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Digital Beauty Forum: E.l.f., Chegg and Afterpay on Getting Through to Gen Z

"Gen Z has a very short attention span — it's only eight seconds long."

Four billion dollars. That’s the amount of money college students spend on beauty and personal-care products, according to data presented by Chegg Inc. at the WWD Digital Beauty Forum.

Generation Z — defined as future and current consumers ages four to 24 — is to be “the most highly educated, financially powerful, diverse and largest generation in history,” said Lizzy Eisenberg, director of market development at Afterpay. “They’re spending a lot of money today, but it will only go up as they age,” she said.

And they’re spending on beauty, according to Chegg’s executive vice president of marketing services, Mitch Spolan. “They’re open to new brands, they’re avid shoppers and they’re passionate about beauty inside and out.”

Important things to keep in mind about the Gen Z consumer, said Eisenberg, is that the group is both diverse and cares deeply about social causes, particularly climate change and the environment. “Over half of Gen Z identify as multiracial — this really forms their preferences and how they view the world, and is something brands should take into account when they market to them,” said Eisenberg. “They’re really socially conscious…this generation is willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

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A panel of four Gen Z college students, conducted by Chegg, echoed those sentiments.

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Ayesha, a junior at the New York Institute of Technology, likes Glossier products — Balm Dot Com in the cherry and mango flavors, specifically — because they “market to everyone.” “I wasn’t seeing that in the beauty industry,” she said.

Shoma, a senior at Barnard, said her identity as a woman of color strongly impacted purchasing decisions. “Having strong eyebrows, especially as a woman of color, is important to me,” she said. “I can’t leave the house without eyebrow gel. Lately I’ve been loving Florence by Mills, Millie Bobby Brown’s line.”

Influencers play a role in purchasing decisions, but finding influencers they can trust is most important, the women agreed.

“Authenticity is key. Let’s keep it real — [influencers] are paid to try all these products,” said Ruztique, a digital intern at a marketing agency.

“When an influencer is brutally honest, that’s when you know you can trust them,” said Shoshana, a sophomore at Hunter College.

The Gen Z women admitted to being influenced by marketing, but they aren’t getting it from traditional channels. Only one woman owns a TV, and all watch television shows through streaming platforms.

“It’s hard to watch TV,” said Shoma. “I’m on social media most of the time, not watching TV or reading magazines. It fits my lifestyle.”

When it comes to marketing to Gen Z, catering to a short attention span is key.

“Gen Z has a very short attention span,” said Eisenberg. “It’s only eight seconds long, and they’re consuming a lot of content — three hours a day, up from Millennials.”

Because of short attention spans, “bite-sized” content, especially video, rules the landscape, she added.

Gen Z is also spending more time across less platforms. While Millennials spread their time across legacy social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Snapchat, Gen Z are more likely to spend larger amounts of time across a smaller number of emerging platforms, such as TikTok. And it goes without saying that they love YouTube — 85 percent of teens are on it, according to Afterpay’s research.

This new social media landscape has posed challenges for legacy beauty brands trying to resonate with the younger consumer set.

E.l.f. is one example of a company that seems to have figured it out.

Just a few years ago, E.l.f., once considered a digital darling that disrupted the mass beauty landscape with a seemingly never-ending stream of on-trend $1 products, was struggling and sales were declining. Its primary channels — stand-alone brick-and-mortar stores and mass retailers, were also struggling, and there was an influx of new brands into the category, 3,000 in skin care alone in the last year.

Chief marketing officer Kory Marchisotto described how the brand was able to revive itself last year with a TikTok campaign that generated 3 million user-generated videos that resulted in 4.4 billion views and ultimately, a double-digit sales lift in a down market.

The brand teamed with Grammy-winning producer iLL Wayno to create a catchy anthem — #eyeslipsface — for the platform, and it executed quickly.

“We needed an OMG moment — something that propels emotional charge that you want to do over and over again,” said Marchisotto. The campaign, which featured a mash-up of influencers mouthing the lyrics — “eyes, lips, face” — went viral on TikTok, generating billions of user videos with the song. 

That success wasn’t enough for the E.l.f. team, who quickly contacted the song’s producer and suggested they make a two-minute video to keep propelling the virality of the TikTok campaign.

“We realized the song had enough potential to live on its own,” said Marchisotto. “Outside of wanting to disrupt the platform, the most important thing was to lean into success while it’s happening. If it’s on fire, give it rocket fuel.” 

Soon, L’Oréal influencers were using the E.l.f. song in the background of videos promoting L’Oréal products. The song ended up on Spotify and Apple Music charts. It had transcended from marketing campaign to mainstream, even appearing on the “The Ellen Show”’s TikTok Tuesdays.

Marchisotto noted that E.l.f. was successful because the TikTok campaign was authentic to E.l.f.’s brand DNA. E.l.f. was already overindexing with Gen Z consumers before the TikTok campaign went viral.

“TikTok isn’t right for everybody,” she warned. “TikTok was right for us because Gen Z already loves our brand.”

But whether brands are using TikTok or Instagram or any other platform to communicate with consumers, Marchisotto stressed that content must be created for and tailored to the specific platform a brand is using.

“Key advice — do not take your Instagram assets and try to put it on Facebook, your Instagram assets and put it on Snapchat, and your Snapchat assets and put them on Twitter,” she said. “You have to create content that is relevant for every platform.”