential agents for change.
Which, conveniently, allows for brands to capitalize not only on beauty needs but also the current wellness movement.
After all, the perception that women’s truths are neglected or disrespected isn’t exclusive to the beauty world. As Dr. Jen Gunter, a long-time critic of wellness companies such as Goop, wrote in The New York Times, “Many people — women especially — have long been marginalized and dismissed by medicine.”
The mere promise of the products is therapeutic in and of itself. And women want to keep healing themselves.
This cultural consensus has created a coveted space for brands to swoop in and offer sympathetic and timely “solutions.” We’re in a moment of DIY self-improvement, based on the idea that one’s health can be improved or healed from just the right wellness prescription or product.
These, in turn, become wisdom, shared and imparted from woman to woman. Think collagen-infused serums and drinks reviews, the push for “clean” beauty ingredients, nutrition combined with natural and sustainability movements. Beauty, and self-care, has seamlessly blended in with healthcare.
The female consumer is no longer just a lone entity looking for a secret fix to private health concerns. Rather, her health issues are increasingly politically charged or socially determined. Meaning: The products she chooses also speak to her broader sociopolitical values. To start a conversation with her, brands need to hit on the issues she believes in to appear as an empowering and relevant feminist ally.
But unlike previous feminist marketing strategies (see Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which indulged in angst over the implicit male gaze), these brands are adopting values from the next feminist wave. They’re aiming for a playful, empathetic strategy: the connection of a knowing friend who can help unveil and resolve hidden truths and broader injustices.
As Thinx CEO Maria Molland Selby told CNBC, “People are increasingly concerned about what they put in their body” and “every one of our products is washable and reusable so it’s good for the planet.”
Thinx was also one of the first brands that jumped on this shift in 2015. As a company selling a line of moisture-absorbent, comfortable menstrual underwear, the product asserts that the wearer isn’t only environmentally friendly, they’re also health-conscious. Traditional menstrual product brands therefore risk appearing out of sync with women’s new priorities, which situates periods as a broader social issue.
In 2018, ALWAYS launched its annual “End Period Poverty” campaign, pledging that for every pack of ALWAYS pads or tampons purchased in the month following International Women’s Day, a donation will be made to a student in need of product.
While ALWAYS had previously led its own philanthropic initiatives (including “Puberty Confidence” awareness campaigns), the “End Period Poverty” effort was explicitly focused on harnessing the spending power of consumers, making their individual shopping choice part of a larger activist conversation.
“It’s challenging for businesses and business leaders to touch this issue… if you’re selling lingerie, maybe you don’t want to associate with reproductive health.” — Sustain CEO Meika Hollender in Adweek
Why are these ideas particularly saleable now? It’s partly thanks to the rise of the internet and social media. Women’s lifestyle and health “problems” are discussed more openly and regularly.
The internet and social media’s propensity for oversharing, combined with its burgeoning feminist activism, means that women online are primed to talk more openly about their experiences. After all, the most impactful recent example of women’s collective consciousness is still referred to in hashtag form: #MeToo.
This connection is also the kind of shared language that brands are eager to emulate, asserting that they, too, understand women’s lives and have a convenient solution.
While this heightened connectivity also means that brands can mine their audience’s knowledge and preferences to optimize a cultlike devotion to a product, it also creates an expectation of accountability for the brands.
Glossier in particular has relied heavily on consumer interactions on Instagram and its sister blog, Into The Gloss. Opinions shared on these platforms can later be assumed to be infused into the products themselves.
When Glossier unveiled its newest product, an eye cream named Bubblewrap, it ignited a conversation among brand followers as to the company’s use of excessive packaging and plastics — not so cute when considering environmental degradation. (According to Glossier’s Instagram, signature pink Bubble Wrap pouches in their online orders will be optional this summer.)
As one Instagram follower commented on the brand’s disconnect, “Imagine having unicorn level branding and you use your super powers to push as much single-use plastic as you can. You guys are a millennial/gen z targeting company… please think of the environmental consequences.” Glossier responded to followers mentioning that “sustainability is becoming a larger priority. […] Stay tuned for more details!”
Just as consumers can ignite online campaigns for makeup companies to follow Fenty Beauty’s precedent-setting 40-shade range, they also feel empowered to challenge the values of aforementioned brands like ALWAYS.
While Thinx’s 2015 marketing was lauded as a feminist response to the menstrual product industry, a 2017 Racked investigation (via Glassdoor reviews) into the workplace dynamics revealed a “feminist company that disempowers and undervalues its (majority woman) staff.” In the same year, former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal stepped down after accusations of sexual assault.
If brands want to speak to the contemporary realities of women’s lives, it turns out that this involves incorporating human values that may challenge convenient corporate ones — as well as their revenues.
Recently, while several women-fronted brands agreed to sign a public letter supporting abortion rights, others declined. As Sustain CEO Meika Hollender (who created and signed the letter) notes, “It’s challenging for businesses and business leaders to touch this issue… if you’re selling lingerie, maybe you don’t want to associate with reproductive health.”
It’s clear that women are excited to invest in themselves with both their time and money. And by creating a product that can answer the feeling of neglect, offer the power of imagined community, and rebuff traditional norms, brand can tap — and count on — women for their spending power.
It’s also the kind of power that can dictate new industry ethics and illuminate marginalized experiences, while also vaulting CEOs like Weiss on the “40 Under 40.”
It’s also time to stop thinking of shopping as a frivolous obsession. Is it really about getting the perfect hyaluronic serum, for instance, or is it more so the thrill of finally finding the right product in a sea of chronic disappointment?
Is buying Thinx panties only about sourcing the ideal moisture-resistant material, or does it allow a woman who has quietly struggled with her periods to try a more freeing, destigmatizing alternative? Is the loyalty pledged by a woman of color to Fenty Beauty just about finding a decent makeup formulation, or is it a devotion to the first brand that articulated her skin tone as an asset rather than a hindrance?
In this sense, the mere promise of the products is therapeutic in and of itself. And women want to keep healing themselves.
But we should also acknowledge that this kind of shopping therapy also risks having marginalized lived experiences exploited as a selling strategy.
Weiss and her peers depend on these common narratives of womanhood to keep interest in their products. What happens when women’s evolving grievances are directed at these supposedly female-friendly brands?
The notion that women are finally “being taken seriously” can’t begin and end with a billion dollar valuation, but rather with a feeling that brands value sincere communication with those whose lives and desires shaped the products and their success.
For women who see a brand created in their own image — born from their experiences and desires — their attachment to a product’s DNA is understandable. To sever that bond, you risk another drawer full of broken promises, only to be replaced in the next declutter.
These brands may have built a reputation on listening. For women, the conversation isn’t over yet.
Victoria Sands is a freelance writer from Toronto.