Above image: Courtesy of Glossier
As consumers, we have reached a threshold. We're tired of being sold a false ideal—unrealistic, glossy advertising is losing its luster. We're wise to the supernatural abilities of airbrushing and Photoshopping, tools that routinely distort reality in front of our very eyes. We know we'll never be as beautiful as the models in certain photos, because even they don't really look like that. In our digital world, technology has made nearly anything possible—but as we've come to know in the industries of celebrity, fashion and beauty, it can go too far, marketing nothing more than an empty illusion. And people are tired of it. We are tired of it.
Photo: Courtesy of Need Supply
Ushering in a breath of fresh air, however, are contemporary grassroots brands built on the premise of authenticity: companies that rely on a strong backbone of vision, quality and transparency to excite and inspire the masses. Labels that want to include their customer, not alienate her (or him). Brands that want to be our friend. And in some cases, brands that want to cast our friends—real women—as models and representatives of what they're all about.
For example, take San Francisco–based e-tailer Lisa Says Gah, which stocks a very specific, curated selection of cult-followed brands including Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Rachel Comey and Creatures of Comfort. Helmed by Nasty Gal alum Lisa Williams, the company first harnessed the power of local ladies—and even staffers—out of necessity.
“We began with a limited budget that only allowed us access to real girls [as models]," says Lisa. "As our business became more established, we experimented with using actual models in a studio setting, but it didn't feel authentic to LSG, so we quickly switched back."
This approach has become the company’s signature, capturing beautiful, film-like lifestyle shots in local apartments and on the streets of San Francisco of women incorporating the product into realistic settings. According to Lisa, this notion of attainable inspiration has been further reinforced with the rise and influence of social media.
"Blogs, Instagram and Snapchat have changed the way we consume. Runway shows and red carpets are no longer as desirable as the unedited, natural posts leading up to these events," Lisa says. "We want behind-the-scenes access to other women's rituals—their careers, the items on their beauty shelves, their values. Real women and [real] moments are more captivating than ever."
On that tip, enter Into The Gloss, an online beauty destination created by Emily Weiss that rose to prominence by featuring the makeup, skin- and self-care routines of industry insiders. This previously unprecedented access to real but wildly influential women was satisfying voyeurism and a unique, honest approach to beauty. The community grew rapidly, and in 2014, ITG's product offshoot Glossier was born. A line of skincare and color cosmetics, the tagline is "A Beauty Brand Inspired by Real Life."
In selecting models for campaigns, the team used social media to discover fans and turn them into the faces of the brand.
"Many of [the women in our campaigns] are our customers to begin with. They make my job easy by tagging @Glossier in a selfie—Emily and I check our tagged photos probably five times a day," says Annie Kreighbaum, Glossier's executive editorial director. "Since our first campaign, we've relied on a mix of agency models and people we discover on Instagram. But the whole goal is to work with girls who truly represent the brand and aesthetic no matter where we find them."
In a similar vein as Lisa Says Gah, the company also uses staffers—real people with real jobs—in its marketing collateral. This approach is working: Check out the tags on @Glossier's feed and you'll see a wildly dedicated community of beauty lovers that wax poetic about the product. These people feel proud to have bought into the brand, feel connected enough to share it and view Glossier as more of a friend than an out-of-touch entity.
"One of our core values is inclusivity, and we show that we're inclusive by being relatable," Annie says. "Beauty isn't perfect, and it's in embracing that that we're really standing out as a brand in an industry that has always tried to convince people otherwise."
Another brand that utilizes social media in an authentic and mutually advantageous way is Los Angeles–based accessories label Clare V., which engages "CV ambassadors," as they're called. Duties of such include "educating friends and fans on the brand and carrying Clare V. proudly."
“We want girls who look natural wearing CV, who represent our aesthetic well and who can incorporate CV into their lives (if they haven't already done so) in a really organic way," says founder Clare Vivier on this group of active Instagrammers who drive awareness to her product.
Rather than opting for the influencer with the highest number of followers, Clare selects girls who truly understand the CV ethos and lifestyle.
"The people I find most inspiring are my real friends, and that is what symbolizes the brand to me. I find beauty in the everyday and in the imperfect, and that's the story we aim to tell through CV," she says.
Telling a story is, naturally, of utmost importance to brands when it comes to connecting with their customer, and one such who relies on truthful, non-manufactured narratives is Need Supply. The Virginia-based clothing and lifestyle store (which also touts a strong online presence) recently brought on a real-life couple, Blake and Sabine, to help illustrate its brand story.
"Since the beginning we've borrowed our friends as faces [for the brand] whenever possible," says the company’s fashion director Krystle Kemp. "There's a chemistry that helps to fill the story of the campaign when utilizing a real-life couple. We used Blake and Sabine for our first annual Go Explore campaign and wanted to continue that series—making it a coherent story for our audience to connect with."
That notion of connection is one that's becoming increasingly important for consumers—the feeling that it's about so much more than just buying a shirt, it's about buying into a way of life. Can people really parlay perceived experiences of those they see wearing a certain outfit or using a beauty product into their own life story? And furthermore, is it in some way enriching? Maybe it’s a millennial point of view, but that search for meaning and familiarity seems to inform purchases more than ever.
Of course, these examples represent but a fraction of modern companies advocating for authenticity, and "real" can be a complex word. That said, these are a few stand-outs among many companies changing the game in their own way—a number that will surely grow with time as the retail landscape continues to demand it.
Are there brands that register with you as being authentic, or otherwise friendly, in the community they foster with their customers? Tell us in the comments below.