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Is Mass Appeal Even Possible Anymore?

Brands like Maybelline and Budweiser face fallout when appealing to Gen-Z’s diverse, gender fluid values. But as younger shoppers get older, big corporations have to get comfortable with catering to fragmented audiences – unless they just tap Alix Earle.
TikTok influencers Dylan Mulvaney and Alix Earle.
TikTok influencers Dylan Mulvaney and Alix Earle. ((Instagram/@alix_earlie/@dylanmulvaney))

The recent controversy surrounding Budweiser and Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, led me down a marketing rabbit hole. Increasingly, I’ve been thinking about “mass appeal” — both more broadly and having to do with beauty specifically — and whether the idea of a brand or product appealing to the public at large is nearing extinction.

It seems that it is.

We see backlash when larger companies, in an attempt to broaden their customer base, try to speak to Gen-Z. The most high profile example is Budweiser: in early April, Mulvaney promoting a Bud Light March Madness contest and personalised Bud Light can (sent to her by Budweiser) led to a conservative uproar, which in turn led to another uproar from liberals who thought the beverage giant didn’t respond to initial backlash appropriately. Following the fallout from Budweiser’s relationship with Mulvaney, the company on Tuesday said it had placed two of its senior marketing executives on leave.

And now Maybelline, one of the largest beauty brands in the world, is stuck in the conservative crosshairs. Disgruntled activists and influencers spoke out this week against the L’Oréal-owned company for partnering with Mulvaney, who posted a Maybelline ad on TikTok in March.

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With Gen-Z taking over the mainstream, more and more decisions like the above will have to be considered by corporations. Concepts that once existed outside the mainstream — gender fluidity, diverse models, same-sex relationships, self-expression and more — are part of the broader conversation, simply because Gen-Z is getting older. And because these issues are more inherently divisive, brands with mass appeal have to figure out how to navigate them. Brands no longer just sell stuff; the expectation that corporations take a stance on cultural and political issues has made a unified customer base improbable.

So how does one appeal to the “masses”? And is mass appeal even possible — for beauty brands and beyond?

The influencers and celebrities young people follow are often representative of a smaller fragmented community, including Mulvaney. It’s why when a company like Budweiser tries to be more “woke” by working with one of those individuals, a PR firestorm usually occurs. Existing customers don’t like when these big brands lean into hyper-specific Gen-Z cultures. Plenty even threatens to boycott them.

Generally, lines that cater to the youth are neither that big and far-reaching (with exceptions like E.l.f. Cosmetics, CeraVe and Fenty Beauty) or relevant to older demographics. There are a number of tiny brands built for teens and twenty-somethings specifically, including Good Weird, targeted towards men who wear makeup and are straight, and Faculty, which launched in 2020 with men’s nail polish and now sells nail stickers and tooth gems.

But these startups, popular among younger consumers because of diverse casting and messaging tailored to niche communities, don’t have “mass appeal.” It begs the question: as Gen-Z gets older and becomes the dominant generation, how do brands continue to appeal to them? I asked a marketer what they thought.

“Most brands are focusing on appealing to one demographic or generation, and there seems to be less emphasis on appealing to the masses,” a director of marketing at a company that works with startups geared towards Gen-Z and millennials told me. “You may be a household name, but actual marketing and customer acquisition are really pigeonholed to a certain person versus mass.”

Huge brands with wide distribution and in need of broad appeal will struggle as Gen-Z ages. Legacy brands have to figure out a way to connect with this demographic, because as evidenced by Budweiser, linking up with a nontraditional content creator was met with resistance by a small but loud subset of their consumers.

Mass appeal seemingly no longer exists, with maybe an up-and-coming exception.

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In Piper Sandler’s “Taking Stock with Teens” report released earlier this month, Alix Earle ranked as the top influencer among the thousands of Gen-Z’s surveyed. Earle is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Miami whose “Get Ready With Me” videos started to gain traction at the end of 2022. Today, she has over five million TikTok followers and has partnered with Tarte (Earle’s currently in Turks & Caicos on a trip for the release of the line’s new “Radiant” concealer, filled with games of flip cup and shirtless male models painted in body glitter walking around with trays of concealer like it’s a cocktail hour at a wedding), Victoria’s Secret, Forever21, Guess and others. Candid about her struggles with acne and the decision to get breast implants and lip filler, many of her TikToks chronicle her getting ready for a night out. At almost 40 and generally immune to influencers, I even get Earle’s appeal. A few months ago, to see what all the fuss was about, I watched a number of her GRWM TikToks. I was sucked in; the way she talks to the camera feels like FaceTiming with a friend.

Except that friend is one who also happens to embody classic, Eurocentric beauty ideals. Earle is skinny, white and blonde — the mass-appeal trifecta! — and her meteoric rise has essentially given brands a pass to forgo inclusivity in a bid to lure young shoppers. Companies don’t need to justify partnering with or casting Earle in their campaigns in lieu of more diverse options (in the US, at least) because she’s Gen-Z’s favourite content creator.

For now, Earle could be the shortcut to mass approval that brands so desperately seek as they hope to forge a connection with Gen-Z, as she does double duty in appealing to teens and a broader public who loves an All-American-looking spokesperson.

Expect Earle to partner with an alarming number of brands in the near future.

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