Worldbuilding is a process that’s typically used in science-fiction and fantasy. But in the two-dimensional, flat color world of direct-to-consumer marketing? Not so much.
That’s changing with a new generation of DTC beauty brands that are adopting a holistic design approach that builds niche, immersive brand worlds across their websites, social channels, and packaging. It’s about more than just selling a product; it’s about inviting individuals to become a part of a rich story, and creating a community that feels playful, imaginative, and authentic—wherever a potential customer encounters the brand.
Brands have been moving away from moodboards and toward extensive brand “worlds” for a little while now (see design-savvy sunscreen brand Vacation, for instance), but two relative newcomers—the celeb-adored pimple patch brand Starface and skincare brand Futurewise—best exemplify the most online, contemporary version of this approach embraced by teens and younger millennials.
Co-founded by Julie Schott, former Elle.com beauty director, both brands stand out for their story-driven maximalist aesthetics and their rejection of the flat pastel minimalism that has become synonymous with an earlier generation of DTC skincare brands like Glossier. Consider this scroll-stopping short clip for Futurewise’s recent product launch. The Instagram post is less of an ad and more of a psychedelic dreamscape, populated by dewy-skinned models shrunk down to the size of bugs, relaxing among a sea of gooey plants and mushrooms. The caption beckons you to “enter the world of Futurewise with SLUG BALM.✨”
DTC brands took a major financial hit in 2022 due to inflation, market volatility, skyrocketing digital ad prices, and increased shipping costs. But Starface and Futurewise have successfully weathered the storm by cultivating a loyal customer base via TikTok and Instagram, and diversifying their income streams through strategic retail partnerships. (Lots of DTC brands have started to do this, including Glossier, which has expanded its brick and mortar operations and partnered with Sephora last year.) Schott also recently launched two other DTC personal care brands: Julie, an emergency contraceptive that’s currently available at CVS; and Plus Products, a line of waterless body wash sheets that will likely follow a similar retail trajectory.
The Futurewise slug. Images 1-2 courtesy Mortis Studio; 3-4 via Instagram.
Should a user enter the Futurewise brand world, they’ll have a guide, of sorts. Design agency Mortis Studio, which collaborated with Futurewise creative director Sarah DeCou (a co-creator of the virtual influencer Lil Miquela) and 3D artist Freddie Guthrie to develop the brand, wanted to go beyond creating a standard logomark and create a character based on the descriptive nature of the term “slugging” to differentiate the brand online. (“Slugging” refers to a skincare practice in which you apply an occlusive layer to your face to prevent dehydration and retain your skin's natural moisture. It went viral on TikTok last year.)
“There really aren’t a lot of products in the skincare or beauty space that are using characters or personification to enhance their brand,” says Andrew Reyes, senior designer at Mortis.
Done well, brand world-building is both fantastical and grounded in a realism that allows consumers to see themselves in it (there’s still product to move, after all).
First, the fantasy. Futurewise plays with scale to shrink the models down until the plants and mushrooms tower over them, and applies surrealist, narrative-driven images and video (like the slug character or this video of disembodied patent-leather gloves using the product) to create an overall Alice in Wonderland effect.
Video courtesy Mortis Studio.
As for realism, the styling is closer to editorial ready-to-wear rather than costume. One model is in a shiny black latex trench coat; another in a fuzzy sweater, bell bottoms and rubber rain boots; and a third in a Y2K-esque silver tube top, bright orange cigarette capris, and matching platform heels (don’t forget the futuristic alien/bug-inspired sunglasses!). Product photography is hyper-realistic, showcasing natural and imperfect skin textures. Visuals across platforms have a similarly surreal quality, but they’re not constrained to one particular aesthetic, which establishes a hard-to-pigeonhole brand mood with easy-to-ID brand equity.
“Brands nowadays don't have to be so strict in adhering to a rigid style guide, and Futurewise understands that,” says Taylor Johnson, owner and art director of Mortis. “They know that a brand has to have room to grow and evolve, especially across its social channels. So combining different aesthetics keeps things fresh and exciting.”
In fact, many visuals forego the product completely, making worldbuilding the epitome of approachable soft marketing. Buying in isn’t just about buying the product—it’s about buying into the brand.
Starface uses the Big Smiley character as a brand persona for memes, and virtually never sells the product offering explicitly. Courtesy Someone & Others.
Starface (also co-founded by Schott) also takes a worldbuilding approach to brand development, and it’s become wildly popular among teens for its colorful star-shaped acne patches. Someone & Others, which developed the brand’s identity (as well as for other notable beauty brands, like Kosas and Good Weird), grounded the Starface branding with a bright yellow color palette, Y2K design elements, and an adorable, starry-eyed, smiley face character called Big Yellow that, like the Futurewise slug, serves as the main persona for brand storytelling.
Big Yellow anthropomorphizes the brand’s packaging: riding roller coasters, running a book club, buying a bouncy house on TikTok (to which one of the brand’s two million followers commented, “this is so random I’m obsessed”), and commenting on brand posts from its own account. (All things one hypothetically might do with the loud confidence provided by a Starface pimple patch.) Recently, the brand posted a video on Instagram and TikTok featuring a fictional Starface highschool. The overlaid music says: “you’re such a star, girl // entering your world // I’m getting used to– // I’ll never get over– // your glow.”
“When I was in high school, if I got a pimple, I wouldn’t even want to leave my room,” says Daniel Lowe, Someone & Others founder and creative director. “But we’ve seen a change in the mindset of Gen Z. They're not interested in hiding what we've always thought of as imperfections, because no one is perfect. The ethos of Starface is really about standing out and showing off who you are as an individual.”
This is where both Starface and its sibling Futurewise shine: By building a fantasy world around an everyday product, the user experience is no longer just about functionality; it's an aspirational community. Want to take up residence? Simply add to cart.