Mountaineer, artist, chef: Meet the new class of beauty influencer

Alongside actors, pop stars and influencers, beauty brands are enlisting professionals in everything from mountaineering to the culinary arts for their latest campaigns. 

In the past month, multiple beauty brands have launched campaigns featuring public figures outside the beauty realm. On March 21, Smashbox Cosmetics announced an art residency program sponsoring three visual artists. On the same day, Clinique announced its “Face of Adventure” campaign with five female adventurers including barrier-breaking mountain climbers. And on March 15, nail-polish brand Orly unveiled a collab with “Top Chef” contestant and James Beard winner Kwame Onwuachi. As brands work on conveying authenticity in a market saturated with influencers, a growing number of beauty labels are looking to stand out and reach wider audiences with a new type of public figure.

“Partnering with influencers outside of the beauty space is an effective way for brands to expand reach and tap into new communities,” said Clare Hennigan, a senior beauty analyst at Mintel. According to Mintel survey data, 40% of beauty influencers’ followers express interest in seeing more beauty brands collaborate with influencers in other industries. 

For Smashbox’s new Smashbox Open Studios artist residency program, the brand is sponsoring three up-and-coming artists in a four-week incubation program that culminates in a March 31 group show of their work at Smashbox’s Lightbox studio in Los Angeles. Artists selected were walk-in installation artist Uzumaki Cepeda, photographer Randijah Simmons and Gabriela Ruiz, who creates sculpture, video, painting and design. 

Uzumaki Cepeda with installation. (Courtesy photo)

It’s the latest beauty brand to incorporate artists into a campaign, following along the lines of La Prairie, which frequently works with artists at Art Basel events. 

“This is a different kind of campaign for us,” said Heather Duchowny, executive director of global marketing at Smashbox. The brand has teamed up with artists for product collaborations in the past, and the goal for this campaign is to “create a cultural and artistic meeting ground for creatives to come together.”

Brands are looking for new campaign stars that make sense conceptually. Orly, for example, teamed up with Onwuachi for a set of three nail polish colors after the star chef became known for his love of wearing nail polish. 

Kwame Onwuachi wearing his new nail polish collab with Orly. (Robert Smith)

“I’m always looking for ways to express myself — my roots, my thoughts, my creativity — whether it’s through food, clothes, design,” Onwuachi said. “The collaboration with Orly is just one creative endeavor outside of the kitchen that you’ll see from me. My fans aren’t just aspiring chefs, they’re from all walks of life.”

These untraditional collaborations can help brands expand their reach beyond typical beauty enthusiasts. 

“In today’s market, there is an oversaturation of celebrity beauty partnerships and lines because it is a business model that has worked,” said Tal Pink, vp of business development at Orly. “Orly has always had an eye for asymmetrical partnerships that push the industry forward, rather than just recreating what we are seeing in the market today.”

The brand wants to work with figures “deserving of more recognition of their accomplishments in their field,” Pink said. Previously, it collaborated with Jennifer Welter, the first female NFL coach in 2019. 

As with typical beauty influencers or celebrities, a devoted social following can mean success in sales. Thanks to the enthusiasm of Onwuachi’s fan base of 175,000 Instagram followers, the Kwame X Orly collab sales exceeded the brand’s forecasts, Pink said. More than half of its inventory sold within the first two weeks of launch. The brand is doing a “rush replenishment,” as well as working with Onwuachi on three more shades.  

“Beauty brands are interested in this type of crossover because it allows them to reach other types of customers. Beauty influencers and experts, like dermatologists, tap into a niche already searching for these types of products,” said Alessandro Bogliari, co-founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency The Influencer Marketing Factory.

In a time where the concept of authenticity is key for brands’ marketing, brands are also quick to emphasize that these campaigns aren’t just about reaching a large follower count. While Smashbox is featuring its artists on social media and having them do TikTok takeovers, Duchowny noted that two of them don’t even have TikTok accounts. 

“We weren’t choosing these people because they have some immense following on a specific platform or another,” she said. 

Meanwhile, for a campaign promoting its Moisture Surge moisturizer, Clinique opted to work with adventurers, given their exposure to extremely harsh weather conditions on the world’s highest peaks.

The adventurers include Zambia-born Saray Khumalo, the first Black woman from Africa to summit Mount Everest; Marcela Marañon, the first Latin woman with a disability to climb Mount Kilimanjaro; and Emma Svensson, the first to lead an all-female team to climb every 4,000-meter peak in the European Alps. There’s also Elise Wortley, founder of the “Woman with Altitude” project in which she recreates historical women’s journeys without modern mountain equipment; and Mireya Mayor, an Emmy-nominated primatologist and the first Latina national correspondent for National Geographic.

“We usually work with top beauty influencers,” but “this is the widest, in terms of the influencers we’re using that are outside the beauty category,” said Roxanne Iyer, Clinique’s vp of global consumer engagement.

As the term “influencer” has become linked directly with the idea of paid content, brands are looking for more authentic ways to reach audiences through new types of influential figures. Influencers themselves have been shifting toward the term “creator” to highlight their work rather than follower count and brand deals. 

“Consumers are wary of sponsored content. Highly engaged beauty consumers are savvy and understand when they are being ‘sold to’ versus [given] a genuine product recommendation,” said Hennigan.

Star athletes are also increasingly found in beauty ads. Luxury beauty brands have been lining up with sportswear labels to secure Olympian endorsement deals. SK-II enlisted Simone Biles and other summer Olympians for a 2020 campaign, while Estée Lauder has worked with skiing gold medalist Eileen Gu in China. Star MMA fighter Zhang Weili has also been in an Estée Lauder campaign. And Glossier became the first beauty brand to sponsor the WNBA in 2020, launching a campaign featuring female basketball stars. In addition to physical sports, prominent gamers and esports stars have also landed beauty endorsement deals. 

As brands look beyond the beauty world for public figures with a corporate social responsibility aim, they are also creating new titles beyond “brand ambassador” and collab partner. Poet laureate Amanda Gorman, for example, is Estée Lauder’s first “Global Changemaker,” meaning she works with the brand on both campaigns and CSR initiatives. 

Meena Harris has also emerged as a CSR-focused “reluctant influencer” in beauty, working with companies including hair-care brand Monday, makeup brand Live Tinted and skin-care brand Naturopathica.

Expert endorsements can also help brands’ credibility on sustainability claims. When luxury skin-care brand Emma Lewisham announced in September 2021 that it had become the first “carbon-positive” beauty brand, it earned an endorsement from environmentalist Jane Goodall.

The influx of new brand representatives doesn’t mean brands are abandoning beauty influencers, however. According to Mintel, 73% of adults who follow beauty influencers have purchased products recommended by them. 

In the future, brands are planning to continue working with traditional beauty influencers and celebrities, while also continuing to branch out to new types of professionals. 

“Of course, we play in a beauty influencer space, but that’s not the only place where we like to play,” said Duchowny. “We’re open, and we do tend to look outside of the traditional, when it comes to campaigns.” Smashbox is keeping “an open mind,” in terms of who it works with and is considering future artist initiatives, she said.

“Beyond the personal satisfaction of being able to put the spotlight on good causes and stories, the business case for these types of collaborations is pretty clear,” Pink said. “When nobody else is doing something, that’s a great time to start doing it.”

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