How to build a successful Singapore skincare brand

How to build a successful Singapore skincare brand

Face up

Text: Renée Batchelor

Singapore beauty brands have been making strides over the past three years. Buro speaks to Skin Inc's Sabrina Tan, Allies of Skin's Nicolas Travis and ANIA's Mehdi Elaichouni to find out what it takes to grow your brand beyond this competitive city

When it comes to beauty products, what are you putting on your face? Chances are it's a product that is not made or conceptualised here, whether it's a trusted Japanese serum, a French facial mist or a made in Korea mask. Perhaps if you're adventurous, you've tried an organic facial oil from the US or a scrub from a UK brand.

Singaporeans have traditionally looked beyond their shores for their beauty staples, perhaps because the heavy investments spent on marketing and branding have lured them to the major brands that sit in the halls of our department stores. And for those who love online shopping, it has made niche and cult brands available at the the click of a button and the flip of a credit card. When Sephora finally opened with a bang in 2009, the access to skincare, makeup and hair brands hit a new high for the Singapore-based shopper. But still, it was always the international or top Asian brands that won their hard-earned dollars. Even if there were Singapore brands many of them were not scaled up, or sold outside of doctor's clinics for them to really get big, especially beyond our shores.

But that has changed of late, with the launch of two Singapore-based skincare brands that have gone international in a big way: Skin Inc and Allies of Skin. Founded by Sabrina Tan and Nicolas Travis respectively, both have expanded in impressive ways, retailing not just here and online, but in physical stores in the US, Europe and beyond — giving a presence to Singapore skincare that has heretofore not been witnessed. And young and growing brands like ANIA, founded by Moroccan-born and Singapore-based Mehdi Elaichouni, are also taking note. Is there a formula for success? Well a quality product is always a good starting point. But with an increasingly savvy and discerning customer and an overcrowded beauty market, how does one stand out, especially without the backing of a huge cosmetics company? 


Any successful brand begins with a good product. For Sabrina Tan, it was the idea of creating customised serums when she started Skin Inc in 2008. Seeing itself as a beauty disruptor, the brand strongly believes in the idea that skincare is not a one-size-fits-all product. Skin Inc has also invested in developing its skin diagnostic tools for online, enabling women to do questionnaires and establish which blend of customised serums — dubbed My Daily Dose — would work for them. Says Tan, "Singapore is a very sophisticated market although we are small. Being a sophisticated market, it is an audience of well-informed, educated women. If you can conquer such a competitive market, you can scale it pretty fast." Nicolas Travis, the founder and creator of Allies of Skin, whose aim is to create smart and effective products for the modern multi-hyphenate says, "Singapore is a great place to test a concept especially when it comes to beauty. We're one of the top consumers of beauty in the region and it's set to grow even more in the next couple of years." 
"Singapore is a very sophisticated market although we are small. Being a sophisticated market, it is an audience of well-informed, educated women. If you can conquer such a competitive market, you can scale it pretty fast." — Sabrina Tan

There are thousands of skincare and beauty brands around the world. So what makes yours different? This is something any brand owner needs to figure out from the get-go. Says Travis, "[The] concept and quality is extremely important. The parameters for success are the same around the world: Success boils down to if your product works and if you're able to properly convey the value of said products. You stand out by identifying a white space in the industry for yourself and having razor-sharp focus on growing in that space." For Elaichouni it was his identity and African heritage that was the basis for his brand. "For ANIA, the idea of a brand inspired by my African roots came first. To make sure it had business potential, I spent a lot of time studying the skincare market in Singapore. I wanted to identify the most popular categories and most importantly the ones forecasted to grow in the next five years to uncover potential niches that no one owned yet."

Again building any brand has to be a considered and sometimes lengthy process at the start. Says Travis, "Everything has to be on point – the formula, the right packaging, the right story. It helps to have a product or concept that no one else has seen before. Be authentic and create a story that is compelling – either visually or through touchpoints." Tan agrees that it can be challenging marketing and selling to a local audience. "Singaporeans are super cynical. We are critical to our own brands and we are not as patriotic to our own brands", she says.

Travis disagrees with the notion that Singaporeans are somewhat disloyal when it comes to supporting local, but understands that some brands may experience stumbling blocks. He notes, "We're very grateful to have been so readily accepted by Singaporeans. Our experience is that Singaporeans want to support and buy local. There is a pride that they have. However, I do understand the stigma and the skepticism surrounding local brands; but as mentioned, that is negated when you have a great product." For Elaichouni, he believes that in this changing world, it is sometimes global brands that are at a disadvantage, "I don't think that there is a stigma surrounding local brands, or maybe I just don't want to see it. On the contrary, is can be said that global brands are surrounded by a stigma of not being ethical and not caring for people, animals and the planet."


Once you've settled on the concept and the products you want to push out, it's important to find a means of getting it out there. For Travis it meant hustling hard to get his brand in the high-end places he felt Allies of Skin should be in. "We had to deal with skepticism: 'Why do you only have three products?' is the question that I got asked the most. No retailer wants to bring on a brand that will fizzle and die out. That was quickly assuaged once they tried the products and saw the noticeable difference the products can give. Every single beauty buyer was sold after they've tried our three-piece regimen. This was how we were able to get into all the best luxury stores around the world." 

For Elaichouni it is important to conquer the market here first, before he pushes for expansion for ANIA. "At the moment, we are focused on expanding our business here in Singapore. I believe that you should never expand to new shores unless you have a very stable business that you can replicate and we don't have that yet. I think of my business as a restaurant, and if I want to open the second one, the second entity needs to be able to operate without me being there all the time and guarantee the same level of product and service quality. If you walk into a MacDonald's in Cairo and order a Big Mac, it will probably taste the same as the one you get in Singapore," he adds.


With globalisation and connectivity being at the highest levels it's ever been at, the notion of a global brand has changed somewhat. Says Travis, "My strategy was always a global one. I knew that I had to venture out of the country to help create and sustain the buzz. The first rule of business was to nail down the brand association and build our distribution channel consisting of the best luxury retailers around the world. The positive association that that brings is tremendously helpful for a new startup such as Allies of Skin."

For Tan, it was looking beyond these perhaps, outdated idea of local versus global. "I don't see Skin Inc as 'local'. From day one, my team was international — right now we have 15 nationalities working for us. The idea of a global brand is changing with millennials. The borders are already down. We are global citizens. Where you manufacture your products is very important, but more people have seen us a global brand from day one. In fact many customers weren't sure where exactly Skin Inc came from."

It should be noted that most Skin Inc products are manufactured in Japan, while its new masks are created in Korea. Similarly, all Allies of Skin products are made in the US, and ANIA sources its ingredients from African countries. While Singapore beauty brands have done well overseas it does seem that manufacturing plants and research and development facilities are still not at the levels of traditionally strong skincare players like the US and Japan.

If you're a brand owner looking to succeed, our insiders have some advice for you. Travis says "Take your time to create the best product you can. You only get one chance to make an impact and an impression so make it the best possible one." Travis knows what he is talking about, as he has managed to attract big players, with his brand being stocked in online portals like Net-A-Porter, as well as hallowed retail spots like Joyce in Hong Kong and Barneys in the US, based on the strength of his first, three products.

"You can't sell something you don't believe in so believe in yourself and your products because people will be able to sense and feel your passion; and that will make you stand out." — Nicolas Travis

For Elaichouni, he believes that a good dose of fighting spirit helps. "Be ready to fight. It's an incredibly competitive market, but it is possible to create a beauty brand if you have something different and if you treat it as a business early on and not just a hobby. It always starts with an idea, but an idea is not and will never be a business." As a smaller-scale business Elaichouni believes you can still compete using the resources you have, "You have to evaluate market demand for your product or brand idea very quickly. You don't need to hire an expensive research agency, you have numerous ways and tools you can use. Before launching ANIA we used Google Trends and the Google Keyword planner to evaluate interest by looking at the volume of searches and the competition around them. You can also look at what type of content is ranking in Google to have an idea of what you will be competing against."


And lastly don't be afraid to get honest feedback on your product. Says Elaichouni, "Don’t hesitate to just speak to people and get their feedback. The best is to talk to strangers — friends and family can be biased— and get them to try your product and ask them if they would pay for it." For Tan, being critical and acting as a paying customer will point you in the right direction. "You have to be so honest with yourself and ask — would I pay for this... would I do this?" Having good intuition and an understanding of whether your product will work in the market — and if people are willing to pay for it — is perhaps the biggest key to attaining success in the global arena.