How to Build a Beauty Brand in the Digital Age

How to build a digital beauty brand
By Sarah Brown. Source: Business of Fashion.

NEW YORK, United States — Two Thursdays ago, ColourPop, the social media-born-and-raised makeup giant known for affordable prices and pumping out products faster than you can say Super Shock Shadow, asked its fans (via Twitter, naturally) a simple question: “If ColourPop had a concealer, what would it be called?”

Over 40 of the brand’s 575,000 followers trumpeted “CoverPop!” with astonishing immediacy. “Undercover Pop,” suggested someone else. “Conceal Don’t Feel!” — a reference to “Frozen” — tweeted a dozen or so others in impassioned internet unison.

When will this new concealer, already hotly anticipated by ColourPop superfans, launch? It could be any day — next week, next month, who knows? — likely to drop (really, out of the blue) very simply on Snapchat or Instagram Stories, and, if past launches are any indication, to sell out within the hour.

Welcome to the lightning-paced modern-day beauty world, where the customer is not just always right, but intimately involved.

To say that the beauty game has changed is an understatement. The playbook that brands large and small relied upon for so many decades to launch, grow, and sell is now akin to an old Yellow Pages where everyone has moved away and no one has a landline anymore, anyway. While barriers have come down for some, they have unexpectedly gone up for others.

So, what does it take to build a brand today? This month, I asked inspired founders and market innovators to share their best advice. If there were a recipe for creating a new beauty brand — one poised for both immediate success and sustainable long-term growth — what would the ingredients be?

1. “Authenticity” Is Not a Marketing Term

It’s ironic that today there is perhaps no less authentic word than authentic. Overused, diluted, and generally trampled upon, it was, nevertheless, invoked in truly earnest, authentic ways by nearly everyone with whom I spoke. So let’s start with what it should mean.

Authenticity is that intangible thing that makes something resonate, inspires trust, creates a connection. Mazdack Rassi, chief executive and co-founder of Milk Studios, launched Milk Makeup a year-and-a-half ago because, basically, it felt right.

Cosmetics (Milk’s version, that is) were a natural extension for the 20-year-old digitally-savvy, fashion-centric creative hub, which started as a photo studio and equipment rental business and now includes a full-service creative agency and filmmaking division, art gallery, and consumer product arm. A strobing Holographic Stick, all-over Sunshine Oil, and Tattoo Stamps (for body art “that washes away in time for that job interview”) seemed like things the cool Milk kid — guys, girls, there were no distinctions — might like. Their first campaign, a series of nine portraits called Live Your Look, “wasn’t about makeup, but about the people who wear it and what they do in their lives,” says Rassi.

It has worked thus far, he says: they’ve pumped out 100 SKUs and counting, and will be available through 200 Sephora and 50 Urban Outfitters doors by year end. They’ve also doubled their numbers, and quickly secured venture capital funding from Main Post Partners. “We’ve had many years to figure out who we are, what we stand for, what our voice is. You can no longer just say what you believe in; you have to earn it,” says Rassi. “When we say we’re a downtown company that comes from the streets of New York, we skated in Union Square, we were broke — we did it. If you’re not authentic, you can’t make it up. You can’t buy it.”

2. Have a Mission and a Message — and Stay True to It at All Costs

A brand’s distinct point of difference and most basic reason for being — all of the elements that translate to authenticity — are its most precious commodities. As Rassi says, a company must hold on to its identity and culture, “with a death grip.”

Tiffany Masterson, a former stay-at-home mum from Houston with no business (or beauty) experience, founded Drunk Elephant — one of the fastest growing brands in Sephora’s history — in 2013 after identifying six common skincare ingredients she believed, after much research, were at the root of her own complexion issues. Since she could not find a single brand that did not formulate without at least one of her suspected offenders — silicones, essential oils, fragrance and dyes, chemical sunscreens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and alcohol — she created her own. And her skin changed.

Likewise, Jamie Kern Lima, a television news anchor in Studio City, California, created IT Cosmetics (short for Innovative Technology) in her living room in 2008 after repeated attempts at finding a “skin-friendly” foundation that would cover her rosacea without making her look “older” came up empty. When Lima agreed to sell to L’Oréal last July for $1.2 billion, it was on the condition that she stay on as chief executive. “If they’re going to pay this much for something, I would think they’d want to keep it as authentic as it is,” she says.

A brand’s distinct point of difference and most basic reason for being are its most precious commodities.

As their companies have grown, both Masterson and Lima have stayed on top by staying true to their initial proposition to the consumer. “I did not look around. I didn’t investigate other brands or their stories. I stayed in my lane and just went off of what I personally wanted to see and buy and use,” says Masterson, who this past March took on two minority investors: San Francisco private equity firm VMG Partners, and ManRepeller’s Leandra Medine, who will also serve as a strategic partner.

Lima equates remaining strictly on course to wearing blinders. “People always worry about the competition, but I think a brand’s biggest competition is itself, as it dilutes its own DNA,” she says. “We’re not a trend brand. A colour or a technique might be huge, but our DNA is about problem-solving. It’s hard sometimes — retailers will say, ‘this is a trend; we want you to do your version,’ and we say, ‘No.’ That’s the biggest mistake brands make: they get distracted and go off-course, for sales. A lot of big brands are now getting distracted by what indies are doing.”

Staying on course includes tuning out bad advice, even when it’s coming from a well-intended industry veteran who knows “more” than you do. “It was recommended early on by someone representing me that I change the name, because maybe Drunk Elephant was too weird, risky, or different,” recalls Masterson. “I just thought, I’m going to act like I’m already successful, and hold true to these first ideas and what’s coming from my gut. Otherwise, I’m going to lose the vibe from the beginning.”

The vibe! That’s right: the best brands have a distinct rhythm, feeling… their own beat. Make sure the beat goes on.

3. Be Close to the Consumer: Create a Dialogue and Make It Real

In ancient times (five years ago), brands created products and dictated trends from their perch on-high, and their customer received this news — what colours she would be wearing, what new skincare regimens she would be following — via slick advertisements and instruction at department store counters. It worked — for eons!

Vision, authority and aspiration are still everything — what have we got without them? — but the role of the consumer has fundamentally changed. Instead of passively waiting to be told what she wants and what to do, and then obediently showing up with her wallet, she is now part of the initial, and ongoing, conversation. She has a say.

It’s a new relationship between company and consumer, and social channels are the lifeline. Masterson views spending an hour or two engaging with customers via Instagram’s comments section as part of her workday.

“Making that connection helps me make decisions,” she says. She refined her mousse-like Umbra sunscreen — which re-launched last month with a more finely-milled, transparent zinc — in direct response to feedback, and changed her popular Lala Cream’s componentry from an open jar to an airless pump because fans of the brand asked for it. “It didn’t hurt me to change it, so I did, and it’s done really well.”

Like ColourPop’s digital crowdsourcing, Glossier, too, has invited its followers to participate in product development before there is even a product to speak of. “We had a ton of help with the Milk Jelly Cleanser,” says founder and chief executive Emily Weiss. “We received thousands of comments from our question, ‘What’s your dream face wash?’ and we learned that the most important things to her were that it was fragrance-free, it would help take off makeup, and it was safe to use around the eyes.”

It’s a new relationship between company and consumer, and social channels are the lifeline.

When Weiss first launched Glossier in 2014, she partnered with UberRUSH and made a smattering of those first deliveries personally — the accompanying videos of which she naturally posted to Instagram right away, to the delight of an already rabid fan-base.

Customer service has fundamentally changed too. Instead of a complaint and returns hotline, it now revolves around a casual, friendly, rolling give and take on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter between brand and consumer, with other community members weighing in on threads with their own advice.

“We are redefining what the beauty customer experience is like, hopefully proving that she doesn’t need to go to a physical location to touch and feel product because she can do that with us digitally,” says Weiss, who sells Glossier direct to consumer via her website, and thus far has “no plans” to partner with department stores and other conventional retailers. “We are reaching tons of women directly through our channel. We’ve created this Glossier world, where we have all of her information, so we can better serve her.”

At IT, the customer has helped steer the brand from the beginning. Their organic engagement — talking amongst themselves on message boards before Instagram was even a thing — gave birth to what has become one of the brand’s key defining pillars: the can-you-believe-it before-and-after picture. “They inspired me to do my own,” says Lima, who famously removed half of her full-face makeup during her first appearance on QVC, where IT is today the number-one overall beauty brand. Lima’s army of IT Girls (now trademarked), named themselves, calling in, one at a time, talking to her live. They felt there was finally a brand just for them, and she wisely let them in.

Pat McGrath, legendary queen of editorial makeup, has warmly opened up her rarefied world by inviting her followers to interpret her themes and create their own looks using her makeup, the best of which she posts to her Instagram with her signature all-cap enthusiasm. #MAJOR #DIVINE #OBSESSED! She’s curating content, encouraging artistry, creating a gallery wall — a living, breathing Pat McGrath-inspired universe where all are welcome. To use one of her favourite words, it’s #GENIUS.

4. Be Transparent, About Everything

Thanks to the consumer’s new seat at the table — and the built-in megaphone that comes with it, which she will not hesitate to use, whether she be delighted or displeased — transparency in all areas of one’s business is not only appreciated, but demanded. Otherwise, how can you truly build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect?

As Drunk Elephant’s Masterson bluntly puts it, “Today, it’s important to deliver without the kind of B.S. that’s sometimes attached to putting a brand out there: cutting corners, twisting things, thinking of yourself — the brand — as opposed to the customer. When you look at consumer feedback, so much of it is ‘they’re trying to trick us. It’s them against me.’ I’m straightforward about our ingredients, our message. Nothing in my products is meant to trick, to give instant gratification or payoff when it’s not really there.”

Priya Venkatesh, Sephora’s head of skincare marketing, notes that brands like Drunk Elephant and Sunday Riley do especially well for the retailer because “It feels like the product is made with integrity, and the brands are more transparent about what’s inside.” Biossance’s Squalane + Vitamin C Rose Oil, for example, “says what it is: squalane plus vitamin C. They’re not calling it a wonder oil.”

Transparency filters down to the basic mechanics of how a company is run, too. Thanks to the open forum of the internet, “we know if there is an issue right away, and we can address it,” says Rassi. “It’s honest; everyone can see it. It’s not an email; it’s out in the world. Brands have been trying to control the message for too long.”

5. Even If You’re Big, Act Small

This means retaining agility, even if you have grown successful enough to have hundreds of employees or a corporate parent. If pivoting swiftly to react to market trends and respond to customers, or ramping up production cycles to launch in a timely, competitive fashion is not on the cards… you’re in trouble. Think of a gazelle zigzagging gracefully by, instead of an elephant lumbering along.

Siblings Laura and John Nelson started Seed, a self-funded brand incubator, in 2014 after dual stints at Spatz Labs, where they developed products for a host of global companies. While the Oxnard, California-based Nelsons have personally kept low profiles, the brands they have launched thus far — the game-changing blockbusters ColourPop and Kylie Cosmetics — have decidedly not.

If pivoting swiftly to react to market trends and respond to customers is not on the cards, you’re in trouble.

“Our concept from the very beginning was to incorporate consumer feedback and trend information very quickly,” says Laura Nelson, Seed’s president. They built their company accordingly: “We make everything, all under one roof. We create it, produce it and ship it direct to the consumer.”

“You have to have the resources to go from idea straight to actual product,” adds chief executive John Nelson. With Kylie Jenner, for example, “It’s a continuous, fluid process — not necessarily a formal meeting to talk about ideas. Something pops into her head, we show her iterations in real time and get it to market.”

“You see a lot of indie brands that make that initial splash, but if demand increases quickly, how can they support it?” asks Laura Nelson. “It’s difficult for most start-ups to have that vertical integration. On the other end,” she says, “a lot of legacy brands have those capabilities, but they’ve become so large that it’s difficult for them to be responsive.”

6. Think About Cadence

Instead of adhering to a strict (old-fashioned) launch calendar — the predictable Fall, Holiday, and Spring, with a sprinkling of Mother’s Day, Valentines, and lately, festival season promotions — Seed propels products from ColourPop and Kylie out into the stratosphere via their 24/7 social media hotline “when we feel the timing is right,” says Laura Nelson. Like Kylie’s birthday. “Because we live online, we have the freedom to do that.” It’s the beauty equivalent of fast fashion: They surprise, they delight; they continually create news (and content).

Glossier launches a new product approximately every three months. Weiss thinks of each launch as building upon the last, endeavouring to create the same anticipation the release, of, say, a Harry Potter book would amongst its die-hard fans. Weiss describes it as “concentric circles of people who all read the same book and get excited and wait for another to come out.”

When Pat McGrath stealthily announces the launch date and time (“noon, Tuesday!”) of a forthcoming item — the beauty aficionado’s version of Breaking News — the feverish, lusty buildup, and conversely crushing disappointment of those who could not get their hands on, say, a limited edition metallic eye shadow, reminds me of how it used to be to buy concert tickets. Remember putting the date in your calendar, sitting by the phone, frantically pressing redial at the appointed time, until you (maybe) got through?

It’s not just about speed, surprise and limited quantities, though. “When the timing is right” means different things to different brands. For Drunk Elephant, retaining the flexibility to thoughtfully take action does not entail rushing to the finish line. “I feel the more I walk instead of run, the less I fall,” says Masterson. She launched initially with six core products, and has just 11 in her lineup today, with five more coming over the next two years. “There are not a ton of products I want to launch, because I would never use 20 products,” she says simply.

It took Lima seven years to launch her first moisturiser. “We waited until we knew it worked and thought it was better than everything else. It’s about building that trust. Now we’re a top prestige skincare brand as well.”

7. Be Open to Changing “How Things Are Done”

“There are a lot of people out there who get in the mindset of ‘how things are done,’” says Masterson. “But the beauty industry is changing — a lot. Indies like me, we have a huge advantage: we haven’t been in this business for 20 years. We’re doing it our way. I want to surround myself with people who know more than me — I’m always listening, but not to people who say, ‘I’ve been there and done that, and this is how you do things.’ I’m listening to the consumer, and myself.”

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