Do you have alerts on your phone for the next Pat McGrath lipgloss drop? Stalk Sephora for the latest HG (or Holy Grail) product? Follow a ton of beauty bloggers on Instagram? Thursday’s annual FGI spring beauty luncheon sponsored by Hearst Magazines, L’Oreal and Estee Lauder at the New York Hilton, “Beauty CULTure: Understanding the Power of “Cult” was about you. After the white wine reception, everyone took their seats in the ballroom where an overview preceded the panel discussion. Jessica Matlin, Beauty Director of Harper’s Bazaar defined a cult beauty product as something “segmented, super niche, and no longer about pleasing everyone.”
“If you have a fabulous product with a strong point of view, and a great aesthetic you go to social media. With your iPhone you can be the Stephen Spielberg of the beauty business,” Matlin quipped. She went on to define Cult Leaders with the groan-inducing buzzwords (seriously, everyone groaned on cue) “authentic,” and “relatable.” Lifestyle Leaders would include natural brands such as Equinox or Soul Cycle while Pat McGrath belongs to the category of Hypebeast Beauty — “If you set your watch to buy something it’s a cult fetish item, (a category) which didn’t exist only a few years ago — but is essential if you’re building a cult brand.”
|L to R: Caroline Fabrigas, David Chung, Anne Carullo, Jessica Matlin,
Zahida Subramanian, Marla Beck, Gerard Camme, Karen Young
After a lunch of cold chicken and salad, Zahida Subramanian, a partner at J.Walter Thompson, introduced the expert panel: Marla Beck, Co-founder & CEO, Bluemercury Inc.; Gerard Camme, President, Atelier Cologne; Anne Carullo, SVP Global Product Development, Estee Lauder, Tom Ford, GLAMGLOW; and David Chung, Founder & CEO, Farmacy.
What are the secrets to becoming a cult brand? Beck believes it has to do with “language and longevity. If you love it, it has potential to be a cult brand. It also must be shared — have you heard of it or seen it? It has to be loved and shared for a long time” naming La Mer as an example. Chung spoke of Farmacy’s inception — the idea came from a room service menu detailing “farm to table” items. “I thought, why not do farm to skin type?” he said. Luckily Sephora agreed and launched his line in 2015.
According to Carullo “there’s no formula A to B, or we’d all be very rich and not sitting here at this luncheon,” she joked. “Consumers become disciples if you have markers which create an experience that exceeds the consumers’ expectations,” putting Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair in that category. She recommends working in the “black space” (versus the untapped “white space”) while targeting those who have been underserved. “We always say ‘big is the new big’ at Lauder since we’re not a small company.”
Beck began Blue Mercury in 1999 in response to her aversion to having to visit many different department store cosmetic counters to stock up on her favorite skin care items. Blue Mercury also developed M-61, a line of natural “clean, clinical” skincare products as well as Lune + Aster Beauty, a vegan cosmetics brand with a paraben-free mascara. “We listen to our consumers who are busy women. They want simplicity — to be out the door in 10 minutes or less. We try to solve problems.” Over three years ago Blue Mercury was acquired by Macy’s — “they let us do our own thing including keeping our headquarters in D.C. which helped preserve our DNA. Everything we do is the same, just bigger. Training is all digital now — they helped us scale with technology.”
“The formulation and development of specialty skin care have changed dramatically,” said Chung. “A chemist can’t use a whole list of ingredients due to regulations — even states like California have their own rules. It’s like making the chicken soup, but you cannot put the chicken in there,” he said. He adds that you can’t Instagram the immediate effects of skincare — “It’s not visual like color cosmetics.”
Camme nodded in agreement — what could be less “Instagrammable” than fragrance? Having joined niche brand Atelier Cologne in 2011 after a career working at corporate giants like LVMH and Giorgio Armani, he spoke of the unique DNA and story of Atelier’s entrepreneurial founders and the brand’s eventual acquisition by L’Oreal in 2016. “We don’t follow trends — when we started dark perfumes were in, and we launched a citrus fragrance.” The brand has a story to tell to educate the customer; therefore, a boutique experience is necessary.
Carullo spoke of Tom Ford’s goal when entering the beauty market and how considerable pressure to understand his mission accompanied it. “He wanted to be the first luxury brand of the 21st century. Beauty was incredibly important like a badge of a lipstick case that gets taken out of a purse after lunch. He had a particular vision with true color as well.”
How vital are influencers in marketing these cult products? Beck says: “The customer wants honest advice. Influencers work well for younger customers; blogs are better for older ones. It’s important to know which segment of your clientele are getting information from which piece.” Are we too influenced by influencers? “There’s a lot of dependence on influencers — this whole area needs to be shaken up. My sister-in-law’s an influencer — that’s an issue,” she added to audience laughter.
Advice for those thinking of starting a niche brand or product? Chung recounted how he started his business at age 24 having never worked for anyone. “Sometimes if you know too much you don’t want to cross that bridge. If you have an idea, there’s a demand in the market, then go for it — don’t overthink,” he counseled. Carullo said it’s important to have a product that does what it says it’s going to do and more, again using Advanced Night Repair as an example. “Go after a fringe category that’s underserved.” Camme said it’s important to “make decisions with your heart, not your head.” Beck’s advice: “#1 Solve a problem, #2 find a niche, #3 be yourself and lead with your heart.”