What’s the significance of a pair of $3 tweezers? To the team at Brandless, that simple eyebrow-grooming staple can stand for a lot.
When the direct-to-consumer purveyor of household supplies expanded its modest beauty offerings, tweezers were “the biggest hero item,” said Brandless director of merchandising Rita Katona. Similar tweezers — stainless steel with a precision slanted tip, housed in a protective pouch — could be $20. Tweezerman’s iteration, for example, is a Sephora bestseller and a repeated Allure Best of Beauty winner, at $23.
So in addition to introducing a pair of $3 tweezers this June, Brandless added a handful of other basic grooming tools, including an eyelash curler, nail clippers and a double-ended sharpener, and rounded out its beauty assortment with products such as a grapefruit facial scrub, a green apple toner and a night cream. All are “clean” (meaning free of 400 ingredients Brandless has promised not to use, such as sulfates, dyes, parabens and synthetic fragrances), and all are $3.
But in a world of $300 (or at least $30) night creams, how does that work?
“That’s a huge question for a lot of people,” Katona said. “Unfortunately, the traditional retail model has so many layers built in that, as consumers, we have gotten used to paying more for products that aren’t necessarily better.”
The Brandless solution, she said, is for products to have a specific function and a short ingredient list, distributed through a model that cuts out the middlemen. That no-nonsense approach is cleverly communicated in product packaging, with checklists for details such as “No Pthalates” or “Gluten Free,” in addition to its empty white square logo and the company’s cheeky name; being brand-less, in this case, suggests that products are pared down to the essentials, allowing the ingredients — and each customer’s interpretation — to take center stage. No-frills product names are also handy for appearing in Google searches (according to research firm Gartner L2).
But Brandless is not a trendy indie Amazon beauty brand. It’s brazenly low-priced and bare bones at a time when blockbusting hype fuels celebrity-led makeup launches and consumers are increasingly willing to spend more on prestige beauty. And yet Brandless’ beauty expansion lands where a number of industry trends converge: direct-to-consumer e-commerce combined with a cult of transparency; a surging interest in skin care, especially with clean ingredients; and, in a nod to millennials, accessibility to all.
Brandless beauty products
Direct-to-consumer brand Beauty Pie offers a taste of the transparency revolution with a $10 monthly subscription service that markets luxury-quality beauty and skin-care products without a markup. Like an Everlane of beauty, the site breaks out the associated costs of each product: Its Jeju Overnight Moisture Superinfusion would be $78 regularly, but it’s $10.65 for members — that’s $9.37 for product and packaging, plus $0.84 for warehousing and $0.44 for testing.
“Today, there is transparency like never before,” said Beauty Pie founder Marcia Kilgore, who added that skin-care formulas imported from Korean, Japanese, Swiss, Italian and French labs are especially popular. “We sell high-performance skin care like it’s going out of style — we literally cannot keep it on the shelf.”
Vitamin C Serum capsules ($12.12, compared to $65), which come directly from a supplier in France, are also popular. “I think that the idea of direct-from-the-factory is really smart and sexy,” Kilgore said.
According to research firm NPD, interest in both skin care and clean or natural beauty (which is often coupled with an ethos of transparency) is on the rise. Skin-care sales grew by 9 percent in 2017, and skin care is the fastest-growing segment of the beauty industry, it found. Meanwhile, women are increasingly selective about the ingredients in their skin care, with up to 50 percent actively seeking “natural” or “organic” materials, according to a 2017 report. NPD analyst Larissa Jensen wrote that consumers have come to expect full disclosure. “It is critical for brands to clearly state their position on issues such as ingredient usage and product testing,” she said.
E.l.f. Cosmetics’ Oil-Control Blotting Powder ($6)
Perhaps the original affordable beauty brand, E.l.f. Cosmetics has been doubling down on its skin-care lines as the popularity of the segment has grown. The brand recently added a line of oil-control and pore-refining products, including an $8 Oil Control Primer Mist, a $4 Pore Refining Regimen Kit and a $5 Pore Refining Brush and Mask Tool. (Its slanted stainless steel tweezers, by the way, are $1.)
When E.l.f. began as direct-to-consumer in 2004, everything was $1, and the brand had to work through the perception of price equaling quality, said Mara McCune, vp of brand at E.l.f. Cosmetics, where most products now retail for about $6 or less.
“[Beauty] really was an industry that spent millions to articulate for the consumers that high quality is high price point, and this has been paradigm-shifting,” she said. E.l.f. is now sold in a range of stores including Target, Old Navy, Macy’s and Ulta Beauty.
Other mass multibrand retailers and department stores are taking note: In November, Sephora began selling formerly online-only beauty brand ColourPop, which boasts luxury formulas for $5 to $8, and Bloomingdale’s has opened in-store beauty boutiques called Glowhaus, where everything is less than $100.
Prestige beauty brands are starting to compete with lower-priced brands digitally, as well. In September 2017, Gartner L2 researchers noted that Tom Ford and Lancome were bidding on Google ads using ColourPop’s branded terms, and Too Faced was actively bidding against Maybelline and NYX, according to November 2017 report.
E.l.f., as with many masstige beauty brands (marketed as prestige but priced for the mass market), is a favorite among millennial customers, for whom Instagram and fast fashion are a way of life. According to research from Coresight, millennials spend less on beauty than older generations, and tend to be more interested in products marketed as ethical or environmentally friendly.
McCune said influencers and video tutorials have helped normalize a high-low mix of brands. In a parallel with fast fashion, E.l.f. is very competitive in its ability to develop and launch new products; in the first quarter of this year, its average speed from initial idea to selling online was 20 weeks, with the fastest launch being 13 weeks. In 2017, E.l.f. launched 128 new items, including 39 products that were first-to-mass.
But despite the appeal of saving money, can a $3 night cream work against the satisfaction that a $300 product must certainly work better? According to a 2007 study of women using a high-priced anti-wrinkle cream in a neutral jar, compared to those using regular moisturizing cream in a luxurious jar, the women used more of the product in the luxury jar — but the effects of the products were the same.
Katona, of Brandless, said that consumers can alternatively get a warm and fuzzy feeling by knowing that every purchase from Brandless includes a meal donated to someone in need. In the year since it launched, Brandless has donated more than 1 million meals through a partnership with Feeding America.
“What’s important to today’s consumer is the relationship between the price and the quality. We don’t want to over- or under-emphasize those two points,” Katona said. “Our customers are always excited when we launch new products, without us making a big deal about it. It’s not about creating hype but about transparency and making it easier for people to make decisions.”