Thoughts on New Beauty Brands and Authenticity

Flesh Beauty Tender Flesh Blush
Flesh Beauty Tender Flesh Blush

Last week, a new beauty brand–backed by a well-known, major beauty player, Revlon–officially debuted:  Flesh Beauty.  After the brand’s product catalog popped up on Ulta (the brand’s exclusive retailer) a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking on what it means to build a new beauty brand in today’s environment, how it can or should be done, and can it be done authentically.  This is as much me teasing out my own feelings and thoughts on the topic and wanting to see how my readers feel.

For those unfamiliar with Flesh Beauty, the name and concept, which has been getting plenty of buzz, come from Linda Wells, founding editor-in-chief of Allure and current chief creative officer at Revlon, who came up with the brand.  Wells told WWD, “Flesh was this idea of, ‘How do you create different shades of nudes for different skin colors?’ Because there’s that idea that there’s this one color that will work on every color of skin, but that seems like kind of a fantasy — a unicorn. So rather than trying to make one thing for everybody, I wanted to make something work for everyone that was different and appropriate for their skin.”  The brand was conceptualized and developed in about five months.  Wells has made assurances that all the formulations are completely separate from parent company Revlon; that as a prestige brand, the formulas are more expensive.  I have no doubt that as a veteran of the industry, she is well-equipped with knowledge and deep insights into what the market needs, how products should perform, and the like.

One of Flesh Beauty’s biggest marketing bullet points is inclusivity.  In the last year, inclusivity has become a selling point and a lack of inclusivity can become a detriment and PR nightmare (just ask Tarte!).  I have fingers and toes and Mellan has paws crossed that it’s not just a trend or a selling point; that this will be the new normal and that we’ll see greater diversity across brands from marketing materials, to the influencers and celebrities they work with, to the types of products they release (inclusivity isn’t just about complexion products).

But at the moment, it feels and looks trendy, and there are brands releasing larger shade ranges but not always getting the undertones and depths right–so points for trying or does it speak to a brand merely attempting to capitalize on the buzz of having 40+ shades without putting in the real effort to get them right? Sometimes it can be obvious when deeper shades are exclusive to online retailers and unavailable in stores (did you know Becca founder required all of their foundation shades to be carried in store, regardless of the demographic of the area, and took this position years ago?) or when the distribution of depth is still quite uneven.

Is it still possible to be inclusive and promote your brand’s inclusivity/diversity now and still come across as authentic?  For some brands, they’ll just have to stay the course and continue to improve and diversity their offerings over a longer stretch of time, where it’s clear that it’s not a trend but a permanent change for the brand. They will also need to reinforce that commitment through campaign images, model selections, and other product offerings (e.g. 40 shades of foundations but two shades of pale highlighter doesn’t cut it).

Something interesting to think about with Revlon as the parent is to look at their best-known beauty brands: Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, and Almay. The latter might be one of the least inclusive ranges still available (right there with Physicians Formula), and frankly, from the comments I’ve seen on Almay across the community over the years, I don’t think they could ever authentically fix that. Revlon has made slight improvements in the last few years but still has pretty short shade ranges, while Elizabeth Arden’s current offerings seem to be slightly more diverse but hard to say without seeing swatches of the deeper half of the shades available.

When I saw Flesh Beauty’s offerings, marketing, and overall aesthetic, I was instantly reminded of a Glossier-esque brand but has to launch in a post-Fenty Beauty world (the brand that really shook up and cemented that it’s long past time for diversity and inclusivity and proved that you can be successful and have an assortment of shades; no more “but there’s no market” excuses).  The product names incorporate the more uncomfortable (to hear reactions across the community to the branding, at least!) concept of flesh through names like Tender Flesh, Ripe Flesh, Fleshy Lips, Fleshpot, and of course, Firm Flesh Thick Stick.  After that litany of formula names, it seemed a little less about the deeper meaning behind the brand’s name and felt a little more gimmicky to me.  There’s also something about it being marketed as a prestige offering (with some disjointed price relative to size choices) and yet the brand is supposed to be for everyone–particularly in light of Revlon’s namesake brand, which is more affordable, lacking that diversity.

A lot of the buzz on Flesh Beauty reminds me of now-defunct The Estee Edit, which was Estee Lauder’s attempt to market to and capture more of the millennial market.  I always thought that it would likely be better to acquire a brand already doing so or to create something far less associated with Estee Lauder to make the connection less obvious, but some of how I felt about The Estee Edit lingers here as I absorb Flesh Beauty’s launch and marketing–that I still feel a little pandered to, moderately sold to, and that it’s what corporate thinks I want to see all wrapped up with a bow.

The Estee Edit never felt authentic to me, because it felt totally rooted in capturing dollars instead of creating products that would appeal to me as part of a younger demographic.  It doesn’t help when most of the pieces on the brand talk about their intent to go after and get the millennial market–guess it’s one of those, “if you tell me what to do, I won’t want to do it” knee-jerk reactions.  There are several brands that seem to be shifting their offerings to attract a younger demographic from Jouer to Tarte with the latter often giving the vibe of an identity crisis, so missteps get made (like the shade names of their Lip Paints) that lack authenticity and feel like a brand trying to be “cool” to the younger generation.

In my mind, three of the most successful brand launches in the last few years that are definitely driven by and appeal to a younger demographic are ColourPop, Glossier, and Fenty Beauty, and how and why they’re successful vary wildly.  That is not to say, however, that the brands are perfect, appeal to all, and so on, just that they’ve emerged, stayed, and have become part of the greater beauty community.  These are brands that had a lot more from the start of their journey, as ColourPop was incubated by Seed Beauty, Glossier raised over $10M in their first year, and Fenty Beauty is owned by Kendo Brands, which is a brand incubator owned by LVMH (which also big beauty brands like Dior and Sephora).

ColourPop remains one of the most agile, fast, and consumer-driven brands with quick reactions to exactly what their customer is looking for; they capture trends as they trickle in with a lightning-fast turnaround time between concept and getting it into the hands of consumers.

Glossier has perfected the image of “effortless cool girl” and lives and breathes it; the brand’s aesthetic and offerings felt like a natural extension of the founder, Emily Weiss, Into the Gloss. The brand utilized a a slow but steady release of new products (that seemed back by quality, if early wait-lists are any indication) to build up their offerings while never losing sight of their core customer–and part of that was communicating and delivering stellar customer service over and over again.

Fenty Beauty is backed by the powerhouse that is Rihanna, but unlike some celebrities that get tapped for a brand or collaboration, Fenty Beauty had Rihanna’s touch all over it.  There was little question from what I’ve seen communicated within the community that she’s part of the brand and that it isn’t just her name on it. The brand prioritized inclusivity from access to the products (a simultaneous global launch in-stores and online) to diversity in shade range (40 shades of foundation) and selection of models in their marketing.

There are a lot of smaller, up-and-coming brands that I’d consider more true to the “indie brand” label (think Sugarpill, Melt, Dose of Colors, and so on) that are doing well and have strong, authentic identities.  What is it about these types of brands that feel and look more authentic?  Is it because they have smaller product offerings (e.g. often starting with just one or two types of products)?  Because it seems like only a few people are doing all the work?  A strong, prominent, and social media-savvy founder/owner?  A very specific aesthetic?  Is it the ability to tap into and get influencers talking about the brand regularly?  Will influencer-backed brands emerge as authentic, household brands in the next five years?

What makes you interested in a new brand?  What turns you off of a new brand?  Can beauty brands be authentic or is everything too rooted in consumerism to get there?  Can brands built by parent companies be authentic?  What brands have attempted to resonate with you — which have been successful, which haven’t, and could you articulate why?

I think authenticity is difficult to capture and define in a way that a brand could follow; there’s no step-by-step guide on being authentic, because it is really just being oneself, is it not?  But when it comes to authenticity and selling products, it’s more about selling that authenticity and getting customers to buy into it; to buy into the brand, its backstory, its meaning, and its product offerings.  There’s no room for missteps when there are 100s of brands and more launching every month happy to step in.

The linkage to selling product makes it hard to be truly authentic, I think, from brands that are powered by deeper pockets to begin with because so much of what they’re doing is related back to big bottom lines, not just earnings enough to fund a founder’s dream to make products–it is just so much more believable thinking of one person who’s dumped their life savings into the brand, who handles all the business and creation and overseeing of every aspect of the business being there for the love of beauty, not (or not just) the money. Yet… there’s plenty of work and lots of hours and time that goes into a brand even when a parent company is funding it.

It obviously can be done because there are many brands that exist today that are mainstream, household names that get sold across major retailers with iconic products with strong, loyal, and passionate fans that consume, follow, promote, and defend ardently.  I expect that brand founders, brand backstories, and who works for or is featured by the brand is going to become more and more important in establishing and selling authenticity in beauty. How brands interact on social media and how (and whether) they listen to their customers as trends shift or as products release (to success or to failure) will have a greater impact on how products are developed and released. The details will become more important as way to distinguish one brand from the next; there are so many high quality products out there, so why would I buy from this brand over that one? And how are you going to convince me to keep buying?

It’s an interesting time in beauty with Generation Z becoming the new demographic to sell to while brands in the industry are still trying to figure out how to market to millennials.  This comes at a time where every move a brand makes online can never be forgotten as more beauty consumers participate in the online beauty conversation and see these beauty dramas play out in real time.  Then these incidents–minor or major–percolate across the web as larger publications now report on new releases as much as they do on the latest beauty brand’s mistakes.  The integration with social media and growing up with influencers are two more aspects that will continue to change the way beauty brands interact, market to, and exist in the industry.  I think perceived authenticity and the ability to trust the softer aspects of a brand (diversity, inclusivity, ethics, and the like) will continue to be challenging areas but ones that will be vital to figure out as a result.