Does Instagram still matter for beauty brands?

BY DANIELA MOROSINI for Vogue Business

Is it a temporary glitch or a sign that Instagram’s glory days are waning? Beauty brands, including Jones Road Beauty and Frank Body, give their take on both Instagram and TikTok.

It’s the hypocentre of countless trends and the birthplace of the influencer — Instagram has changed how younger generations interact and network. In the 2010s, it was a kingmaker for beauty brands, boosting the direct-to-consumer boom by offering indie companies a fast, easy way to widen their customer base. Early adopters, including Glossier, Anastasia Beverly Hills and Frank Body, built their businesses using the platform.

However, algorithmic changes and reduced advertising targeting have had an impact on Meta-owned Instagram, diminishing its clout. Most recently, users have pushed back against a change that stepped up the amount of video content users are shown. Instagram head Adam Mosseri has since acknowledged the need to “regroup”. A Meta spokesperson said, “Instagram is always evolving…This includes making sure we show the right balance of photos and videos from friends and family as well as from brands and creators, both ones people follow and don’t yet follow.”

Beauty brands noticed. “The algorithm changes definitely did affect our business,” says Bree Johnson, co-founder of Frank Body, an Australian-born brand best known for skincare products using ingredients from coffee. The brand was founded in 2013 and has 796,000 followers on Instagram and 23,800 on TikTok.

The growing popularity of TikTok and challenger apps such as BeReal is further eroding Instagram’s market share.

Looking beyond the grid

With 2 billion active monthly users, the power of Instagram is still significant, but beauty brands are recognising the need to diversify beyond the grid. “In general, brands are all expected to stand alone a little bit more,” says Christopher Skinner, founder and principal at branding agency School House.

Facebook and Instagram still represent the bulk of marketing spend at Jones Road Beauty, a cosmetics company founded by Bobbi Brown in 2020. But Cody Plofker, chief marketing officer, detects change in the air. “With organic content on Instagram, reach has been diminishing for a while, and that forces brands to acquire customers using ads instead,” he explains. “You have to work a lot harder to capture people’s attention.” Jones Road Beauty has 275,000 followers on Instagram.

Conor Begley, president at influencer marketing platform Tribe Dynamics, says that for most brands, marketing spend remains “disproportionately” on Facebook and Instagram. For Frank Body, spend is more equally split across platforms, co-founder Johnson says, “We’re trying to focus on how we can be clever and stand out without throwing money down the drain on digital marketing.”

Jones Road Beauty was founded by Bobbi Brown in 2020.

 Photo: Jones Road Beauty

Analysts say the mounting popularity of video content has caused growing pains for Instagram, which launched Reels, a kind of looping short-form video, in 2020 as a response to the emergence of TikTok.

“I’m bullish on video in general,” says Plofker, noting that he also has his eye on YouTube’s competitor product, YouTube Shorts. While Jones Road Beauty receives most views on TikTok, Plofker says the brand has steadily increased its volume of Instagram Reels posts in recent months, with the ratio of Reels to static grid posts now at 5:1 in favour of Reels, up from 3:1.

Negotiating nuance

Why is video doing so well? “Very targeted and specific short form video content is more entertaining for most people than static images,” says Tribe Dynamics’s Begley. “With the editing technology available, it’s not so hard to do. The challenge is getting the nuances of the platform right.”

This presents unique challenges for beauty. While the unfiltered nature of TikTok lends itself effectively to product reviews, it lacks the polished aesthetic and neatness of the Instagram grid — a tool many beauty companies relied on for positioning and branding. The growth of video presents a challenge for marketers who have become used to static content and the “Instagram aesthetic”.

“Power on TikTok is a mixture of virality and relevance,” says Cassandra Napoli, senior strategist at trends agency WGSN. “Content needs to be hyper-tailored to the community you’re going after.”

Australian skincare brand Frank Body was founded in 2013 and has 796000 followers on Instagram.

Australian skincare brand Frank Body was founded in 2013 and has 796,000 followers on Instagram.

Photo: Frank Body

Agile thinking is required. “Brands need to be quick and nimble and not overthink things. That momentum is where creativity thrives,” says Frank Body’s Johnson, adding that a lo-fi shoot for Father’s Day filmed in the office using “blokes from the community” performed far better than expected. Johnson, and Frank Body’s other co-founder Jess Hatzis, are also both directors and owners of branding and content agency Willow & Blake, which has seen increased client requests for both TikTok and BeReal. “More brands are coming to us and saying that they have lots of content, but that it lives and dies so quickly,” says Johnson. “We’re helping them get longevity out of it and get more eyes on it.”

In August, Elf Beauty, a drugstore makeup and skincare line, became the first beauty brand to launch on the so-called “anti-Instagram” app BeReal. Users can follow their account, @elfyeah, for behind-the-scenes content and sneak previews. With no edit buttons or filters, BeReal notifies users once a day at a random time that it’s time to “be real”, and take a photo using both front and back cameras. In 2022, the app was installed 41 million times. Frank Body has begun to test BeReal, Johnson says, “It’s better to be early than to be perfect.”

Jones Road has enjoyed particular success with TikTok. Videos include Bobbi Brown, the founder, speaking candidly to the camera about her own beauty journey or giving tips on how to use products. “Instagram has always been very polished, and naturally more ‘on brand’ for a lot of beauty companies,” says Plofker. “TikTok is much more authentic.”

Copycat content or attempting to mirror the styles of others won’t work, notes School House’s Skinner: “We’re all on TikTok scrolling because we want to see the next thing, and we want it to be different to what we saw before.”

If brands are up to the challenge, the unfiltered nature of TikTok can be a true asset rather than a hindrance, argues Siri Fomsgaard, president of digital marketing agency Taylor & Pond. “On TikTok, there are a lot of users that are very open to making reviews and testimonials about products. Brands should be going out, finding those people, giving them products and learning from them. See what they’re saying, see what engagement they get on those posts,” she says. “The idea of ‘TikTok made me buy it’ is still a very big trend,” confirms Tribe Dynamic’s Begley.

Fomsgaard perceives TikTok as an innately creator-led platform. The implication is that brands may be better advised to rely on influencers to create TikTok content for them rather than create their own. “The types of videos people want to see are usually very raw and authentic, and more of a review type,” she says.

Benefits beyond engagement

Instagram is still very much in the game. Its power reaches beyond conversion, notes Skinner. “A brand’s grid view can still serve as something of a miniature brand website, and so photography and other kinds of visual cues and tone of voice still really matter,” he says. Instagram is also an important customer service tool for many companies, he adds.

Neither Jones Road Beauty nor Frank Body currently sell on TikTok, but both have added Shop tabs to their Instagram pages. “I prefer people going to our website and getting their email address than focusing on conversion in the app,” says Plofker. “I feel that we give them more of a personalised journey that way, and you can add a little more friction by getting them to spend some time learning about your brand and understanding your products.”

A consensus is emerging that brands should be thinking about how both Instagram and TikTok, alongside other challengers such as BeReal, can be best utilised, serving as an extension, rather than a tentpole, of a marketing strategy.

“We were one of the first brands to harness the power of Instagram,” says Frank Body’s Johnson. “But a big mission for us was to stop being known as that Instagram brand. Quite early on, we recognised that having so much of our community based there put us at risk.” To that end, the brand has invested heavily in email sign-ups and a loyalty scheme as well as online events using Zoom and offline events in Australia, the brand’s home market.

Jones Road Beauty is also investing in email and SMS based sign-ups, says Plofker. “We need to get our loyal customers in a place that’s not rented.”