Internet Cultured: Digitally native brands unabashedly target their millennial customers

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

I’m very picky about the accounts I follow on Instagram. I’m a big believer in having my visual surroundings — physical or digital — tangibly reflect the life I aspire to live.  I want the content I see when I’m mindlessly scrolling through the app to be aesthetically pleasing and evoke positive feelings.

So, I primarily follow my friends, colleagues, influencers and photographers, all of whom inspire me to be the best version of myself. But when it comes to retail brands, I’m especially picky.

When I was little, my mother wouldn’t let me wear clothes with gaudy logos because she didn’t want me to be a “walking advertisement.” As a result, in life and in my social media habits, I’ve adopted an attitude to separate my identity from brands — or so I’ve tried.

With the rise of brands that were born and bred online like Glossier, Curology and Away, the line between brand and lifestyle content has become increasingly blurred. A digitally native brand, as opposed to a physical brick-and-mortar store, is a brand that launches its products and campaigns strictly through digital platforms. Traditional retailers are only now beginning to catch up, but they can hardly be known for their online presences in the same way digitally native brands are.

Digitally native brands are appealing for two reasons: accessibility and aesthetic.

For instance, anyone (and I mean anyone) who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with the clothing store Brandy Melville. My hometown, however, did not have a physical Brandy storefront, so I used to have to hunt a location down whenever I went on trips to big cities.

Take, for example, Glossier — everyone’s favorite pretty, minimalist and millennial makeup and skincare brand. In 2014, founder and CEO Emily Weiss turned her beauty blog “Into The Gloss” into a reader-first experience that delivers products directly based on feedback from customers, which are referred to as “beauty editors.” With a customer-centered brand strategy from the start paired with thorough social media marketing, the Glossier lifestyle is accessible to anyone, and physical manifestations are pushed to the wayside.

On the aesthetic side, let’s face it: Brands like Glossier not only look good, but they have killer Instagram feeds. Glossier embodies millennial/Gen Z visual culture: simple, pastel and back to basics. As  one Medium user put it, the environment surrounding Glossier is almost “cult-status.”

Because Glossier first crafted its presence on social media, when customers acquire any of their products, their first instinct is to turn to social media to share that they, too, are now a part of the trend. Additionally, the products themselves are inherently photographable for social media because of how they’re packaged and presented. The establishment of their first storefront on Melrose Place only further sensationalizes the brand, creating a real-life space that is the physical embodiment of its Instagram page. (I’ve seen one too many photos of people posing in front of the Glossier mirror, but I’ll admit I’m guilty of taking that photo, too).

“Glossier could literally make an assault rifle and as long as it’s millennial pink and ‘moisturizing’ my dumb ass would buy it,” junior Kylie Harrington tweeted in December.

Simply put, I want to buy it because it’s pretty and it looks good on my desk, my face and my Instagram feed.

From a marketing perspective, Glossier is pure genius, but from a human standpoint, the blurred line between brand, culture and real life can be dangerous. Like many digitally native, aesthetic-driven brands, “lifestyle” photos — images that candidly depict people having the product in their everyday lives — trick customers into seeing the product not as a commodity, but as a personality choice.

When I’m scrolling through Instagram and a Glossier photo pops up, I often don’t even fully register that it’s a branded post. So I “like” the photo and move on to the next post of my friend and her dog.

At the end of the day, it’s just a product carefully shaped by branding, and I’m not truly a different person for buying into it. I still make the same bad jokes and am late to everything, but with a shinier face, new Instagram posts and slightly emptier bank account.

Sometimes, I think my mom was right about creating a distinction between myself and products for life’s sake, but will I actually stop buying into “aesthetic” brands any time soon? Sorry, I think I like my trendy highlighter a little too much.

Rowan Born is a sophomore majoring in journalism and law, history and culture. She is also the social media director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Internet Cultured,” runs every other Tuesday.