Deep Dive: Reaching the Gen-Z beauty consumer

More than any other age cohort, Gen Z is the consumer group that’s top of mind for marketers looking ahead to 2021. And that’s not just because brands are trying to figure out what motivates and inspires this rising generation, which is entering the workforce and earning disposable income in ever-larger numbers. It’s also because Gen Z is the most informed, product-savvy and forthright generation on record. These young consumers aren’t waiting to be wooed by brands — they know what they want, they have standards, and they’re shopping for brands who demonstrate and live out values that align with their own. 

Our Deep Dive: Glossy Beauty Summit, is a collection of videos and key takeaways from our recent three-day Glossy Beauty Summit Live that will provide valuable tips, insights, quotes and stats on how Gen Z is challenging the beauty industry on issues like transparency, authenticity and values.

Any brands that thought that they could treat Gen Zers like a digital-native extension of millennials has been in for a rude awakening these past few years. In so many ways, Gen Z stands apart from older generations. They’ve grown up in a world that has relentlessly and rapidly been remade by new technologies. No group of young people has had access to such a wealth of information, and that’s given Gen Z firm convictions on everything from the products they buy and brands they support, to the multiple challenges their communities and societies face locally, nationally and globally.

The core of any successful brand relationship with Gen Z is authenticity. Gen Zers have a fine-tuned radar for fakery and won’t hesitate to call it out. Brands need to communicate with a voice that is natural, effortless, honest and transparent if they want their values to resonate — and even then, Gen Zers might decide a brand’s values don’t line up with their own.

One of the big differences between Gen Z and older generations is that they’re using different social platforms. TikTok epitomizes this shift, and brands that hope to speak to Gen Z have to become fluent in the platform’s language, in-jokes and range of popular styles of content, from dance videos and beauty explainers to hashtag challenges. It pays to get this right, and brands are finding that a successful strategy starts with simply using the platform, observing and listening with curiosity.

Along with authenticity, Gen Z is all about values. They want to know what brands stand for, and hiding behind platitudes isn’t an option. Sustainability, diversity and inclusivity are among the key issues for Gen Z, and brands large and small have to get comfortable talking about what they’re doing in these spaces. 

While we think of Gen Z as being the most digital-savvy generation to date, they are also transforming physical retail. They’re enthusiastic about in-person shopping, and Covid-19 has provoked some surprising shifts in terms of who’s going into stores. The net effect is that the interplay between retailers and brands, and online and offline commerce, in response to Gen Z, is causing major changes to the way we shop in person.

Gen Z is also redefining the way brands think about beauty. Brands and retailers are conceptualizing “beauty” in a broader sense that encompasses wellness, health and personal care. We’re seeing refreshing innovations in product and communications that reflect a more realistic, positive understanding of what beauty represents.

Here’s what you need to know.

Authenticity is crucial

It can’t be said enough: Authenticity is critical for reaching a Gen-Z audience. Gen-Z consumers are extremely sensitive to tone and messaging, and their perception of a brand’s authenticity — or lack thereof — can be the factor that makes them more or less receptive. 

Brands need to make sure their own messaging comes across as authentic, but also to invest in fostering brand awareness through the communities and networks that young generations look to as sources of trusted recommendations. That can mean friends online and offline, as well as other brands and social influencers. 

“If Gen Z wants to connect with you as a brand, they want to know: Who are you, and what do you stand for? So they can determine if they want to engage with you.”

Cara Sabin, CEO of Sundial Brands

Cara Sabin, CEO of Sundial Brands, said Gen Z is incredibly discerning about which brands they choose to support. Perhaps it’s this feature more than any other that sets today’s youth apart from previous generations. “If they want to connect with you as a brand, they want to know: Who are you, and what do you stand for? So they can determine if they want to engage with you,” Sabin said.

  • Let your customer know who you are and what you stand for. Gen Z wants the brands they support to reflect who they are, whether that means in identity, values or personality.

It’s no longer enough to play it safe and sit on the fence the way brands used to, said Sabin. “She’s living her life with intention. And so if you are part of her life — as a product, as a brand, as a service — you have to be able to connect with her in a really meaningful way,” she said.  

  • Performative words and actions won’t cut it. Gen Z is sharp enough to know the difference between empty gestures and a brand that is centered around values that live in its policies and practices.

This summer’s protests brought an outpouring of promises and commitments from brands to “do better” on racial issues, but it was clear that some brands had severely overlooked the problems in their own workplaces. Sharon Chuter, founder, CEO and creative director of Uoma Beauty, said her young consumers recognize that her brand’s stances are genuine and that they wouldn’t stand for anything else. “At the end of the day, our consumers have been very intelligent,” she said. “You can’t fool them, in terms of when you’re performing versus when you’re doing it right. At the end of the day, it’s not a commercial play.”

  • Show your work and demonstrate expertise. Gen Z appreciates brands that make the effort to show how the sausage is made. Pull back the curtain and be transparent about your ingredients or processes.

Sure, Gen Z follows and trusts recommendations from certain star influencers, but it’s trust, not celebrity, that is the key. Cerave draws attention to its links with professional dermatologists, in areas from the company’s logo (which features the slogan “developed with dermatologists”) to its social media content. The brand’s co-founder and global vp of professional marketing, Tom Allison, said this resonates with Cerave’s young consumers. “There’s a right-size reverence for dermatologists,” Allison said. ‘They realize that these are people who have spent their entire life and career focused on the surface of the skin to make sure that they’re helping people.”

With around 100 million monthly active users, TikTok is the subject of understandable curiosity from beauty brands and their marketing teams. That’s even more so when you consider that around 60% of TikTok users are Gen Z, many of whom don’t even have accounts on “traditional” social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

For all the excitement, and in spite of some notable success stories, many brands are still dipping their toes in TikTok’s waters. It pays to take the time to interact with the platform and get familiar with the content. Vitally, brands are realizing that TikTok is a different beast from other social platforms. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that whatever strategies worked on another platform can migrate successfully to TikTok, because they probably won’t.

Brands need to know what they want from TikTok before they commit to a strategy, but players in the beauty industry are certainly seeing the benefits, in driving both visibility and sales. Paula’s Choice CMO Erika Kussmann said use of the brand’s hashtag on TikTok has grown 20 times over in under a year. Meanwhile, Cerave’s Tom Allison said the brand’s TikTok listening revealed there was a buzz around the brand thanks to unsolicited recommendations from key “skinfluencers.” User-generated content — specifically, before-and-after skin-care photos — was another organic driver of conversation. “There was a tremendous amount of engagement happening without us even influencing it,” Allison said. And Cerave has seen a positive impact on sales as a consequence. 

  • Brands are using TikTok to inform and educate. In the popular imagination, TikTok is all quirky content and dance videos, but that reputation undersells the platform’s value to users and brands.

Kussmann said the TikTok format is “well-suited for quick education and hacks,” and that the Gen-Z audience is eager for more. “They’re leading the way, in terms of ingredient education,” she said.

  • Listen before you leap. As well as actively partnering with influencers on content collaborations, brands are paying attention to the broader, organic conversations around their brands. This applies to all social platforms, of course, but it’s an especially important habit to practice as companies get to grips with TikTok and develop a strategy for the platform that fits their brand.

The Paula’s Choice team pays attention to what TikTok users are talking about and uses that information to figure out what they want from Paula’s Choice. “We spend a lot of time finding out where we’re naturally taking hold and where there are these pockets of interest for our brand, and [then] engaging them,” Kussmann said. “[It’s about] having your ear to the ground, but not jumping on everything.”

  • TikTok gives brands room to be creative and test new approaches to content. Brands are liberating themselves from the constraints of “on-brand” messaging. Understanding what types of content resonate with TikTok users is important, but from there, let the creativity flow.

Paula’s Choice identified ASMR as a content area that represented something new for the brand that also tapped into an existing trend on TikTok. “It brings the products to life in this really different way,” Kussmann said. “ASMR really connects and breaks through in this way. It’s very immersive, and it can be creative.”

Perhaps the most-cited feature that defines Gen Z is that they are the most values-driven generation on record. Nine out of 10 Gen-Z consumers reportedly believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues, and they’re willing to back that up with their wallets. 

The values that most animate Gen Z are sustainability, diversity and inclusivity, and they’re savvy and discerning about these issues. That means brands really have to communicate where they stand, with honesty and transparency — even if that means admitting their own shortcomings. 

  • Brands can’t fake the values Gen Z holds dear. Those that have tried have generally failed, and that loss of credibility can be difficult to recover from.

Sharon Chuter of Uoma Beauty said that when brands get it wrong, the problem is usually rooted in a lack of diversity within the ranks of the business. “If you have a team that was reflective of the market you’re trying to serve, you will not have this problem,” Chuter said. “That’s why it always comes back to who is in that room with you and who you employed — because they are the ones who are managing social media, they’re the ones managing your private messaging. And right now, for most of these brands, their employees are completely out of touch.” 

“It always comes back to who is in that room with you and who you employed — because they are the ones who are managing social media, they’re the ones managing your private messaging. And right now, for most of these brands, their employees are completely out of touch.” 

Sharon Chuter, founder, CEO & creative director, Uoma Beauty 
  • Clean beauty is just getting started. Gen Z is actively curious and demanding about what goes into the products they buy, and top influencers like Hyram are more than willing to take brands to task if their practices aren’t up to scratch.

Co-founder Christin Powell said Kinship was born out of a recognition that there was an unmet need for a skin-care brand that reflected Gen Z’s values. Powell said she and co-founder Alison Haljun “looked at each other and went, ‘Why isn’t there anything that’s really serving this teen customer that’s really high-performance, uses clean ingredients, and really reflects their values of sustainability and great branding?’ We were just floored that there wasn’t anything that really spoke to them.”

  • Brands are designing specific lines around aligning with Gen-Z values. Brands are recognizing that Gen Z is enthusiastically supportive of brands that speak up for the issues that matter to them, and they’re responding with products and sub-brands that echo those values.

E.l.f. Beauty drew on insights it had gleaned from young consumers as it developed its Keys Soulcare brand. “How do we take what we know that Gen Z loves and how do we take what they’re shopping patterns are, and make sure that that comes across very clearly,” said Gayitri Budhraja, E.l.f.’s vp of brand. Those learnings informed content and community building strategies, and ultimately the products themselves. “They want a brand that stands for something that they can absolutely rally behind,” Budhraja said.  

It’s true that much of the Gen Z-inspired innovation and realignment in the beauty space is powered by scrappy startups and small- and medium-sized brands. But that doesn’t mean that larger brands and corporations aren’t taking note. In fact, big changes are afoot as retail giants and heritage brands respond to the rise of Gen Z by revamping their store designs, branding and packaging. 

Musab Balbale, vp and gm of beauty at Walmart, said that a convergence of major retailers, heritage brands and independent labels is underway. That’s creating feedback loops where each of the players is learning from each other, he said, and that’s strengthening all participants in the loop. “It’s an interesting evolution, where bigger brands are starting to act like smaller brands, and smaller brands need to act like bigger brands in order to continue to grow and expand their reach,” said Balbale.

  • Rethinking the beauty aisle. Major retailers are stocking more independent brands, aiming to make their offerings more relevant to young consumers. 

“We need to focus faster on indie brands and trending brands, and bring much more energy and excitement to our assortment,” said Balbale at Walmart. “Those indie brands are constantly telling us more and more about the consumer, and so it becomes this really productive flywheel, where we learn more. We can then give that perspective back to brands as they look to scale and grow.”

  • Covid-19 has meant in-store customers are trending younger. One of the stories of the pandemic has been older consumers embracing e-commerce, but on the flipside of that trend, retailers are noticing the balance of in-store shoppers tilting younger. Research has shown that Gen Z, in particular, is keen to get back to in-person retail.

This is prompting retailers to rethink their in-store displays and designs, as well as how online and offline commerce intersects and plays off one another. “As we think about our physical experience, as well as our digital experience, we’re now thinking in a much more holistic way about serving customers equally well in our stores and online,” said Balbale.

  • Heritage brands are updating their outlook for Gen-Z consumers. Although it’s more challenging to revamp a decades-old offering for a new generation — and especially such a discerning cohort as Gen Z — heritage brands know the direction they need to move in. As a result, they’re coming out with product launches and revamps that acknowledge Gen Z’s expectations.

Andra Mielnickio, vp of global influencer marketing for luxury at Coty, cited genderless fragrance CK Everyone as an example of the kind of launch that addresses the ways the beauty industry and its consumers are changing. Clean beauty is another priority, even if progress can’t happen overnight. “We’re starting to introduce clean products within the range,” Mielnickio said. “We’re not going to always be able to get fully clean on something right away, but it’s really important to us that we offer consumers who are looking for that the option to have that.”

There’s increasing overlap between categories that have traditionally been siloed, such as health, personal care and self-care. Brands in these categories are amplifying beauty as an element of what they do, and they’re talking about how their own products play into their customers’ lives from a broader wellness perspective.

That trend is also having an impact in stores. Balbale said Walmart’s beauty range is moving in a new direction to feature health products more prominently as an aspect of beauty, “whether it be in terms of their formulation, or in terms of the conditions or problems that they help consumers solve.”

  • Gen Z understands that health and beauty are intertwined, and brands are telling that story. The younger generation has a more intuitive grasp of the relationships between the environment, ingredients, sourcing and production processes. They’re acutely aware that clean, natural ingredients are better for their bodies, and understand beauty as an outgrowth of good health.

Powell said Kinship’s young consumers understand that good health leads to great skin, and that influences the products they seek out. She believes that sentiment has only really emerged over the past decade, as young people have educated themselves with the help of YouTube and social media influencers. “It starts from understanding what it means to feel good, and they’re starting to make that connection between feeling good and looking good,” Powell said.

  • Brands are creating personal care products that empower young consumers. Everyone is coming around to the idea that consumers want products to enjoy and be proud of using in every category, with messaging to match.

Blume co-founders Bunny and Taran Ghatrora said the common stigma around some categories of personal care products meant there was a need for new products that young consumers could identify with. “There was really no emotional connection to the brand or the products that you’re using,” said Taran Ghatrora. “That’s something we wanted to change.”

  • Beauty retailers are embracing categories they once ignored or excluded. Stores are taking the cue that health, personal care and self-care are all building blocks of beauty, and we’re starting to see that reflected on the shelves.

Sephora chose Blume’s period products to be the first items of their kind that the retailer stocked. Increasingly, brands and retailers are choosing not to put up barriers across “categories” of product. They’re reflecting the way consumers buy products, and seeing beauty, wellness, health and personal care products as parts of a larger story. “It makes sense, and it kind of makes you wonder why historically that wasn’t the case,” said Taran Ghatrora. “For us, a lot of that comes down to taboo and stigma, and just a lack of conversation about the period category.”

“I really encourage every Black entrepreneur to really go back to your purpose, ignore a lot of the noise going on right now, know your value and know your worth.”

Sharon Chuter, founder, CEO & creative director, Uoma Beauty

The protests that followed George Floyd’s death led to broad commitments from retailers to expand their representation of Black-owned brands. In principle, this is a step in the right direction, but Chuter warned that the contracts Black-owned entrepreneurs are being offered are exploitative. Chuter said business owners need to be wary of selling themselves short by entering into such contracts.

“One of the best parts of this job is laying in bed at night and being able to look at TikTok videos and claim that I’m working.”

Musab Balbale, vp and gm of beauty, Walmart

Across the board, leaders in beauty are taking note of TikTok’s centrality in the online lives of Gen Z, and they’re spending time to make sure they understand the platform’s distinct aesthetics. Balbale said he and other Walmart colleagues scour TikTok to find out what brands are trending and to identify brands that are set to blow up, as well as to gather immediate feedback on what aspects of the Walmart in-store experience are resonating with consumers. He added that, as long as the brand has an authentic presence on TikTok, there’s no reason why the platform cannot benefit big brands, as it does smaller brands. 

“It’s really important that we talk directly to our customer. We generally take the tone of an older sister or a slightly older best friend, who really has her best interests at heart; she isn’t speaking down to her, but instead is really just having a conversation with her.”

Bunny Ghatrora, co-founder, Blume

To truly connect with Gen Z, brands can’t talk at them, and they certainly can’t talk down to them. Ghatrora said Blume strives to put out content that meets the brand’s consumers where they are and that instinctively anticipates their needs in the moment. For example, Blume runs a live meditation session on Instagram on Monday mornings, which Ghatrora said is intended to provide a moment of mindfulness to break the habit of anxious social scrolling.

What are skinfluencers?

YouTube, Instagram and, more recently, TikTok have given rise to this category of highly influential social media stars whose skin-care recommendations and tutorials draw thousands, even millions, of young followers. Hyram Yarbro, known by his followers simply as Hyram, is one of the most popular skinfluencers. He’s known for his “cut the crap” approach, which has seen a number of brands on the receiving end of Hyram’s scathing judgments on their practices. Erika Kussmann of Paula’s Choice said that brands can also achieve results by working transparently and building trust with influencers. “We really stayed true to an approach with our influencers where it’s about their creative freedom and their creative expression, and really just being able to incorporate our products in a way that feels authentic to them, because then it will feel authentic to their audiences,” Kussmann said.

What is blanding?

“Blanding” refers to the minimalist aesthetic that has characterized one common approach to branding and packaging design in recent years. If that low-key style was favored by many brands targeting a millennial audience, expect brands aiming to capture a Gen-Z audience to embrace a more colorful, lively aesthetic. Powell of Kinship said Gen Z thrives on positivity and is drawn to brands that reflect that ethos with vibrant, bold design — an insight that informed Kinship’s award-winning packaging. “I think that colors and shapes that are really iconic are important to them,” Powell said. “We found that what our audience really resonates with is color, and color really sort of speaks to the vibrancy of nature.” 

What is soul care?

Budhraja at E.l.f. talked about “soul care” as a concept that the E.l.f. team used as the basis for its Keys Soulcare brand. The essence of soul care, according to Budhraja, is to think about beauty in a holistic sense. She said it’s about carving out space for yourself to foster the connection between mind, body and spirit. In the most simple sense, soul care means approaching the routines most of us go through almost as an afterthought –- washing our face, brushing our teeth –- with intentionality, turning the routine into ritual. “What’s really essential here is when your soul is good, you’re going to feel the most beautiful you’ve ever felt, because you’re going to have that confidence, that calm, that light,” Budhraja said. 

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