The age of ‘Instagram Face’ is over

To discover what inspired the shift away from aspirational beauty culture, Seja Al Zaidi speaks with three seasoned pioneers in the Australian beauty industry on curated authenticity, and how advertisers need to adjust to a future of blemished, imperfect beauty marketing, facilitated by TikTok's controversial yet powerful algorithm.

The masses no longer desire perfection: a seismic migration to TikTok has seen the beauty industry scramble to adapt to a new era of beauty consumers, who readily wave their pitchforks at picture perfect advertising and crave curated ‘authenticity’. 

A new hallmark of Australian culture appears to be a stalwart satisfaction with widespread diminished efforts invested into personal care post-COVID. When the need to exhibit ourselves to the public sphere on a daily basis dissipated, consumers rejoiced – and pivoted. The ‘new normal’ also meant new standards for their consumption habits; and these consumers are firmly allocating their purchasing power to brands and influencers who embody their newly curated values: relatability, authenticity, diversity and vulnerability.

The early-era beauty influencer is now met with a marked loss of interest, which may be inspired by the impending gradual downfall of the original maximalist influencers – the Kardashians. No longer is this genre of brand ambassador, marked by a flawlessly enhanced appearance, appealing to consumers.

A cultivated aversion to makeup, self-care, dieting and skincare wasn’t the only thing that happened in 2020. Consumers suddenly found themselves at home all the time, and so their usage of TikTok skyrocketed. In September 2020 alone, the app was downloaded 32 million times.

TikTok has become something of a homeplace for ‘authentic’ content – it’s generally only possible to grow organic community and engagement on the platform if your content displays some form of vulnerability, or ‘realness’.

Not only has TikTok’s format seamlessly facilitated the new sociocultural context that shuns aspiration culture, it’s overtaken Instagram – home of the flawlessly preened, postured and unrelatable creator – as a powerful digital advertising tool.

Now that the cultural climate has pushed both creators and consumers to migrate to TikTok en masse, advertisers need to reassess their budgets, branding and strategies – fast.

Why Zuckerberg needs to fear the exodus to TikTok

Taryn Williams is CEO & Founder of WINK models, theright.fit, The Influencers Agency and #Gifted. In addition to her serial entrepreneurship, she’s a digital influencer, former model and brand ambassador.

Williams’ vast and diverse immersion in the beauty industry has enabled her a front-row seat to the change in sociocultural dialogue that’s now impacting the beauty industry – and she affirms a great deal of it is down to the migration to the platform du jour, TikTok, which is very quickly catching up to Instagram’s advertising power.

Taryn Williams

“The way the physical product of Instagram is designed is much more towards the ‘aspirational’. Instagram is very well designed for advertising content, for content creators and monetisation. For a brand to utilise the platform and creators and influencers in that space is very, very easy. It’s much easier to track ROI, and it’s much easier for them to track direct click-through with shoppable links,” Williams says.

“TikTok is just starting to release features in this space. I think that potentially once TikTok has more of those features and can very clearly demonstrate a direct click to checkout for a beauty brand online, we’ll definitely see more and more brands shifting a higher percentage of their budget there,” Williams says.

Williams is emphatic that beauty consumers operate in a distinctly empowered landscape on social media – they ‘vote with their hip pocket’, meaning for brands who want to ‘maintain a loyal customer base’, it’s an ‘absolute necessity for them to use people in their campaigns that are truly reflective of the customer base.’

A beauty creator on TikTok.

“Social media gave consumers a direct voice and access to brands, so they could very quickly feedback to brands if they didn’t resonate with a campaign.”

“We’ve started to see this shift to more inclusive advertising in the last 5, 10, 15 years. Now that’s expected as a bare minimum for a brand that we showcase at the very least ethnic diversity and some size diversity in our advertising.

“It’s hard to know how much of it is purely driven by TikTok as opposed to how much of it would’ve occurred anyway, but it certainly expedited that growth for sure,” Williams adds.

The proof is in the pudding: efficacy of authentic marketing, explained

Iris Smit, founder and CEO of The Quick Flick, an Australian cosmetics brand based in Perth, was something of a pioneer in the realm of ‘authentic’ beauty marketing. Her business has leveraged Instagram, TikTok and Facebook to build strong growth in both online and bricks and mortar sales.

Iris Smit, founder and CEO of The Quick Flick.

Smit’s observations of the online beauty community in 2022 relay an underlying belief: that trust has been eroded, and brands need to immediately seize on that opportunity. And the easiest way to do that is by embedding ‘relatability’ and ‘imperfection’ into branding.

Smit believes a revolution in influencer marketing is imminent – otherwise, brands and their creators run the risk of appearing out of touch and undesirable to a new generation of consumers that detest aspirational, obviously commercial imagery.

“The rise of influencer marketing just hit its peak. People were sick and tired of every second photo being a paid influencer post of some sort. It led to a breakdown of trust,” Smit says.

Part of the way brands and marketers are pivoting to service this shift is by changing the way they advertise. Smit’s business has a unique approach in its branding and marketing – there are no models used in advertising, only customers. And those customers don’t undergo any airbrushing before they’re shown in marketing material.

“We’re pretty much one of the only brands that has used customers in all of our advertising and marketing from day dot,” Smit says.

“We want to ensure the people buying our products could actually identify with those that were being used across our advertising and marketing campaigns. When we did our first major photo shoot, we had a Facebook group at the time of about 10,000 people. I just posted in there out of curiosity, like ‘Hey, who’s based in Perth that would like to be involved in our photo shoots? Hundreds of people said ‘oh my God, I love the brand, I’ll come,'” she says.

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The follies of inauthentic authenticity, & how brand briefs have transformed in 2022

One prominent influencer and content creator – Rowi Singh, who boasts 397,000 followers on Instagram – has directly experienced the spectrum of social media’s cultural and commercial transformation over the last 7 years.

Singh is known for her creativity and meticulously avant-garde style that draws on and celebrates her South Asian heritage. She has successfully built a career out of sharing her art on social media, attracting a bevy of sponsorships, approximately 70% of which are beauty-related.

With most of her brand deals coming from beauty businesses, Singh has directly purveyed how content creators’ briefs have evolved over the last few years – which is to say, in a direction that is more inclusive of the creators’ vision, direction and diverse worldview. 


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A post shared by ROWI SINGH⚡️🌻 (@rowisingh)

“It’s more about a collaborative relationship where the brand is more willing to bounce off of me and utilise my creative mind for their brief.

“When I first started out I would always get pushed back like ‘this isn’t what I had in mind’, but now brands realise it is definitely a relationship where I know what’s best for my audience and they know what’s best for their brand,” she says.

That isn’t the only marked difference though in creators’ briefs – Singh notes that there has been an exodus from photo content, and that “90% of briefs are all video content now.”

Rowi Singh.

When asked whether she believed TikTok truly is more authentic by design, Singh says: “Yes and no. People use TikTok as a guise for authenticity but I don’t think it’s necessarily as authentic as we make it out to be. People don’t feel as pressed to make heavily curated pieces of content to be engaging. It’s also really decentralised – anyone can jump on TikTok and become a creator.”

“There’s still this veil of authenticity. On social media I don’t think we’ll ever get to a very authentic casual version of people’s selves.

“People trust content more when there isn’t payment behind it, because they know the person isn’t forced to post it,” Singh added.

In providing an example of the erosion of trust in influencer marketing, Smit notes a curious controversy seeping into the social media dialogue around beauty influencers. Supposedly, consumers are sick and tired of increasingly untrustworthy beauty influencers, who use ‘clickbaity’ tactics like unhygienically smearing massive quantities of foundation on their face with both hands as an application method.

Their obvious attempts at grabbing higher engagement through unhelpful, entertainment-oriented content has stoked discontent in viewers and steered their trust and followership towards professional makeup artists, who have decade-plus long careers in the industry and are building bigger followings due to their advice-oriented content making them seem “more like the trustworthy industry experts.”

@meredithduxbury Reply to @kamree34 ♬ So Many ppl have use this sound omg – 💞Love y’all 💞

Meredith Duxbury, who boasts 15.7 million followers on TikTok, is a central antagonist in this conflict.

“She grabbed [the foundation] knowing it’s not meant to be applied in that way. And she said ‘this foundation is crap. It doesn’t work.’ In comparison, the professional makeup artist said, ‘you know, if you were actually a professional makeup artist, you should understand how to use these products and not be spreading like misinformation about how things are supposed to be used.'”

“It’s created this big conversation now where people are starting to say, ‘hang on. I don’t feel like I can really trust the traditional beauty influencer that we saw around that 2015-2017 period,” Smit adds.

In lieu of the hyper-feminine, heavily airbrushed aesthetic that dominated social media in 2015-19, consumers are chasing a new look – one that highlights their ‘natural beauty’ without striving for pulchritudinous perfection.

“So many skincare brands will apply a full face of makeup on models, and then they’ll put the skincare on top – like those classic images of someone swiping a bit of cream across their face.”

Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney demonstrating the classic ‘cream across the face’ tactic in her recent Laneige endorsement.

“The UK has now introduced a law where if there’s an image that has been airbrushed or digitally edited, the brand has to disclose that. And if not, they’re heavily fined. But there’s obviously nothing like that in Australia at the moment, we’re still quite far behind,” Smit says.

Singh is positive that the cultural shift is here to stay on social media: “What we won’t revert back to is heavily filtered and photoshopped pictures,” she adds.

Instagram, the copycat

It’s been widely reported that Instagram aspires to mimic TikTok’s extraordinarily successful video-only feed format – which is fuelled by an advanced algorithm that personalises content directly to the user.

“Having been on both sides of working with TikTok as a creator and also working with brands, you can actually speak to a human being, which any marketer will tell you is impossible to do if you’re trying to run a campaign with Instagram or any of the Meta products,” Williams says, describing the way TikTok has a designated team to look after creators and help them grow their audiences’ engagement, which is ‘extremely hard for Meta to compete with’.

“But it’s not as easy to track the ROI and conversion rates. Also, there are still brands, especially larger global brands, that are uncertain about the safety of using Tiktok as a platform or maybe have global mandates that they can’t use it,” Williams says.

The bottom line in this dialogue?

“At the end of the day, a brand’s responsibility is to its shareholders. And so they need to do whatever they need to do to drive that end value for a shareholder.”


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