More Than Skin Deep: Making your Organization a Bit ‘Glossier’

By Seth Cohen & Morgan Cohen

As a father and daughter team, we spend a lot of time talking about what makes community organizations and nonprofit initiatives appealing to multiple generations, and each of us has a unique perspective. One is based on his experience working in the area of community and experience design. The other one is based on being a current and future target audiences of those experiences. We share a lot of insight, and a lot of opinions, but most of all, we are always looking for examples of companies and brands that “get it right.” You know, the ones that have figured out how to engage Gens XYZ, and at the same time, inspire us to think more clearly and creatively.

Little did we realize that one of the best examples was right in front of our eyes, or even more so (for one of us), on our skin.

If you pay a lot of attention to skincare products (or if you’re the parent of a skincare-happy teen), we have no doubt you have heard of Glossier – one of the buzziest brands in cosmetics. But for the rest of us, a bit of background might be helpful.

Founded by Emily Weiss in 2014 (a former Teen Vogue writer who then had her own blog “Into the Gloss”), Glossier launched a digitally native brand with only four products. Five years later, its brand has a massive online audience of over 2.2 million prime-demographic Instagram followers where it derives a vast majority of its sales. Glossier also has two oh-so-cool store locations in Los Angeles and New York, as well as temporary “pop-up” shops across the country. Most of all, Glossier is the kind of brand that has inspired a picky generation of consumers not only to keep choosing its products, but also to stand on long lines to share its in-store experiences.

While we were recently visiting the Los Angeles location (just in time to avoid the lengthening line), we started a conversation about why Glossier is such an appealing brand to so many different kinds of people, and even more than that, why we don’t always find the same appeal in community organizations that try to reach us. We came up with five key ways that nonprofits can learn from Glossier and perhaps create a bit of the same glow in their own organizations.

  1. Focus on the important stuff, especially the customer. Glossier is famous for focusing on its five “C”s: consumers, content, conversations, co-creation and community. This focus on what matters, not only to its business, but to its customer, is obvious at every touch point. By being relentlessly attentive to these 5Cs and transparent to consumers about how much they matter, Glossier builds not only appeal, but also trust, with a demographic that isn’t easy committed. The key lesson? More important than what you say you focus on is how you show us you focus on it.
  2. Keep it real. Glossier’s tagline is “Skincare & beauty products inspired by real life” and every aspect of Glossier’s digital experience feels real and relevant. On top of the main page of its website (prime real estate for any digital brand), Glossier highlights real people sharing their real-life routines. It immediately draws you into the brand and makes you feel like Glossier is relevant and real to who you are, and it’s not just for hard-to-imitate supermodels with flawless skin. Even at its reasonable price point, Glossier creates a sense of accessibility that draws you in. Plus, its product names aren’t fancy. They are playful and easy to remember. This is a great lesson for nonprofits trying to build community – if you make your products too aspirational and disconnected from reality, you might look cool, but you won’t be accessible to most of your customers.
  3. Be Inclusive. Its one thing to be real to one type of audience, but being real to an audience that has massive diversity (not only of skin color, but of skin type) is completely different. Yet Glossier has demonstrated a real commitment to this key focus area as well. Its branding, marketing, and social media is extremely inclusive and representative of every aspect of its audience. This REALLY matters. Part of the way Glossier consistently achieves high representation of its audience on its digital channels is by inviting its customers to share their own photos and, therefore, serve as co-creators of the Glossier brand image. For nonprofits who might struggle with the appearance of being inclusive, take a page from Glossier: create opportunities for your community members to really share who “they” are – and that will help you tell the story of who “you” are.
  4. Make the journey memorable. It’s am unusual cosmetic boutique that is cool enough to make you brave the endless LA traffic to go there, but that is exactly what Glossier does. Sure, you can avoid all of that trouble and just buy the products online. But then you would miss out on the Glossier experience, from the warm and welcoming attention of the sales associates (coolly named “offline editors”), to the personalized packaging (who doesn’t like pink bubble wrap?), and the exquisitely Instagrammable environment. Glossier knows that the customer journey is EVERYTHING, and its audiences can feel it every step of the way. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson for nonprofits: the Gen XYZ audience of today cares about the “journey to purchase” as much as anything else. The more there is a consistent attention to that journey, the more journeys the customer will go on.
  5. Have a killer product that also exudes good vibes.” It goes without saying that the product needs to be excellent, but its not just about the quality. It is also about the vibes. Glossier understands skincare can be an anxiety-laden experience, so rather than focus on problem-solving, Glossier focuses on the positive, feel-good vibes of skincare. Yes, the products work (that’s essential) but the names and packaging of the product make you smile too. And when buying something that you “need” helps improve the way you “feel,” loyalty is much more likely. And this might be what nonprofits and community organizations need to “get” most of all – sure, you might be good for us, but is the product and packaging enough to create real (and sharable) good vibes inside of us? That is the key question.

Yes, it’s a rare thing when a father in his 40’s and his 17-year-old daughter can agree on what’s cool, but Glossier has achieved it. What it has also helped us realize is even though we might be two generations apart, we aren’t so different in what we seek. Those communities and organizations that focus on the important stuff, while keeping it real, inclusive, memorable, and positive are the ones that bring a bit of gloss to not only themselves, but to everyone they want to reach.

Including us.

Seth Cohen is the founder of Optimistic Labs, a community and experience design lab that helps companies, nonprofits, grantmakers and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Morgan Cohen is a junior at Riverwood International Charter High School in Atlanta, Georgia and graduate of the the Epstein School, with an astute eye for what makes Generation Z interested (and not interested) in experiences and opportunities. They can both be reached at