How to build a cult beauty brand as successful as Glossier, Drunk Elephant, Sunday Riley, and other indie names

How to build a cult beauty brand as successful as Glossier, Drunk Elephant, Sunday Riley, and other indie names

Force of nature

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @glossier

The beauty industry is undergoing a shakeup. In recent times, clean offerings rule the roost; transparency is demanded in all aspects of business; while legacy labels are snapping up smaller brands as a Monopoly fiend would properties. Gone are the days where conglomerates and smoke-and-mirror marketing flourish. Instead, we have arrived in a new age — one that provides a perfect breeding ground for the underdog to come out top. We're talking, of course, of the rise of independent beauty.

Glossier, Sunday Riley, and Drunk Elephant are just a handful of new-ish niche beauty labels that came from humble beginnings and then (miraculously) extended their appeal to the masses. Do they owe the entirety of their good fortune to the groundbreaking formulations of their products? Or have clever positioning and capitalisation of millennial values paid off? We concocted our theories, supported with concrete advice from the professionals. Here's everything you need to know about building a burgeoning beauty brand with a devoted following.

To build a cult beauty brand, you need... to find a niche.

The first step to establishing your presence in a field involves filling a void in the market. Something wholly unique that is invaluable to the community, whether designed, formulated, or coded, will catch on. Does your product resolve an issue previously thought unsolvable? Can it meet needs otherwise neglected, perhaps that of overlooked minority groups? Beyond that, timing is everything — introducing your labour of love at the right moment can make or break a business.

Skincare minimalist label, The Inkey List, is such a shining example. They burst onto the scene in 2018 as the clean beauty movement began to gain traction. People were picking up on the fact that mo' chemicals did not always equal mo' benefits, and The Inkey List positioned themselves parallel to these beliefs. Sure, customers could turn to Tata Harper, RMS Beauty, and Herbivore Botanicals to get their non-toxic fix, but it came at steep prices impossible to sustain on the average paycheck. The Inkey List swept in with their range of single-ingredient hard-hitters (e.g. retinol and hyaluronic acid) that deliver effective results at the "price of a couple of coffees".

To build a cult beauty brand, you need... strong branding.

A rule of thumb is that a business's name, packaging, and — most importantly — message should point towards its DNA. Take Jeffree Star Cosmetics. It prides itself on trendy, luxury-quality products that embodies its founder's larger-than-life personality. This branding is reflected in the OTT packaging (Magic Star Concealer comes with a literal crown topper), tongue-in-cheek names (e.g. 'Frostitute' Liquid Frost Highlighter), and its bold, out-there selection of hues ranging from black lipstick to blood red eyeshadow (see the Blood Sugar Palette).

Every decision Star has made in marketing is calculated. From the brand's major campaigns to their social media postings, content is carefully crafted to convey a loud, proud, and defiant persona. One that not just accepts, but rather, embraces the idea of makeup with no rules. Canary yellow liner, green lips, and gravity-defying falsies are the norm, and offerings housed in glittering, shimmer cases that are far from understated. There is no mistaking its signature stamp on any of its goods.

It is an important step as any, one that can take companies up to four to five years to really nail down. At least, that's according to Carol Hamilton, group president of acquisitions at L'Oreal. She revealed in a panel for the Indie Beauty Expo in 2018 that the key to constructing a solid image is to "know what those things are that differentiate your brand, so you can communicate it that quickly to everybody."

To build a cult beauty brand, you need... a hero product (or two).

As with most superhero origin stories, the rise of hyped beauty brands often follow a specific trajectory. Beginning, of course, with a winning product. Or two, if they're lucky. Glossier has Boy Brow, Sunday Riley has Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment, and The Ordinary has 2% Retinol Serum. The idea is to build a solid reputation around such first-rate formulas. They will gain customers's trust and give them the confidence to try other products from the same brand.

To build a cult beauty brand, you need... to create a community.

Due to oversaturation in the market, consumers have been shopping not only for products, but for experiences and personal touches in the beauty industry conglomerates aren't always able to provide on an intimate level. Purchasing at retail space over a counter is a cold and often lonely transactional affair. The activity is unlike that experienced on websites and social media channels of brands similar to Glossier; they often provide reliable reviews, ratings, and other two-way, communicative platforms that allow for discussions (and debates) between customers, as well as between buyers and customers. Within such spaces, beauty cognoscenti are able to find like-minded individuals, cultivating a sense of belonging and loyalty towards a label.

It is precisely this spirit that separates the outstanding from the ordinary. Alicia Yoon, founder of indie K-Beauty destination Peach & Lily, sums it up during her panel at the Indie Beauty Expo in 2018. "A lot of indie brands we carry are so great at really bringing the voice of the people. It's not just sharing a corporate message about a brand," she said. "Picking a brand these days feels a little bit like choosing friends, and a lot indie brands are so great at providing that warmth and connection."

To build a cult beauty brand, you need... to listen (and react) to your consumers accordingly.

The thing about living in a digital space is that we expect results — and responses — in the timeframe of a heartbeat. Whether a product name has unwittingly caused offense (Fenty Beauty's "Geisha Chic" Highlighter) or has fallen short in terms of formulation (Jaclyn Hill's lipstick debacle), a quick turnaround is not just expected, it's required to retain a customer's allegiance. Users want to feel that their opinions matter to the brands they're spending money on. They want to feel that they're heard, understood, and cared about; the impersonal approach utilised by large, faceless operations back in the day will get them nowhere in 2020.