BUILD YOUR OWN EMPIRE
By the intern who did it in under 3 years
Clever beauty ideas aren’t all that rare. But concepts that change the way we think and feel about beauty? Those hardly ever come around. So why, like buses, have they now arrived all at once, setting off a seismic shift in the way you’ll be consuming your beauty in years to come?
If you believe their instigators, it was simply a matter of frustration. “I had no intention to start a brand,” says Emily Weiss of the brand on everyone’s lips and shelves, Glossier. “But the lack of change in the beauty industry prompted me to do so.” Brandon Truaxe’s paradigm-shifting NIOD and The Ordinary skincare ranges were inspired by “frustration with people paying over the odds for skincare that couldn’t work”. As for serial beauty entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore, she credits being fed up with retail practices for her creating Beauty Pie, an industry-defying idea that lets you buy prestige beauty for peanuts.
Their concepts aren’t remotely the same, but what they have in common is that they hand power to the beauty consumer in ways that haven’t been dared before. In some cases, that has meant scepticism and disbelief on the part of potential customers – but only for a moment.“The people who embrace us have been called millennial consumers, but I just call them enlightened shoppers,” says Truaxe. By that, he means people who do their research price-wise and formula-wise, and won’t be sold a pup. Consumers who no longer subscribe to the smoke, mirrors and snake oil that have made the beauty world go round for a century, and demand honesty and transparency over anything else. Like so many pioneering brands in other
industries (Netflix, Amazon, Uniqlo), beauty’s disruptors saw consumer habits changing and moulded their vision around new needs before their customers even formulated them. Here’s how they did it…
A NEW ATTITUDE
One major global beauty trend Mintel identified for 2018 is the shifting of control in the beauty industry. It’s the consumer, the market researcher says, who now dictates to brands what beauty is, instead of the other way around. Ahead of the curve, Weiss launched beauty retail site Glossier in 2014 to offer customers a pared-down, skin-first alternative to the age-old ‘brand knows best’ approach that focuses on telling women how to look and what to use.“I sensed girls no longer wanted to be sold a prescriptive routine, but instead, curate their own beauty stash from products that were approachable, effective and lived with them by improving skin health on a gentle, daily basis, as opposed to ones full of woolly promises of transformation that never happened.”
It was rather more than a sense: Weiss had been editor of beauty site Into The Gloss for over three years at this point, which provided her with priceless (literally: think three years of free market research) insights in to what makes beauty addicts of the internet age tick. It helped her create a brand she already knew was exactly what her followers would love. And it goes further than that: Weiss says she includes them in every aspect of the business.“We will distill thousands of comments into products they want. This is about the democratisation of beauty.” Well, democracy brought us Donald Trump. Surely not every item is made, or axed, on the whim of potentially fickle consumers? “We think about what’s essential, what works and what our customer prefers.”
The model isn’t unique – skincare brand Julep is doing roughly the same thing, and beauty brands built on a loyal Instagram fan base, such as Spectrum make-up brushes, are sprouting like mushrooms. But Weiss saw the shift in the way women shop and engage with brands before most. Plus, she teamed ‘online communitybased’ product development with a keen sense of her customers’ changing aesthetic and values. The luminous, barely made-up Glossier Girl comes in all shapes and sizes and looks ‘normal,’ if somewhat slicker than your average. Weiss has made hers the poster brand for the inclusive, healthiest-looking-you beauty tribe that everyone now wants to belong to. And cleverly, she’s marketed it as a no-marketing,‘less transactional,’ you-have-the power space: “We are people like you just trying to change the industry and having fun,” declares the Glossier site. People who are raking in the money by owning a beauty movement – canny indeed.
But what if you could go further with your beauty site, offering your fans not just the feel-good factor, but spectacular discounts as well, while claiming your products are as good as those by prestige brands? What if you were to earn nothing from the sale of these products, but made your profits from a membership fee you charged your customers?
“Many potential customers smelled a rat,” admits Kilgore, the human dynamo who brought you Bliss, FitFlop, Soap & Glory and, since late 2016, Beauty Pie. “It sounds too good to be true, right?” It’s not, but it’s easy to see how breaking open one of beauty’s best-kept secrets – the real cost of your products – would make people’s minds boggle. She explains how it works, revealing some more secrets along the way: “Most luxury brands buy their products from independent labs and factories around the world. These third-party suppliers are the genius mix-masters behind your cosmetics. The brands? They are the marketeers. When a supplier sells a finished product to a luxury brand for £10, the brand might retail it for £100. So, 90% of what you pay is added after the final product leaves the factory. But we don’t think you should pay for retailer margins, sales commissions or celebrity faces. So after sourcing the best products we can find, we sell
them to our members at the factory price.” For £10 a month, you can buy up to £100 monthly – at £8.54 for a potent serum and £2.18 for a premium pencil, that’s a lot of stuff.
“People do go,‘Why should I pay a membership [fee]?’ – but that’s what they said about Netflix,” says Kilgore. “Once you start adding up what you spend and calculate the savings [helpfully, Beauty Pie shows you what you’d have to cough up were you to pay the retail value of its merchandise], you won’t go back.” Bobbi Brown and Jo Malone (the women, not the brands) are members, as are most of the beauty journalists I know. Nonetheless, Kilgore is not sure the idea would have worked even five years ago: “Big online companies have paved my way in terms of changing shopping habits, and there’s a US fashion brand [Everlane] that breaks down its prices like I do. Information is everywhere online and constant chat between customers means there’s nowhere to hide. So if my concept was a scam, I’d be found out pretty smartly. Instead, my online community does my marketing for me!”
Also, she points out, shopping ain’t what it used to be: “You go to a store and some vacuous sales girl can’t tell you what’s in a serum, while you could research it on your phone – what do I want to pay her commission for? People have been so ready for an alternative, but big brands didn’t come up with one.”
But – how can one put this – isn’t all this barefaced honesty taking the joy out of luxury cosmetics? Do we not, in fact, want to feel a bit special, buying a dream product in a gotta-have-it compact? “It’s out there if you want it,” says Kilgore. “But I like to think smart people wonder what the point of it is any longer. From a business point of view, we know greed is the greatest shopping motivator, luxury only the fifth – so the fact that you can get so many great cosmetics for little money will benefit my brand. As for seeking to identify ourselves by the great brands we pull out of our bag: today’s shopper is all about ‘Brand Me’ instead. Our Instagram pictures and the clever choices we’ve made to look good are what counts now.”
As much as she values her opinionated customers, Kilgore wouldn’t, like Weiss, follow their lead on what products to create, quoting (as she is wont to do) a leading authority who said ‘customers are the experts of yesterday.’“We are about the best and the latest, and for that I rely on the most visionary minds in the industry, not on consumers who tend to ask for what they’ve already seen.”
When Kilgore first told me her idea, I asked her if she’d hired a bodyguard. Surely, the industry would be up in arms over her breaking their Magic Circle-like code of secrecy – what possessed her to do something so contrary? “I’m a product of a tough
“Millennial consumers? I call them enlightened shoppers"
childhood – I only feel good when things are hard,” she smiles. “I’d rather bang my head against a wall than not try to change an industry that’s hopelessly stuck in its ways.”
TRUTH IN SKINCARE
“I don’t think I looked at the grain and went against it. I just did what I thought was a sensible thing to do,” says Brandon Truaxe of the explainthe-science-and-show-us-the-proof gauntlet he threw down to the industry with NIOD (subtitle: ‘skincare for the hyper-educated’). Our first conversation involved him rattling off indignantly the reasons why most vitamin-C skincare was inactive and the wrong hyaluronic acid would dry out your skin. Three years on, he hasn’t changed, but the industry has, and so have consumers: being a skincare geek is hot. My inbox is replete with reformulated, reimagined products by the world’s top brands, declaring their levels of actives, explaining their formulas and putting words like ‘acetyl hexapeptide-8’ on their bottles. And Truaxe is in no small way responsible.
“I have nothing against beautiful textures and product storytelling,” he insists.“But then sell it as a thing that gives you pleasure and don’t make claims that don’t even add up. I want to charge for what works, not for marketing that obscures the fact that something doesn’t. The age of brainwashing is over: enquiring minds appreciate being trusted to understand the science.” That doesn’t mean products have to be dour: “I think simplicity, beautifully done, is very luxurious. In the same way that we don’t need to see gold and marble [decor] inside hotels any more, but think a farmhouse aesthetic the ultimate luxury.”
After creating an empire by re-educating the customer, Truaxe disrupted the industry some more with The Ordinary. Mission: to explain that tried-and-tested skincare actives in simple formulas cost a pittance to produce [all his products are developed and manufactured in-house], so should be priced accordingly.“I don’t think The Ordinary could have happened without NIOD,” he says. “NIOD built the trust that allowed people to believe skincare as cheap as The Ordinary could work.” But is it financially viable at those prices? “Of course: I’m attracting a very large demographic that was simply not being served, because they couldn’t afford skincare with massively inflated margins. If I can make a profit by selling straightforward stuff that works to people who don’t care for the smoke and mirrors, then everybody wins.”
It is, he says, on a par with having enough food to feed the world – if we would just not limit its distribution only to where we can earn the most for it. A lofty statement, perhaps, but it’s hard not to believe him (or Kilgore, who talks in much the same way) when he says life, and business, is so much easier when you come from a place of honesty and fairness. Could this be the business template of the future? We can but hope.
Marcia Kilgore: ground-breaking
Brandon Truaxe: disruptive