That doesn't mean influencer relationships are pointless, but it does tell us that the burden of effort should be higher for both brands and influencers. An influencer should want to do more than score perks, and a brand ideally works with them to create strategically smart content … not just unboxing videos, either.
That's the vibe we're getting from Benefit Cosmetics. Packaging-wise, it's got a Miss Maisel thing going on—vintage pink hues and cutesy names (POREfessionial face primer! Goof proof eyebrow pencils!). But all that cute dressing also belies a focus on utility, like tinting stains that do double duty and pocket-size products that travel well.
Both qualities—fantasy exterior, practical interior—are neatly folded into its influencer campaigns, which are as much about the ambiance as about proving the product's, er, benefit.
The video below features makeup artist Patrick Starrr punting Benefit's Boi-ing Cakeless Concealer. Cake puns are many, the giant grade-school pencil packaging is on point (sorry), and it's all shot in a Benefit-branded kitchen, the concealer modeled alongside cupcakes.
We felt simultaneously nostalgic and hungry.
Looks aside, there are tons of layers here that make this work pop (boing!). Patrick Starrr isn't just a face; he's a Filipino-American man who uses makeup to play with identity. Any fan of RuPaul's Drag Race knows that when you're using makeup to shapeshift across gender lines, it's a different game from just making your skin tone look more even.
But Starrr also doesn't shy away from the latter. Most of the video above is devoted to transforming a woman whose skin tone is unflinchingly tricky.
In the shorter, punchier video below with more of a gameshow vibe, a diversity of relatively normal-looking people, including Starrr, are shown using different shades of Cakeless Concealer, emphasizing its variability, quality and diversity creds.
These videos are supported by more practical content, still branded within Benefit's fantasy universe. Carobi Parada, an ethnically Bolivian influencer, provides tips and tricks for Cakeless Concealer with a pink Benefit hand mirror. And a "regional education manager" named Nina educates customers on how to find the right shade, flanked by a pink background that contrasts nicely with her vintage-vibed, Ruth Bader Ginsberg-style frilled collar. (The contrast between her, and the totally normal people with normal collars that she uses as examples, also bears mentioning. Somebody thought that through.)
Business of Fashion observes that Benefit was among the first to whisk influencers away to exotic locales. It's only in recent years that it started rethinking that approach, following diminishing returns on travel content and hashtags as other brands joined the party.
"I look at Instagram and see someone on a trip and I'm like, 'Oh my God. I'm going to shoot myself in the head,' because I'm not spending my marketing budget to send someone to an island to take pictures," Bernadette Fitzpatrick, Benefit Cosmetics svp of U.S. marketing, tells BOF.
Last month, Filipino social influencer Bretman Rock appeared in a set of jazzy infomercial-style promotions around Precisely, My Brow Pencil, an unbreakable eyebrow pencil. In a :06 video, he hits all the "Order now!" tropes while showcasing the product on a dinner tray and, once, pole-dancing around a giant version of the brow pencil, which is sheathed in metal.
There's a :15 video and a meatier :45 piece, providing "three easy steps" for using the product … and their utterly impossible results: "My brows were awful," says our stock testimonial girl. "Then I got Precisely, My Brow and everything changed! I got a raise, ran a marathon … and learned Japanese!"
The work was reinforced by videos on how to use the eyebrow pencil, how men can eyebrow-groom, doing eyebrows for redheads (featuring master transformer Rebecca Seals), and promotions for the Benefit Brow Academy, where 20 people face off over brow prowess and $50,000.
Makeup's a tough business. Business of Fashion points out that IT Cosmetics, Tarte, Urban Decay and Lancôme saw year-on-year declines in the first half of this year. In that same period, Benefit's sales rose 3 percent (per NPD), making it the only U.S. prestige brand to avoid a decline.
The fashion journal also made an Instagram post breaking Benefit's success into three strategic bullets: Focusing on core categories, being prestige, but not too prestige; and saying no to influencer trips.
In terms of core categories, Benefit mostly focuses on brows, mascara and cheeks. Eyebrows today compose about 40 percent of sales.
As for prestige? It's got a playful positioning that appeals to older millennials and sits at odds with its premium cost, but that's part of what people like: This isn't just double-spread luxury à la Chanel, and it's also not just about skinny, white, heterosexual women. It also works with smaller influencers that enjoy more loyal followings.
The result is a personality-packed offering that feels approachable for people of many stripes, without feeling like diversity is a fringe focus. (So-called "ethnic beauty" is a historically fraught category, in part because it's treated like an add-on and not as a dominant mainstream reality.)
Lastly, of course, there's the fuck-off for influencer trips. That isn't to say Benefit doesn't still do them, but it's thinking about it differently: The launch of its Cheekleaders palettes last spring was supported by a partnership with five influencers, who visited their high schools and gave each a $10,000 grant. Their favorite teachers received $5,000 for a vacation.
Below is a video of Ellarie taking us on her Cheekleaders trip … to Sacramento. "Never been excited to go to Sacramento before," she quips.
Yeah, so it's not Kylie Jenner in Hawaii. But did we actually need more of that? Because we could probably use more of this.