LOS ANGELES, United States — Behemoth beauty advent calendars, branded pool floats, personalised stand up mixers and lipstick-shaped piñatas delivered by shirtless men. You know you’ve made it as a fashion editor or beauty influencer when the gifts start piling up.
Free stuff is an essential part of the fashion and beauty public relations playbook and has been for decades. Publicists send products by the truckload to anyone who might theoretically write about them. The distribution list goes far beyond the top rungs of Vogue’s masthead, encompassing online editors, fashion, beauty, lifestyle and wellness influencers (macro and micro), freelance writers and magazine staffers. The practice is particularly frenzied around the holidays, when an eye-catching gift can solidify a relationship with an editor (and if you’re lucky, secure inclusion in their publication’s annual gift guide).
But even the most tasteful pool float may not be well-received these days. Editors and influencers are becoming more vocal about the piles of freebies showing up unsolicited in their offices and at their homes. Environmental concerns are a big driver — whole forests have been cut down to supply crinkle paper and cardboard boxes to the public relations industry, and packaging is an easy target for influencers looking to show off their sustainability bona fides.
Some brands are taking a harder look at how gifts affect their bottom line (sending out 1,000 boxes of luxury beauty products per month can cost about $700,000). PR agencies are rethinking how, where and whether to send products.
“There was a brand last holiday who sent an item every week,” said Tyler McCall, editor in chief of Fashionista about the extended splash some brands try to make especially during the holidays. “But so far, I’ve noticed a lot less of it this season.”
In early November, several editors, including McCall, posted an open letter on Instagram addressed to fashion and beauty brands, urging them to take a more mindful approach to gifting.
You can see how this cycle lends itself to getting out of hand.
“While we are grateful for the opportunity to experience new products and brands, we are making an effort to prioritise sustainability both professionally and in our personal closets,” the letter read. “We hope this makes for purposeful promotion of items and new launches moving forward.”
Gifting was always a method to curry favour with top magazine editors who were gatekeepers of fashion media. But in the social media era, a far larger universe of digital editors and influencers can spread the word about new products. Brands unsure about which influencers to court applied the brute force method instead, sending out hundreds of mailings to ensure they reached the right people.
Gifting reached a fever pitch a couple of years ago at the height of the “unboxing” craze. Brands designed elaborate packaging in the hopes that influencers would open their products live on Instagram.
“Instagram stories perpetuated this cycle for longer than it should have gone on,” said Emily Parr, founder of Poke PR, an agency specialising in clean, indie and founder-led beauty brands. “You can see how this cycle lends itself to getting out of hand.”
McCall said she also refrains from posting unboxing videos or any Instagram stories about product she’s received, unless there is a charitable component. Danielle Prescod, style director of BET.com, who also signed the open letter, takes a similar stand.
“I don’t want to be perpetuating the problem,” she said. “I send a thank you for the item, but don’t post.”
Some agencies steer brands toward events where they can engage with editors directly as an alternative to gifts, which can feel impersonal.
Sonia Langlotz, founder of Round Twelve, a digital marketing consultancy, said that a quality over quantity approach has been effective in streamlining mailings. Before a client’s fragrance launch, the firm asked 90 influencers if they wanted to receive a sample. About 40 said they would, and of those, more than half posted about their gift on Instagram Stories, or gave feedback to the company.
“We see a lot of drop off in the outreach portion of the chain, but a much higher response and success rate between what is actually gifted and responses moving forward,” Langlotz said.
Charitable and sustainable components can also resonate more strongly than a traditional mass gifting campaign.
This holiday season, Gap asked editors whether they would like to receive a recycled down coat, or donate it to charity. J.Crew partnered this season with One Warm Coat, and invited editors to bring a donation to stores, where they could also pick a coat for themselves.
I’m really happy people are starting to hold PR accountable.
“We saw high engagement rate with editors picking up a coat they wanted from one of our stores versus sending the coat which may or may not fit,” said Billy May, J.Crew’s chief customer officer. “It was a thoughtful and less wasteful way for media to receive product and provide a more meaningful way to give back.”
Beauty brands, which have faced criticism over wasteful packaging, are also finding new ways to create a more modern mailer. To minimise the environmental impact of gifting, several publicists told BoF they encourage clients to use simple corrugated cardboard sleeves to ship beauty products.
In early 2020, in lieu of gifting, hair care brand TIGI will send out a compostable cushioned bubble mailer with return postage, that press, influencers and stylists can fill with unwanted or unused beauty products. The returns will be donated to the Trans Wellness Center.
“I’ve seen some really thoughtful packaging from brands with a card stating that they didn’t include excessive packaging and acknowledging that they were mindful,” said influencer, brand strategist and creative consultant, Nicolette Mason, “That makes a statement and cuts through the noise.”
For PR executives, feedback on a gift can be as valuable as featuring in an Instagram post.
“I’d rather have them be honest,” said Lisette Sand-Freedman, co-founder of Shadow, an integrated marketing agency. “That’s what marketers should be asking for. If the feedback is ‘Do not send me anything without asking me,’ Great! That to me is the most important message — taking the feedback and using it for your client’s needs. No response is the worst response.”
Sand-Freedman and several other PR and marketing executives say they are consistent about social listening, sending personalised product to media and influencers after seeing a demand from them on social media. “It’s social listening in real-time,” she said.
I don’t want to be perpetuating the problem.
Brands are also getting creative with how they approach gifts. When an influencer posted about her food being bland, Sand-Freedman sent over a bottle of her client’s truffle-infused hot sauce. When an editor posted about her broken shoe, a PR agency sent over a pair of shoes to get her through the rest of the day.
“People need to stop posting unboxing videos for us to be challenged and find new creative ways,” said Jen Dalton, partner at IHPR, a creative communications and marketing agency specializing in lifestyle, beauty, fashion and jewellery. “I’m really happy people are starting to hold PR accountable.”
Gifting isn’t going away anytime soon. The key is for brands to tell their stories in the right way, to the right people, said Sand-Freedman.
“Know your audience, if you don’t know, then you haven’t done your homework,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t try for Beyoncé. Always try for Beyoncé.”