Human Connection: Glossier's Melanie Masarin on Immersive Experiences and the People That Define Them
By Julia Gamolina
After a brief career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, Melanie joined New York Hospitality Group Dig Inn in 2014, where she was Head of Brand & Marketing and Creative Director for three years. In 2017, she joined the quickly growing Glossier team as Head of Retail, leading the brand's non-digital expansion efforts by creating human-centered offline experiences. In her interview, Melanie talks about immersive experience, stimulating the senses, and the lens of hospitality, advising young architects to put themselves into the shoes of the people that will use their spaces.
JG: How did you get your start working on spaces?
MM: I started at Dig Inn after having worked in banking at Goldman Sachs and in retail and strategy at American Eagle Outfitters. I was very inspired by Dig Inn’s mission – to make excellent food more approachable to people - since I’m originally from Lyon, a city in France whose culture and community revolves around food. Dig Inn was at a really interesting stage – having been open for a long time and being one of the first fast-casual venues in the city, they had a lot of loyal guests and had wanted to start expanding to new markets.
Before I came on, Dig Inn didn’t really have a full marketing department – they did however have well-sourced delicious food and solid operations. We started to have conversations about their brand relating to new market expansion, and that’s when we decided to distill the brand identity ahead of our first opening in Boston, in which the space design really came into play. The challenge was how to transmit the same brand affinity to new markets rather than creating a new identity altogether – making the brand more digestible but also subtle.
How did you do that?
We thought about every single touch point for our customer – messaging, packaging, store design, the logo – but also the experiential that went beyond the visual, like the playlist for the stores. We were asking ourselves, “How do customers feel when they walk in and when they leave,” and “What do they see, smell, hear, touch and taste.”
How did this experience get you to Glossier?
I had been watching Glossier’s fast growth for a while and was really excited about the brand and the way they listened to their customers. We were trying to figure out the role in which I’d bring the most value, and when they told me they wanted to explore retail and physical spaces, I knew I wanted to rise up to the challenge.
What did you explore?
We were figuring out the right opportunities and the right format to have a physical presence. Glossier is inherently a digital brand but it’s first and foremost all about people; Glossier is so successful today because we’re constantly engaging with and listening to our customer. That intimate connection with our community online has made our customers excited about the opportunity to meet us in real life. We listened to that feedback and decided to experiment with an offline presence. We’ve tested many different concepts, one of which was the Glossier You physical identity – a space and very immersive experience for just one product during its launch.
How does your experience in investment banking translate to focusing on IRL experiences?
Ultimately stores or restaurants want to be profitable. What is most interesting to me though is merging brand and business to create experiences that are memorable but also have clear objectives for the consumer and for the brand. While I’m glad I’m not in investment banking anymore, that time has trained me really well to use numbers as tools in making more informed decisions.
In terms of creating the actual spaces for Glossier, what is your role?
I work with many talented people and try to be the common thread from the beginning of a project to its opening. My role involves developing the strategy around where we are going to go next, literally in terms of a new city and site selection. I also work with a Real Estate team and a Legal Team on lease negotiations, and our Creative Team on the creative brainstorming and marketing objectives. The team I lead directly oversees all the touch points within the four walls pre and post opening, and the in-store experience.
What is it like for you to work with all these different people in the built environment - designers, architects, real estate developers, contractors?
Growing really quickly has been interesting for us in that regard too, because we have meetings with more and more kinds of people and thus develop a different workflow from what we used to have. This also means that there are a lot of different opinions on the table [laughs]. There is always the conflict – and it’s a really healthy conflict – of internal versus external ideas. Since we are internal, we know our brand better, but I love working with external partners because they think about design all day, have fresh ideas, and really have a pulse on what’s going on.
Talk to me about site selection! We do this exercise in architecture school but not in practice and I think a lot of architects miss being able to do that [laughs].
For us, site selection is always about the community around a space; the space is just a catalyst for more connection and conversation. We learn about the market we are about to go to, and what they want. Most recently in San Francisco and Chicago, we did extensive research to figure out what the people in those communities were passionate about, and from there worked together to come up with a really special and localized concept.
For example, in San Francisco, we realized how important food was and decided to launch a Glossier cafe in partnership with a beloved fried chicken sandwich shop. It sounded like the restaurant wanted to close or sell, but the site and the space had history, community, and incredible food. We were sold right away and convinced the owner to collaborate with us on a concept that reflected Glossier as well as the space’s special history.
That’s so interesting that the history and the cultural connection of the site to its community, and that seems to have more weight than the physical attributes of spaces you are looking at.
Definitely – there are so many ways that you can layer a site’s history with your brand. We also work with local partners a lot and we always hire a local team to work in the store, which goes a long way.
Glossier is so successful digitally and the brand identity is so clear just from the online content and products – why is it important to manifest in this physical, experiential way?
What we are trying to achieve through our spaces is to further build engagement with our customers. If there’s a customer that has a really strong affinity with Glossier, a physical space will be the pinnacle of engagement with the brand and its people.
What you’re talking about – and what it’s all about, really – is the human connection that a physical space facilitates.
That’s why I consider design to be a very human-centered experience. We can have a Glossier Museum, a Glossier Café, or another concept, and they will all still feel like Glossier because of the people that welcome you there and introduce you to our products. People define our experiences.
Even though the human connection is the most important, how do the spaces help reinforce the brand? What are the physical elements you engage for brand consistency?
We try to work a lot with a lot of different textures to elevate the design – beauty products are textured and have different smoothness and viscosities, and the materials we use can reinforce that. We also always have plants and florals - this indoor-outdoor relationship is something that works well for us. Generally, our product lives when it’s out in the world – in your bag, outside of the store – so we’re very inspired by design that’s a little high/low and urban, especially since we’re a New York City-based brand.
The idea of comfort and friendliness is also important to us, so there are also mirrors everywhere - both from a utilitarian standpoint since we want people to be able to try the products, but also its comfortable place to take a selfie. People love to come for the digital content - to share the moment they spent in the store - and mirrors make people feel very comfortable.
What does the user generated digital content do for you?
We are lucky to have so many people that are so excited to see our spaces, that the minute they come, they share their experience with others. The IRL experience transcends the four walls in a way - the people that physically can’t come see us and our spaces get to experience them in other ways.
Also even though we try to localize the spaces to whatever market we go to, the experiences still feel relatable to those in other locations. Our Instagram post where we announced that we are going to Chicago was our most liked post ever, which is mind-blowing because we felt that opening in Chicago was a very specific and localized experience and it actually ended up being so far-reaching that it reinforced that we should be continuing doing what we are doing.
Back to you, where do you feel you are in your career today?
My work today is very project based - each new project and space is a different and new creative endeavor. As we grow so quickly, I’m grappling with how to think creatively when I’m working on many things at the same time, a reality of start-ups. Thankfully, I get to travel a lot and get very inspired by the things I see and the people I meet.
Looking back, what have been the biggest challenges in your career?
The challenge has been figuring out of the balance between business decisions and wanting to do more creative things. I feel lucky that I get to apply creative thinking to a business lens every day, and vice versa, and that Glossier supports and encourages these new undertakings.
How do you find the balance between a creative and a business decision? For architects, the push and pull between the budget and the vision for example, is always tough.
At Glossier, we’re always listening to our customers. I’ve never worked internally at a creative agency, but I can imagine you always want to do the most beautiful thing. That’s a very fair and honorable intention, but working at a restaurant, like during my time at Dig Inn, taught me differently because every day, the design details would impact our chefs and our customers.
I would advise architects and designers to put themselves in the shoes of the people that are using the space. If the most beautiful kitchen slows down a chef’s ability to prep efficiently, or hinders eye contact with the person grabbing their meal, it’s all for nothing. My old boss used to say that 1% is the idea and 99% is the execution, and I realized that myself when I was taking the spaces from concept to their day to day operations.
As someone on the client side, what advice do you have for architects and designers?
To have fun – there is nothing that excites me more than thinking about the Glossier of the future, and the things that haven’t been created yet.
I would also encourage designers to think beyond visuals. Think about all the other senses that can be stimulated, and the feelings that people will feel when they walk in and out. That idea is always a discussion for us for our spaces – how will people feel when they walk in, in it, when they walk out? Thinking of spaces through the lens of hospitality is something I would encourage designers to do.
What have been your biggest highlights?
With Dig Inn, I loved catching conversations of people talking about how they love Dig Inn or how they had a great meal with friend or enjoyed a matcha on the patio in Boston. With Glossier, I have a big highlight coming up because we are going to be launching in France in October and I’ll get to take Glossier home. In general, I feel lucky that I’ve been able to create things that people can see.
What has been your general approach to your career?
To work with a product or a mission that I love, and also to sometimes put personal opinions aside to do the best work possible. I always say that if I do my best, I’ll have no regrets, and if something doesn’t work out, it’s not because I didn’t try hard enough. My philosophy has been to try as hard as you can to do right by the people that give you a chance, whether they’re your clients, collaborators, or customers.
What advice do you have for those just getting their start?
There isn’t a day I’m not both excited and terrified to come to work, and I think that’s exactly the way it should feel. I appreciate the learning and try to focus on that more so than on a pre-set trajectory. My path has been very non-linear – I thought I would have a career in finance and here I am today, working on experiences and spaces! You should always feel a little uncomfortable, but excited about the challenges ahead of you. Focus on that and on learning, over where your experiences fit into the story you’ve written for yourself.