5 Ways Brands are Winning (And Losing) With UGC

From viral paid brand trips & controversial sponsored posts to leveraging tools/tech to incentivize content creation… we’re going to dive into 5 UGC strategies that have been put into practice in the past few months by brands like Tarte, Pleasing, Jones Road Beauty, Kendra Scott, and L'Oréal.

Welcome back to Meagan’s Newsletter: The Gen Z POV, where I break down trends, industries, and tech with a Gen Z lens every other week. I’m Meagan and I’m so happy you’re here. Quick tech update, I'm trying out referrals this week! Scroll to the bottom of today's newsletter to refer 2 friends, and I'll make you a custom Valentine's Day card to share out on Feb 14th 😉 Alrighty... onto UGC!

It’s a known fact that I spend a lot of time on TikTok (17 hours last week, 16 hours this week), and this is a common experience for Gen Zers who make up 60%+ of the app’s user base. But more importantly, TikTok is becoming our biggest point of discovery and conversion… especially when it comes to shopping.

A recommendation from an influencer we trust can be just as powerful as a recommendation from a friend… in 2021, I bought my first “apparel” item on Amazon (a pair of slippers) because TikTok creator Tinx told me to. A few months ago, I bought a Harry Styles bumper sticker that’s currently displayed on my laptop from this TikTok video.

And again, I’m not alone in this. A few alarming stats around Gen Z shopping behaviors on TikTok (source: Business of Apps):

  • Half of Gen Z shoppers made a purchase after seeing a product on TikTok

  • Four in five Gen Z shoppers are now using the app for almost all aspects of their life including news and getting inspiration for outfits or finding new brands

  • TikTok’s growing commerce power is evident when considering hashtags such as #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt which generated some 9.5 billion views.

  • Around 40% of US shoppers follow brands on TikTok and 54% previously discovered a brand on the app that they later made a purchase from.

UGC / TikTok is a massive channel, and brands have to be thinking about it in order to get in front of a Gen Z audience.

And there are sooooo many ways for brands to engage / work with influencers today to create content. Paid brand trips, sponsored posts, leveraging tools/tech to manage workflows & payments, and more… we’re going to dive into relevant strategies that have been put into practice in the past few months by brands like Tarte Cosmetics, Pleasing (by Harry Styles), Kendra Scott, Jones Road Beauty, and L'Oréal.

Some of the examples below are good case studies, and others will raise questions on how brands can/should improve when working with creators. All highlight ways brands are utilizing UGC strategies that have come across my FYP as a Gen Z consumer 🙃 ❤️

Before we dive into these 5 examples, I want to comment on a trend I’m seeing with regard to UGC today. Some of these examples nod to ways brands are directly working with influencers to create content, and others nod to the expansion of UGC where everyday TikTokers are stitching/creating content about a brand in reaction to a trend… both are important in brand awareness and igniting conversation!

Now… let’s get into it! ⬇️

1. Engaging popular TikTok Creators to run socials / do a brand re-fresh (igniting stitches & UGC)

Chris Olsen & Harry Styles’ brand Pleasing (famous for their nail polish)

It’s hard to escape Chris Olsen on TikTok… sometimes it feels like he’s everywhere. He has 9.6M followers on his main account (@chris), is on Meghan Trainor’s team helping her create content and market her music (she has 16.5M followers), and does a ton of creator/celeb collabs (bringing celebs like Drew Barrymore coffee, singing with creators like @sri, etc.). So it’s easy to assume he inherently understands how to (a) grow a following on TikTok (b) create engaging content / play into trends (c) leverage his own account to build hype for other accounts.

Thus, it completely makes sense to me that Pleasing would tap Chris to manage/grow their TikTok. But the funny thing is, this is more of a conspiracy… we don’t actually know if Chris is running the Pleasing TikTok account, but many people think so and it’s driven a ton of conversation (and sales) towards the brand. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Before October 2022, Pleasing had a polished aesthetic on TikTok with mostly professionally-shot content, calming videos, and average views in the hundreds-of-thouands for a celebrity-led brand.

Then the style of content changed to be more TikTok native with a unique voice, footage shot from an iPhone, and playing into funny trends… and their videos started getting between 1 to 5 million views per video. And many people noticed a familiar style (a la Chris Olsen) in the new videos, more Chris x Harry content on TikTok (ie the famous “Daddy” sign skit at his concert), as well as familiar filming spots that look similar to his apartment. And thus, the Chris Olsen running the Pleasing TikTok account theory was born… see here, here, and here for proof with even the Today Show playing into it.

I would consider this UGC-adjacent since Chris has so publicly become part of the conversation simply because of his (supposed) involvement, and users (both the Pleasing community & Chris’ followers) were generating nearly all the hype online. But overall, a win for Pleasing.

2. Leaning into a moment-in-time TikTok trend like Bama Rush to create virality

Bama Rush (aka #rushtok) & Kendra Scott

Last fall, we all experienced the magic that is Bama Rush… via TikTok. Girls on the University of Alabama campus were rushing for their sororities, and building their following online by sharing their outfit-of-the-day (OOTD) and rush experiences.

A common thread in many videos? Kendra Scott jewelry... see below ⬇️

The Kendra Scott team recognized early that they were becoming a cornerstone of BamaRush and leaned in hard, reacting to videos, having their founder Kendra comment, curating their favorite pieces featured in all the girls’ videos, and more.

The fun thing here is this was all free marketing for Kendra Scott. They know their demo really well (affordable price point, popular on college campuses, etc.), and this organic UGC is the result. An even bigger W for the marketing team who really leaned into the trend via commenting, curating, and making even more content to increase visibility. I had never heard of Kendra Scott before BamaRush, but between the positive reviews/videos from all the Bama gals to the responses from the marketing team, it really made me respect the brand.

AND when it came time for UT Rush to start over in nearby Texas, they knew to increase virality by gifting product to the various sorority houses to initiate similarly styled UGC videos that emerged from Bama Rush.

3. Sponsored brand trips with big creators leading content UGC style

Tarte Cosmetics Dubai Trip with Alix Earle (& other TikTok it-girls)

Enter controversy 🙃Is it tone-deaf to do these luxury paid brand trips heading into a recession where people are fighting about being able to afford the price of eggs? And are these trips effective in actually converting to sales (or does that even matter)?

Before we get to Tarte, let’s start with the influencer(s) and why we’re even hearing about this trip.

If you haven’t heard of Alix Earle, you should know her. She has Gen Z women in a chokehold around what beauty trends & products are hot vs. not, and generally people are just obsessed with her lifestyle (UMiami student by day partaking in frat weddings, and influencer by night – flying to Dubai for Tarte, standing front-row at the Miley x Dolly NYE special, hanging out with Hailey Bieber, etc.). The other day I went into a Sephora to pick up a few things, and there was a *frantic* girl holding up a screenshot of Alix’s TikTok asking a store rep if they have the viral Rare Beauty blush Alix uses in her get-ready-with-me (#grwm) videos in stock. It’s insane to see how quickly the frenzy starts when Alix uses a product in her videos, and it gets sold out and a new trend begins (ie: white eyeliner underline). Exhibit A:

Now… enter Tarte Cosmetics. Last week they coordinated an extremely lavish influencer trip and invited Alix Earle (& a plus one, her mom!) and a dozen other TikTokers to Dubai to help promote their brand / new products. And when I say lavish… I mean lavish. First/business class travel, 3 night stay at the Ritz Carlton with private villas, makeup & clothes, Jeep excursions in the desert, private pool parties… the works.

Alix is the TikTok it-girl right now, with 4.2M followers (gaining over 2M in a month… which is really hard to do), and she made 15 videos related to the Dubai/Tarte trip.

  • She wasn’t paid for the content or asked to post (according to this WSJ article quoting the CEO of Tarte, Maureen Kelly)

  • Her views across those TikTok videos total 72M, and not all videos tagged Tarte or mentioned the brand (but we all know that’s why she’s there!)

From someone who never followed Tarte closely, they went from being irrelevant to me as a consumer to dominating my FYP on TikTok via creators like Alix Earle and Monet McMichael as well as other TikTokers commenting on the Dubai trip (mostly centered around controversy). And funnily enough, Tarte played out a similar playbook for gaining relevance among millennials with paid brand trips for famous YouTubers back in the day. They basically said “rinse and repeat” with this strategy for Gen Z.

However, was it actually effective for Tarte? Depends on how you look at it.

The consensus on TikTok is most people didn’t even know about the actual product Tarte was promoting/launching, their new “Juicy Glow” foundation. I certainly didn’t! So maybe it didn’t directly translate to sales.

But… it’s easy to believe this trip was more focused on brand awareness from an ROI perspective, and they certainly got people talking about Tarte. But not their products.

  • Some TikTok users were excited for their favorite influencers landing such a cool opportunity & seeing all the content.

  • Others fixated on how much this trip must have cost – questioning how much money Tarte is making, does a trip like this make sense, and it being effectively tone-deaf in today’s day-and-age heading into a recession.

  • Some even speculated around Tarte firing their entire Marketing team after the trip didn’t generate sales (and hence being a total flop), as the brand posted a slew of new open roles conveniently right after the trip like a new Director of Brand Marketing.

Again, if their goal was general awareness to get people talking about Tarte, mission accomplished. But personally, I do think some parts of the strategy were successful, and others weren’t. For example, I thought this comment from the CEO of Tarte commenting on the Dubai trip did seem a bit far from reality: “It’s your access point to this fun, aspirational lifestyle. If someone can’t afford to go to Dubai right now, they can go to Sephora and get all of the Tarte products to replicate their favorite look.”

I don’t think people actually tie the fun/aspirational lifestyle of Alix Earle with Tarte long-term. It feels more short-lived unless these influencers are integrating Tarte into their GRWM content and truly standing for the brand vs. this one-off 3 day activation. For example, after Dubai, I didn’t see a single video about TikTok users using Tarte products because they were inspired by the trip or content that was shared. Some food for thought.

4. Leveraging technology to incentivize (and manage) UGC

Jones Road Beauty & Bounty

In a TikTok world, you love when customers review your products and those videos go viral… and Bounty incentives customer-led content creation for brands at scale (managing content rights & performance based payment vs. an influencer’s upfront fixed fee), while helping every-day creators get paid for sharing products they love on TikTok.

For consumers, it’s super easy to use. You can sign up via Bounty’s website or even get a prompt during checkout from a brand like Jones Road Beauty. And for brands, instead of worrying about content performing by paying large influencers for 1 sponsored video, this is a way to set a budget in advance and pay-per-view across several creators, empowering the every-day person or new creators (a trend I’m really excited about).

A really powerful example of this in practice is when famous TikTok makeup reviewer Meredith Duxbury (also on the Dubai trip lol) did a review of Jones Road Beauty’s foundation that was quite negative… and it garnered 16.9M views & 1.8M likes, prompting controversy for Jones Road Beauty.

  • Meredith is known for caking on foundation, using a lot for full glam looks in her videos. And in her review, she did held true to her style, caking on a ton of the product.

  • However, Jones Road Beauty & founder Bobbi Brown are known for trying to create natural makeup looks, requiring only a little bit of foundation to achieve the desired look.

One response to Meredith’s review went viral… a happy Jones Road customer who bought/uses the product, and stitched the video to ask Meredith to give it a second chance. She applies the foundation correctly with only a little bit of product, but in the same way Meredith did (with her hands) to show that the foundation does in fact do a great job creating a natural look. And despite only have 9k followers when @addingtoneri posted the review, she got over 4M views and 315k likes, and was paid for spreading positivity for the brand because she signed up for Bounty. W for Jones Road Beauty, W for emerging content creator Addie Neri who made $1,300 from her review.

And in another classic W brand response, Bobbi Brown even created a response video playing into the joke around how caking on foundation as a technique just doesn’t make sense for Jones Road – basically recreating Meredith’s video. And people on TikTok LOVED her video response, which garnered 4.7M views and 496k likes on her personal account.

5. Brand partners & transparency with UGC… should there be moderation from brands?

L'Oréal & Mikayla Nogueira Controversy

This week on #BeautyTok, we’re experiencing another bout of cancel culture aimed at beauty creator Mikayla Nogueira who has a whopping 14.4M followers and is known for her honest reviews on products… until now.

In a video that was posted 3 days ago and now has ~33M views & 1M likes, Mikayla did a review of L'Oréal’s Telescopic Lift Mascara where she captioned the video “THESE ARE THE LASHES OF MY DREAMS!!” and shows how effective the product is by using it.

Mikayla doesn’t make it abundantly clear, but it appears to be a paid/sponsored post because she features “L’Oreal Paris Partner” at the beginning of the video and #LorealParisPartner in her caption. And normally her followers wouldn’t take issue with her doing a paid brand deal… BUT what’s different here is her review looks like false advertising, with her adding on false eyelashes at the end or a filter to make it look like the mascara is *truly* working wonders when it’s actually not. In turn, she’s setting false expectations with her followers, encouraging them to purchase the product, and losing her credibility in being an honest source of truth.

Watch the video for yourself & then we’ll dive into the comments:

People are livid in the comments about the false advertising, which clashes strongly with her brand around providing authentic makeup reviews that her followers can trust. My personal favorite comment with 106k likes: “are you lashlighting us rn”

This falls under UGC, and is ultimately creating negative conversation around the brand despite being a sponsored post intended to promote the product. So the question I pose here is actually for L'Oréal and all brands engaging in user-generated content strategies… are there checks in place to ensure creators are upholding your brand principles? Verifying videos before they go live? Mitigating potential backlash by ensuring legitimate use/reviews of products?

The answer is I truly don’t know because I’m not working at a big brand, but ultimately the product itself is indirectly suffering here & it feels like there should be checks in place – the unspoken question is why did Mikayla feel the need to use falsies or a filter to promote the product vs. letting the Telescopic Lift Mascara speak for itself?

However, I don’t think L'Oréal as a brand is losing credibility (vs. Mikayla taking all the heat here from her followers) because of this, and it doesn’t affect my overall opinion of them. My everyday lipstick is “L'Oréal Paris’ Blazing Lava Lipstick” and this controversy doesn’t affect my decision to continue wearing it every day and buying from the brand. But again, I think the above poses an interesting question around transparency for creators and brands alike.

Gen Z is a generation that values authenticity above all, and it can only take 1 mistake to lose trust with your audience and credibility as a creator – we’re seeing that play out here in real-time with Mikayla. This controversy even brought Jeffree Star out of retirement to bring back unbiased makeup reviews, starting with his take on the Telescopic Lift mascara - and throwing plenty of shade at her in the process. I don’t condone cancel culture and think it can be harmful especially for individuals, and I imagine Mikayla is learning her lesson the hard way and figuring out how to earn back the trust from her followers. I hope all brands will take note here to protect their brands/products (and the creators they work with) to encourage truthful advertising when it comes to UGC.

Thanks again for reading! If you're a brand thinking about your UGC strategy, feel free to respond here & I'm happy to see how I can help 🥰 🤳

And as promised, here are a few things (tech, culture & life) I’m intrigued by at the moment.

  • Tech: A move back to flip phones for Gen Z – playing at nostalgia trends and general content overload. I’ve seen a couple of my friends do this over the years and it’s gaining traction. Great use case? Only bringing your flip phone when you go out with your friends to drown out the ~drama~

  • Culture: Anything Taylor Swift-related which is usually the case, but especially since the Lavender Haze music video dropped. I’ve seen a bunch of speculation that we’re getting Speak Now Taylor’s Version on March 3rd (fingers crossed), and I’m loving that my FYP is back to Taylor content. This Anti-Hero (Introvert’s Version) made me laugh as did the Senate Hearing TS quotes in a real-life government chamber & press headlines from Fox Business News reporting that day.

  • Life: All the ~drama~ surrounding the It Ends With Us casting, I mean who doesn't love Blake Lively!! #BookTok is peeved the cast ended up with Blake Lively & Justin Baldoni vs. what the people wanted (Abigail Cowen & Theo James). I'll let you decide for yourself which team you're on:

Blake Lively & Justin Baldoni Fan Edit (The Real Cast)

Abigail Cowen & Theo James Fan Edit (The Cast Readers & #BookTok Wanted)