“It’s a festival,” CEO of Beautycon Media Moj Mahdara says after I mistakenly call the company's event a “convention.” According to Mahdara, the word “convention” is stuffy and doesn’t resonate with her audience. It makes complete sense when you see the space, though — it’s definitely more Coachella than the World Congress of Dermatology.
Beautycon has proven extremely fruitful in the years since its conception in 2013. This year’s one-day festival in October saw attendance by 5,000 people, 1,000 more than the world’s first Beautycon just two years ago. During the week of the event, Beautycon was trending nationally on Instagram and Twitter, and on the day of the festival, the company’s website received a whopping 323 million impressions, over 2,000% more than the festival’s first event garnered in 2013.
The event itself (which costs $29.99 for general admission and up to $269.99 for an all-access VIP experience) is a manifestation of how powerful social media has become in the beauty industry over the past 10 years. Social-media platforms like Instagram and YouTube have changed the way that brands market and consumers purchase, and have even created a demand for products specially made to suit a social-media-savvy lifestyle. Does all this mean the age of traditional media, makeup counters, and big-money ad campaigns is a thing of the past? Ahead, we investigate how three popular social-media practices are resonating with consumers, and what that means for the beauty industry as a whole.
To anyone active in the online beautysphere, the overwhelming response to the festival may not be all that surprising. After all, a survey commissioned by Variety last year found that among U.S. teens, YouTubers were the most influential figures, eclipsing A-listers like J Lawr and Katy Perry. Within the realm of beauty, these YouTubers inform devotees on what makeup to buy and how to wear it — bridging the gap between the professional and amateur cosmetics worlds.
Although YouTube giant Michelle Phan was not in attendance at Beautycon this year, Mahdara was quick to point out that the OG YouTuber was the first to make a full-fledged career for herself on the site — and it all began with a built-in MacBook camera and a free editing program. When Phan posted her first video (a natural-makeup tutorial) in May 2007, she was shocked by the views and support she received. “The next day, it had over 10,000 views and surpassed 40,000 by the end of the week,” she tells Refinery29. “The comments kept pouring in.”
Three years later, the self-taught makeup artist was approached by Kerry Diamond, Lancôme’s head of PR at the time, and was brought on as the brand’s first video makeup artist and first Vietnamese spokesperson. Since then, Phan has written a book, launched a beauty-box subscription service (Ipsy), and has set her sights on emerging YouTube talent by creating Ipsy Open Studios — a studio space and online community that up-and-coming content creators can utilize to discover and refine their visions.
In the past, the only way you could learn about makeup without going to school for it was through books, and even then those only had illustrations that were just rubbish.
Similarly to Phan, YouTube has given U.K.-based professional makeup artist and YouTuber Wayne Goss the opportunity to expand his career in ways he never thought possible. Two years ago, Goss launched his line of cruelty-free and handmade brushes. Although the brushes are quite expensive ($265 for the face set), all 300 kits he purchased for the set's initial sale sold out in less than five minutes.
YouTube’s accessibility and educational qualities are what initially drew Goss to the site. “In the past, the only way you could learn about makeup without going to school for it was through books, and even then those only had illustrations that were just rubbish,” he says. He believes that YouTube has had a key role in demystifying makeup techniques previously only used by professionals. All of this education has inevitably increased the demand for products like the contouring kit or 25-pan eyeshadow palette, which 10 years ago most consumers weren't knowledgeable about or interested in.
Brittany Nguyen, a junior at Fordham University, is a long-time fan of YouTubers like Goss and Phan. “Being the rebellious young teen I was in high school, I surfed the web when my parents locked me in my room to make me do homework,” she says. Nguyen, an actress, was curious about makeup and took to the internet to find out exactly how to create stage-worthy looks. “To be honest, I don’t know where else you learn how to do makeup,” she says.
Before indulging in a beauty purchase, Nguyen makes sure to do copious amounts of research lest she waste her money on a subpar product. Armed with her phone, Nguyen is ready to do a quick Google search for reviews and blog posts about any product she’s thinking of buying. In terms of finding new covetable items, she leaves most of the product-testing to YouTubers. “Most of the time, I find new products through YouTubers,” she says. “[The ones] I follow consistently tend to mention the same products over and over again, so when I go shopping I recognize certain products that I trust [will be good].”
Meanwhile, in New York’s Soho shopping district, there is #, (pronounced “hashtag”) — a store dedicated to stocking indie brands like Gerard Cosmetics, L.A. Girl, and Sugarpill. They may not be your typical household-name labels, but they have something in common: massive followings on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
# is the first brick-and-mortar store to capitalize on the power of the viral beauty world. The store stocks shelves of “Insta-famous” beauty items — products that founder (and president of Ricky's NYC) Richard Parrott has found after hours of “jumping down the rabbit hole that is Instagram,” he says. “When I saw how much buzz [these brands] are generating themselves, I thought, Why not have an intimate experience with these brands?”
Social media's relatability, according to Parrott, is one of the key reasons mediums like YouTube and Instagram have taken off in such a big way in the beauty industry. For consumers, seeing a blogger or celebrity post about a product on social media feels more genuine than a million-dollar ad campaign. “I think it’s about a real endorsement,” he says. “People are so passionate about these brands — especially makeup artists that are on Instagram promoting on their own time.”
The brands that are leading the charge today...are [informing] the consumer through their social-media work.
But it’s not just finding viral products that has brands and consumers tied up in a digital arms race. There are also new marketing opportunities for brands to hone their images and reach millions of people with the tap of a button. Karen Grant, global beauty industry analyst for The NPD Group, believes that rejecting social media is one of the biggest mistakes a brand could make. “Five years ago you weren’t thinking of brands that have a big presence online, like Benefit or Urban Decay,” she says. “[But] these are the brands that are leading the charge today, and a lot of it is things they are doing to inform the consumer through their social-media work.”
Classic brands are taking note of the influence social media has as well, and we’ve seen a spike in brands integrating daily social-media posts into their day-to-day marketing — some have even used it to change their images and attract new customers. Take Estée Lauder, says Grant. In the past, Estée Lauder was considered a more “mature” brand — one you might have seen your mother use when you were little. “They’re a big anti-aging brand — [but] how do you keep moving forward?” Grant says. “They needed to resonate with a younger consumer.” To do so, Estée Lauder signed Kendall Jenner as its spokesmodel in November. “You’ve got this person who has a great following [of 44 million on Instagram], and you take that following and marry it with who your core consumer is,” says Grant. “[Estée Lauder] recognized that doing something like that is an edgy move.” A single Instagram post by Kendall can reach millions of people in seconds.
Social media isn’t just a platform to share products; it’s opening doors for an entirely new category for makeup that performs well on- and off-camera. In the past few years, the “selfie” has become a household term. The word has become a permanent entry in Webster’s Dictionary, selfie sticks are ubiquitous, and you can’t walk into a beauty-supply store without being barraged by products marketed for selfies.
Clearly, brands are attuned to the rise of the selfie — companies including Nyx Cosmetics, CoverGirl, and Make Up For Ever have seen a rise in demand for products that minimize the amount of editing and filters needed for a photo. In other words, social media has spawned a whole new genre of makeup.
Make Up For Ever, which was initially designed for professional makeup artists but has in recent years successfully expanded into the consumer market, was one of the first brands to launch a high-definition, or HD, product. The label’s original HD foundation, launched back in 2009, was extremely popular among consumers. It has since been phased out and replaced with Ultra HD Invisible Cover Foundation. The original blend was truly unique, offering nearly undetectable coverage and an airbrushed, but natural effect on camera.
Make Up For Ever’s new version boasts even more natural coverage that’s “neither matte nor dewy, but truly mimics the skin texture, and therefore, is invisible to the eye,” says Sarah Barr Battle, the brand’s senior manager of trade and product marketing. The new foundation looks just as good in the flesh as it does under a digital-camera lens, and even boasts an ability to perform under 4K video technology.
“With technology changing, and our phones and cameras advancing at rapid speed, there is a demand for makeup to meet those standards,” says Battle. More and more people are choosing makeup that offers a filter-like effect that eliminates the need (or desire) for intense editing apps to create the perfect look.
With technology changing, and our phones and cameras advancing at rapid speed, there is a demand for makeup to meet those standards.
Contouring and highlighting kits have also become much more popular thanks to social-media beauty trends. Increased makeup-skills education plays a role, but Grant believes that the popularity of bloggers and stars like Kim Kardashian, who post photos of themselves using the techniques, has had a huge influence on the average consumer.
Social media has also given the buyers the power to hold brands accountable. In the past, you may have had trouble finding the perfect match for your skin — especially if you have an olive, golden, or deep skin tone. “Brands are looking at their products and asking if [they] match the audience,” says Mahdara. “Brands are seeing a groundswell of women who want products and care about beauty.”
Although the industry still has a lot of room to grow as far as shade ranges are concerned, more brands are listening to their consumers' needs — bringing out new, expanded color ranges and launching products that are more inclusive of all skin tones and types.
The dialogue between brand and consumer on social media helps brands stay up-to-date on what is in demand — it’s not uncommon today for brands to reach out to fans to test out ideas for new products. “It’s like having little focus groups where you can hear firsthand what [consumers] like and what they don’t,” says Grant. “You can’t get those things in big surveys, and brands are realizing...that the consumer wants to be heard and is looking for brands that respond to that.”
Like most students, Nguyen doesn’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on makeup, so she turns to YouTubers, bloggers, and Instagrammers to find products worth purchasing. Recently, she bought Benefit’s They’re Real! Push-Up Liner after seeing it mentioned online. As a rule, she snapped a photo of her acquisition to send to her best friend. Will the photo wind up on Instagram or Snapchat? “Maybe,” Nguyen says with a laugh. “I’ll have to see if it’s good first.”