“It’s too conventional,” said Alexa Losey, a YouTube fashion vlogger with big eyes and full lips, frowning at a tiny pot of pink lipgloss she was mixing. “Too bubble-gummy.”
Sitting next to her at the offices of Smashbox, the Culver City, Calif.-based cosmetics company, was fellow YouTuber Monica Church, who was busy making a lavender shade of gloss. Losey glanced over and declared the color: “Very ’90s princess.”
The young women had been summoned, along with over a dozen other YouTube fashion and beauty “influencers” to Smashbox’s mod-sleek offices not just to mix their own lip gloss, but to celebrate the launch of Made at Smashbox, a program that invites YouTube stars out of their bedrooms and basements and into the company’s newly renovated photography studios to make videos. Smashbox’s studios are generally reserved for the likes of Annie Leibovitz, who shoots Vanity Fair spreads in the space, but as part of Smashbox’s aggressive push into the digital world, the company is reaching out to vloggers like Losey and Church to help it connect with its target demo of “digital native, make-up mavens,” as Smashbox’s global general manager Beth DiNardo puts it.
As part of the evening’s festivities, the YouTubers were poured colorful cocktails by mixologists in white lab coats and asked to mix their own lip gloss. Smashbox said it would produce 100 samples of each color that the YouTubers could give out to friends and fans.
“Create your own trend!” Jill Tomandl, Smashbox’s VP of product development, encouraged the young women as they started to dip their brushes in various pots of cream.
Made at Smashbox–which was created in partnership with The Collective Digital Studio–is just one of the ways that Smashbox has been focusing its attention on the digital world and, in the process, becoming one of the most forward-thinking cosmetics brands in the industry. Just two years ago, it made the decision to stop print advertising, a radical move in the fashion and beauty industry, where magazine ads remain a go-to marketing tool. The move was seen as unorthodox within Estée Lauder, Smashbox’s parent company, but has already started to pay off. Since going all-digital with its campaigns, which have included projecting images of consumers’ faces above Hollywood Blvd. during the week of the Oscars, Smashbox’s growth has been in the double digits, making it the second-fastest growing brand within Lauder after Tom Ford. It has also nabbed a slew of ad awards, and been recognized by the Webby Awards for its social media presence.
The strategy shift has been led by DiNardo, a Lauder veteran who moved to L.A. from New York to run Smashbox in 2010. When she arrived at Smashbox, DiNardo said she was immediately struck by the company’s nimbleness.
“This is a very action-oriented group of people,” she said, sitting in her office one recent morning, where a poster with Smashbox’s core values (“Be Brave. Blaze the Trail. Push for Remarkable,” etc.) was hanging on the wall. “They were executing things we had just talked about once. There is just a culture of action. I’d been at Estée Lauder Corporation for 15 years. This was a completely different mentality of working. Everyone wears a lot of hats. Everyone rolls up their sleeves, and everyone is very action-oriented and creative. It kind of leaks through the walls.”
DiNardo quickly adapted to the kinetic culture. Realizing that as a smaller brand, Smashbox was at a competitive disadvantage when it came to trying to keep up with “massive brands with massive budgets,” she said she decided to stop spending money on lavish print campaigns and instead focus on digital marketing. The decision wasn’t an easy one, she says, nor was it initially welcomed by others.
“Are there people in my company who think we’re bonkers?” she says. “Yes.”
Smashbox’s new modus operandi, she explains, became to invest the bulk of its resources into its products and to back them up with innovative, digitally focused campaigns that put the consumer in the spotlight. The first of these, around the Love Me line that launched in 2013, asked consumers to use Facebook to create their own personalized billboard of what Love Me meant to them. More than 15,000 billboards were created in less than three weeks, all of which were projected on a digital billboard above Hollywood Boulevard the week of the Oscars. The line’s logo was designed by street artist Curtis Kulig, who tagged it all over L.A.
Another campaign, called Double Exposure, had consumers create a double exposure image of themselves using an app. Smashbox then compiled the images in a video that was projected on buildings all over L.A. over a series of weekends earlier this year. Both campaigns earned Clio Awards.
Now DiNardo is turning her attention to YouTubers, whom she recognizes as “the next level of talent” in make-up and beauty. It’s no secret that YouTube stars like Michelle Phan, who has her own make-up line with L’Oréal, have become powerful marketing tools for beauty companies. Along with Reza Izad, CEO of the Collective, she devised the Made at Smashbox program to take advantage of the company’s unique photography studios, which were founded by Davis and Dean Factor (great-grandsons of make-up icon Max Factor) in 1990; the company later expanded into cosmetics. The program also was a way for Smashbox to have access to top YouTube stars that the company might not otherwise be able to afford. Stars like Phan command tens of thousands of dollars just to put up a video and a few social media posts promoting a product.
Indeed, the program is a quid pro quo exchange in which DIY vloggers get access to a professional space–as well as make-up artists, stylists, and a production crew–and Smashbox gets subtle publicity via YouTube and other social media platforms. Although the vloggers are not required to use Smashbox products in their videos–or even mention the company (or make-up)–they agree to create two Twitter or Facebook or Instagram posts while making each video, and two after it’s posted. And at the end of each video, a Made at Smashbox logo rolls.
Losey, whose first Made at Smashbox video was called “60 Looks for Summer” and showed her prancing around in, yes, 60 different outfits (she never mentioned Smashbox once) calls the arrangement “a really unabrasive approach to letting people do whatever they want to do. It’s really cool. It’s like, what’s the catch?”
According to DiNardo, there is none. Rather, the idea is to create an “authentic” relationship between Smashbox and YouTubers that will result in a mutually beneficial synergy in which Smashbox reaches its consumers in a way that feels organic. “The people who buy Smashbox, we call them provocateurs,” says DiNardo. “They are two steps ahead of us. They are very, very digitally savvy. They are often millennials. And they are reaching out and digesting information about what the best products are in a very different way than maybe even 10 years ago. Maybe even five years ago. The way they look for what’s credible and what’s real has completely changed. So the old tactics of me telling you our products are great are not as powerful as making great products and putting them in the hands of people who can vote.”
Or putting them in the hands of people with subscribers, such as Cassey Ho, the workout guru whose YouTube channel Blogilates has over 2 million of them. Ho’s first Made at Smashbox video features herself looking in the mirror and Photo-shopping her body into a magazine perfect shape after receiving mean comments about her figure. She then decides that thinner thighs and more defined abs don’t make her happy and she embraces her normal state in an act of feminist chutzpah. The video has been viewed over 6 million times. She’s Tweeted about Smashbox to her more than 187,000 Twitter followers, and has been featured on Good Morning America, where she gave a shout out to the company.
Izad says the Made at Smashbox videos will ultimately be bundled together and have a “tagging system” that will allow them to become a campaign unto themselves for Smashbox. “The idea is to connect the dots for the brand, and try to figure out how do you drive consumers into retail? Ultimately, you want to have them not just engage with the brand, but consume the brand.”
But for now, DiNardo says she isn’t worried about results.
“Our feeling is, let’s see what happens,” she says. “It’s a total experiment. And if it doesn’t work, we won’t keep doing it.”
“But I think it’s gonna work. I’m always superstitious, but I think it’s gonna work.”