How do you grab shoppers’ attention at a time when the retail landscape is narrowing (ahem, Amazon) and online distractions are manifold? Killer content. The following five companies illustrate the power of building a brand atop an authoritative editorial voice, whether it’s in the form of viral videos and lifestyle blogs or influencer ‘grams and disappearing Snaps. They’re also fostering conversations with consumers—sneakerheads, fashionistas, and beauty obsessives alike—that inform everything from product design to distribution and marketing. In their hands, content has become a robust engine for commerce.
For collaborating with customers to create cult cosmetics.
The beauty industry has generally flowed in one direction: Executives in glass towers decide which products they’re going to put on shelves, and women buy them (or don’t). Glossier founder and CEO Emily Weiss has turned this process into a two-way conversation by asking readers of her beauty news and reviews website, Into the Gloss, to weigh in on every aspect of her three-year-old skin-care and makeup company. In 2016, Glossier, which grew by 600% year over year, released a slew of hit products, including the Milky Jelly face wash. Its development started months earlier when Weiss asked her flock what they’d want in their dream cleanser—"to make sure we were putting something into the world that really mattered," she says. Comments poured in, signaling an eager audience. "It’s our most replenished product," says Weiss.
Glossier gets fans to preach (or post) the gospel in other ways. The brand’s modern, minimalist packaging is designed to look good in photographs, and Glossier products arrive in a reusable pink pouch that doubles as an Instagram backdrop. "We think of things from a content perspective: How would this show up in a user-generated photo?" Weiss says. Glossier further buffs its credibility by touting other brands on both its Instagram feed and Into the Gloss. "Where most beauty companies have tried to ignore the fact that women are in an open relationship with beauty brands," Weiss says, "we have embraced that."
For ripping up the seams of fashion marketing.
It was probably the lasers. Yeah, when actress Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) shot lasers from her fingers during an epic dance routine in the Spike Jonze–directed short film Kenzo World, that’s likely when every marketer on earth went slack-jawed. Commissioned to celebrate the launch of the French fashion house Kenzo’s Kenzo World fragrance, the surreal and surprising spot, which went viral in September and won a top industry award in November, led to a wildly successful soft launch of the perfume—no paid media or marketing required. (Parent company LVMH cited the campaign as helping to drive the 8% growth in its perfumes and cosmetics division during the first nine months of 2016.)
Kenzo creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, who also run the retailer and clothing brand Opening Ceremony, have consistently pushed Kenzo beyond fashion and into the larger realm of pop culture through creative risk-taking and collaboration. "It’s exciting for us to tap into culture in any way we can," says Leon. Two more visionary projects followed in a six-week period, including a Carrie Brownstein–directed short satirizing the hyperbolic world of social media, which served as Kenzo’s fall/winter lookbook, and a video featuring Chance the Rapper that announced Kenzo’s partnership with H&M. "We don’t come from a background of carefully mapped-out marketing," says Lim. "We just move."
For parlaying fashion advice into retail gold.
Known for its hit lifestyle and e-commerce websites—Who What Wear (fashion), MyDomaine (home decor), and Byrdie (beauty)—Clique Media leaped out of the digital world and into the physical one in January 2016 with a clothing line for Target. The millennial-minded Who What Wear collection offers runway trends at big-box prices ($34.99 for velvet pants, $44.99 for a cape blazer) and keeps up with the frenetic pace of fashion by committing to 12 updates a year. It’s a natural evolution for the 11-year-old company, which grew out of the Who What Wear blog started by Elle magazine veterans Katherine Power and Hillary Kerr. "We felt that the high-end fashion magazines spoke down to women," says Power, who now serves as CEO. "We wanted to create this friendly voice that felt like your most fashionable friend."
Today, Power’s team uses the information gleaned from Clique Media’s verticals and social media accounts to figure out what will sell. "We have amazing insight into what’s converting: what brands, what silhouettes, what material," says Power. "We’re also engaging the customer along the way. We’ll be looking through fabric swatches and go on Snapchat and say, ‘Which one do you like better?’ " The crowdsourcing has worked: Who What Wear’s Target collection has recently expanded into shoes, and Clique Media has more retail collaborations in the works. Last July, Clique Media organized an IRL meetup for readers of Obsessee, its new social-only "publication" for gen-Zers. It put together a pop-up shop at a Los Angeles mall that sold Obsessee-branded T-shirts and school supplies. Teenagers thronged. Over the course of three days, the store processed more than 1,700 transactions. Revenue wasn’t the only goal. "Everything was sold for social currency," says Power. "To purchase something, you had to make a Snapchat or post an Instagram, and, of course, tag Obsessee." It’s step one in building a content brand that sells.
For uniting sneakerheads into a lucrative demographic.
"In the world of hype, in the world of cool, you need to be the coolest platform selling the coolest products," says Kevin Ma, the unflappable founder of the Hong Kong–based streetwear site Hypebeast. Championing edgy brands such as Raf Simons, Vetements, and Hood by Air, Ma’s site has grown from a simple sneakerhead review hub (created in his Vancouver bedroom) to a multifaceted arbiter of all manner of urban fashion and culture that includes Hypebeast, the year-old female-focused Hypebae, and an online marketplace called HBX that sells everything from Yeezy Boosts to Leica cameras. Proof that Ma knows how to stay on just the right side of the hype cycle: Much of Hypebeast’s 46% increase in revenue in the first six months of last year was fueled by its growing creative services division, which helps brands such as Gucci and Adidas produce advertising for both Ma’s sites and others’.
Ma is also manipulating the tentacles of his operation to maximum effect. He ignites followers with weekly "Top Drops" on HBX, featuring sales of limited-edition sneakers and T-shirts, and leverages the data generated by Hypebeast and its associated sites to figure out what to stock on the e-commerce arm. "Once we publish an article about things that we think will be hot, we can see the data and reaction and engagement from the community," Ma says. "It’s a mix of technology and so-called big data that influences our buying decisions." Hypebae, for example, was born last February from the insight that women account for 15% of the traffic to the male-dominated Hypebeast. The company is now growing its editorial staff as it prepares for further global expansion. The United States already accounts for more than half of its sales; mainland China and its billions of feet, Ma hopes, are next.
For giving influencers a must-have accessory.
RewardStyle is realizing the social media world’s longtime dream of converting influence into e-commerce opportunity. Founder Amber Venz Box has channeled her frustration as a fashion blogger who wanted to make more money into a full suite of back-end publishing and tracking tools. Today, RewardStyle allows her and her fellow bloggers and Instagram personalities the chance to earn commissions on the products they promote. "Our mission is making [influencers] as economically successful as possible," she says. Users who like a RewardStyle influencer’s ’gram receive an email on where to buy the featured look, a clever work-around that avoids forcing people to shop while they’re browsing their feeds. Venz Box negotiates commissions for influencers and provides tools to help them track the impact of their posts.
In 2016, RewardStyle grew its influencer network to 11,000 people (more than 100,000 have applied) and drove more than $700 million in sales for its retail partners, which include more than 4,000 stores and brands, among them Kate Spade and Sephora. Its stylish crew now creates original content for 30,000 products daily, much of it on Instagram. (RewardStyle’s Instagram-optimized LiketoKnow.it platform drives almost 30% of the company’s sales.) The company’s data and its relationships help it make the best matches between retailers and pitch folk. "If [brands] want someone who drives a high volume of sales in accessories from $50 to $100 and lives in the Midwest," Venz Box says, "we can [connect them with] that person." As the shopping potential of Pinterest and Snapchat grows, RewardStyle is pushing to bring its tools to those platforms next.
This article is part of our coverage of the World's Most Innovative Companies of 2017.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine.