DTC Twitter blew up this weekend after Shopify announced the launch of Glossier’s website redesign and replatform. Most of the initial reviews from the DTC crowd were…not good. The consensus: Glossier’s new site was difficult to navigate, key “real estate” was wasted and it was hard to find specific products.
The counterpoint to this criticism came just as swiftly: all websites shouldn’t have to look the same, and the Glossier team must know what they’re doing.The fact that a new website launch drives just as much conversation as a traditional rebrand is a sign that eCommerce has reached a new milestone in its maturity.
Both sides are right. The Glossier site is not an intuitive shopping experience, and there are functional bugs that will (hopefully) be resolved soon. But the brand’s decision to build a website that prioritizes aesthetics over UX best practices is, in itself, a strategic decision.
Glossier’s replatform reveals the brand’s ambitions for its future. But its ability to achieve these ambitions is still in question.
Demand Creation vs Demand Capture
If people are willing to wait in line to shop at your store, you can do whatever you want with your eCommerce site. You don’t have to put products on your homepage. You don’t have to sell your most iconic products online. You don’t need to sell online at all.
Although the Glossier’s white-hot hype has cooled down in recent years, store openings still draw a crowd. With a founder who built her career in the world of fashion and beauty editorial, Glossier has always been good at creating demand in the real world.
There are two ways for brands to make revenues go up–demand creation and demand capture. Demand creation is where marketing and creativity intersect. It is the art of making consumers deeply, irrationally crave something today that they hadn’t considered yesterday. Demand creation is hype creation.
Demand capture is where marketing, analytics and finance intersect. It is the art of inserting yourself into existing conversations at the right moment, with the right message, for the right price. Demand capture is the outcome of most performance marketing.
Demand creation invents a category, or reinvents an old category for a new generation. Demand capture rides a trend wave, but does it better than the first movers.
Demand creation is the high risk, high reward strategy. Supreme’s $500m and $2.1b exits were the result of demand creation (note: the founders held equity/were paid out in both of those exits). But demand creation tends to produce more losses than wins, and brands that start out with a demand creation strategy will pivot to demand capture when the going gets tough.
In the decade leading up to an investment from PE firm Carlyle Group, Supreme fans would line up for hours outside the NYC flagship for a chance to buy into the latest drop. These lines wound around the block, irritated neighborhood locals and often required police presence to manage the crowds.
That kind of brand heat isn’t created with optimized UX or Meta Ads (sorry!). Supreme’s eCommerce website is still a usability nightmare and there is nothing shoppable on the homepage. If the brand’s new owner–publicly traded VF Corp–can maintain that momentum, Supreme may never have a traditional eCommerce site.
The same goes for other venerable brands with digital experiences that would catch a ton of flack on Twitter. Is Chanel ever going to sell its covetable, five-figure handbags online? Probably not. But if you spend six figures per year at Chanel, one of their sales associates will reach out to you personally via your preferred communication channel with exclusive new arrivals that the gen pop will never see.
If a successful brand’s publicly-facing experience turns you off, it probably isn’t for you. A “bad” website is a status symbol in the same way that eschewing “Instagram face” signals that you’re financially secure.
Glossier’s Big, Risky Bet
A lot has changed since Glossier launched in 2014. The biggest change–and the biggest challenge–is that the DTC playbook is no longer a competitive advantage. The first wave of DTC brands were first movers on a strategy with low barriers to entry.
If any smooth-talking Wharton grad can do it, so can seasoned operators who actually know what they’re doing. In the past decade, the conversation around direct to consumer has shifted from venture-backed brands taking big swings to bootstrapped operators talking about first order profitability.
Within the context of a bootstrapped business trying to end each month with money in the bank, Glossier’s redesign makes no sense (although the decision to move from a custom CMS to Shopify was financially sound). So, in a sense, the critics are right–within their own frame of reference.
But that isn’t the game Glossier is playing. Glossier is one of the few “first wave” DTC brands without an IPO, acquisition, or other, less favorable exit. To date, the brand has raised more than a quarter of a billion (with a B!) dollars in funding from some of the biggest names in venture capital.
Venture capital investors will only be satisfied by a Supreme-style exit–a multi-billion dollar acquisition by an established name or a successful IPO. Glossier is trying to rekindle the heat around their brand, which started to wane noticeably in 2021. And in a market where the beauty category is more crowded than ever, that will require large but informed bets.
So, yes, it’s true: Glossier’s new website emphasizes vibes over usability best practices. It prioritizes editorial imagery before direct response copy. And aesthetics take precedence over LCP score.
But acquirers pay a premium for brands with growing revenues that are not fully optimized. The airtight distribution strategy, the negotiating leverage, the SOPs, the CRO best practices–that is where an established player adds value.
If Glossier was able to wring some incremental growth out of a waning brand with a fully optimized website, they would not command a premium from a potential acquirer. Some growth at any cost isn’t the goal. They’re trying to write a specific story.
What Can We Learn From This?
There is something that all brands can learn from Glossier’s site redesign (and the ensuing controversy): do not pass judgment on any aspect of a brand’s strategy without considering the context of their funding and financial objectives.
Similarly, do not adopt tactics from a brand with a different scale and funding strategy than your own, and expect those tactics to work just as well for you. We should not assume that the Glossier management team was asleep at the wheel, nor should we rush to copy their site redesign pixel for pixel.
That second outcome is probably the thing frustrating many consultants and agency owners who slammed the new design–it is frustrating to work with a client who insists on blindly copying whatever brand is “trending”.
A successful demand creation strategy requires intuition and creativity, but it also requires time and at least a bit of monoculture. Investment in brand pays off when you reap the rewards of mental availability. But shorter trend cycles and a more fractured culture make the “best case” harder to achieve and reduce the upside.
Supreme and Lululemon are often cited as brands that went from zero to status symbol to household name in the past quarter-century. But there are few other brands who could claim that title. Will Glossier become one of them? Only time will tell.