When clean beauty brand Kosas wanted to reach a Gen-Z audience on TikTok, it called in the Stepchickens. 

Last week, the company launched a giveaway campaign with Melissa Ong, who has 2.1 million TikTok followers and serves as the “Mother Hen” of the TikTok “cult” the Stepchickens. Members identify themselves by changing their profile picture to a signature blue image of Ong, with prominent TikTok accounts like The Washington Post and several sports teams including The Houston Rockets joining in.

After Ong promoted Kosas’ giveaway in a TikTok video (asking people to follow her and Kosas for the chance to win Stepchickens merch and Kosas’ entire collection), Kosas’ comments became flooded with Stepchicken members showing their support. 

“Melissa was already a fan of Kosas and we have a few Stepchickens on our team, so it was a natural fit,” said Kosas founder Sheena Yaitanes of the campaign. “We never want a collaboration to feel forced and will always seek out organic supporters of the brand. It also helps if they’re funny.”

This is just one example of how the clean beauty category, which has been especially popular with millennials, is finally setting its sights on Gen Z. Adjusting marketing strategies and branding, as well as price, has been key to meeting their demands.

Clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty, which stocks Kosas, has been increasing its roster of Gen-Z-focused beauty brands in recent months, including skin-care brands Innbeauty and Kinship. On July 8, it also added clean CBD brand WLDKAT to its lineup. 

Annie Jackson, co-founder and COO of Credo, said that the retailer’s main base is millennials in the age range of 28-34. “I would still say that our core customer is a little bit older, but I do expect it to change dramatically over the next three years,” she said.

Products for Gen Z tend to focus mainly on acne. Kinship, for example, functions as a clean version of Proactiv with a simple skin-care routine for younger consumers. “We launched with five SKUs. We really wanted to keep it simple — the basics that you need for clean, healthy skin,” said Kinship co-founder and president Alison Haljun.

For Gen-Z-oriented clean beauty brands, ingredients are only one concern as they place a significant emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility.

“Their biggest drivers are cruelty-free, sustainable packaging, and good for the environment. They expect good corporate stewardship and social responsibility; that’s not a ‘nice to have;’  that’s what they’re going into this expecting,” said Jackson.

Many of the clean Gen-Z brands, like Kinship, use recycled materials and highlight the details on their sites. WLDKAT’s site prominently explains that it uses recycled paper, bio resin sugarcane plastic and post-consumer recycled plastics. Clean sunscreen brand Everyday Humans, meanwhile, details on its site that it uses post-consumer resin, recyclable PET, compostable plastic, FSC-certified recycled paperboard and soy-based ink for its packaging. 

But in addition to social responsibility, brands also need to have the “cool factor” to be relevant to this audience. Although this consumer group is “very politically aware” and “values-based,” said Jackson, “price point and brand positioning have to be totally on the money.”

To date, clean beauty brands have relied on a “very clean aesthetic and sophisticated packaging” to appeal to millennials, according to Jackson, but this Instagram-ready branding “hasn’t attracted” the younger generation. Gen-Z entrants to the market have been opting for bold and colorful instead. Innbeauty, for example, has a color palette of bright neon yellow and pink. 

“Yellow is the color of Gen Z,” said WLDKAT founder and CEO Amy Zunzunegui, referring to the fact that “Gen-Z yellow” has been described as the new millennial pink. “There’s this shift in clean brands now speaking to a different consumer, a younger consumer,” she said. “Now, we can have a lot of fun in this space and really bring some interesting packaging and formulas. They don’t have to be quite so ‘granola-y,’ or super modern and clean.”

“A lot of what Gen Z loves is just bold color and a clear, clean aesthetic, but it’s not necessarily the minimalism that millennials love,” said Claudia Allwood, the vp of digital and brand marketing at Kinship. “They want to be able to have something bright and fun.” 

Since clean beauty tends to be on the more expensive side, these new Gen-Z brands are offering products at a lower price point for a consumer group that is still in school or only starting to enter the workforce to gain purchasing power. According to Piper Sandler, teen spending on beauty had been on an uptick before the Covid-19 shutdowns, but its latest survey in spring of 2020 found that cosmetics spending for Gen-Z females reached a 10-year low between February and March 2020 with a 26% year-over-year decrease to $103 a year.

This also means reaching customers in a range of retailers known for lower price points. Everyday Humans, for example, sells through Amazon and Ulta, as well as DTC. In Piper Sandler’s spring 2020 survey, Ulta was named as the No. 1 Gen-Z beauty shopping destination, while Amazon was in the top 5. 

“Our packaging may be cute, but our price point is quite low, so we’re in this interesting category where we’re neither; we can be a drugstore brand, but we can also be in a Fred Segal,” said Everyday Humans founder Charlotte Pienaar. “What we wanted to do is to actually make it a bit cheaper and more affordable, and in channels that people 18-to 21-years-old could reach.” Its products range from $9-$25.

For social marketing, it comes as no surprise that Gen-Z brands are leveraging TikTok, but Instagram is also still highly relevant to this age group. Facebook, now increasingly associated with Boomers, is a lower priority. 

“We’re focused on Instagram,” said  Zunzunegui. “We do post on Facebook, as well, but we know our customer isn’t necessarily living full-time on Facebook; she definitely will be more on Instagram.”

Influencers, including both micro and macro, are key for reaching Gen Z on both TikTok and Instagram.

“We have a list of over 1,000 kids who have raised their hands and want to be ambassadors for the brand. We’re just trying to figure out how to scale them appropriately versus just freebies for TikTok,” said Allwood of micro-influencers reaching out for product samples. 

The trend of beauty brands using private social groups is also something that’s resonating with Gen Z as brands experiment with new digital platforms. Everyday Humans invited around 100 of its biggest fans to a private group in a Slack-like app called Geneva. “It’s just more casual, so it’s almost feels like WhatsApp,” said Pienaar.

In order to make sure brands resonate with the demo, their founders are bringing Gen Z on board. That includes enlisting Gen-Z focus groups, checking in with the founders’ own teenage daughters for feedback  and hiring Gen-Z employees. This also includes Gen-Z investment — one of Kinship’s investors is Gen-Z tech expert Tiffany Zhong. 

“You kind of have to go with what’s in your gut and what feels right,” said Zunzunegui, on how to make a brand relevant to a younger audience. “I check with my daughter and her friends,” she added. 

But when it comes to teens, brands have to make sure they hit the sweet spot of coming across as authentic — and avoid the dreaded look of trying too hard. “Cool is subjective, so if you call yourself cool, you’re already not cool,” said Pienaar.