The indie brand revolution is unfurling before our eyes, with one inspiring brand founder after the next seducing customers with one-of-a-kind products and stories of passion. At the heart of this is the irresistible single-mindedness of entrepreneurs with a vision to innovate, create and connect with like-minded people on social media.
Increasingly, indie beauty is big business, with significant recent acquisitions including Coty acquiring a 60% stake in social selling beauty brand Younique for about $600 million in cash, Estée Lauder’s purchase of Becca Cosmetics for an undisclosed sum and Unilever’s purchase of Living Proof, also for an undisclosed sum.
A recent report from Kline Group (www.klinegroup.com) scoped out the latest batch of what it deemed “Beauty’s Most Buyable Brands.” The criteria included brands with a strong following and a point of difference. According to Kline, top buyable beauty brands tend to cluster in makeup and skin care and include:
- Anastasia Beverly Hills (on-trend color cosmetics)
- Drunk Elephant (non-toxic skin care)
- Josie Maran (natural and eco-friendly skin care)
- Milk Makeup (genderless, on-the-go, easy-to-use makeup)
- NudeStix (on-the-go beauty)
What is Indie?
“Independent brands offer a deeper emotional connection to consumers,” said Nader Naeymi-Rad, co-founder of the Indie Brand Expo (IBE). “They are about discovery and curiosity.”
Launched in 2015, IBE is a fast-growing tradeshow that showcases rising indie brands. It enables indie owners (those who control at least 50% of the brands they operate) to meet a spectrum of buyers, from top retailers like Sephora, HSN and Whole Foods, to smaller channels (“the cousins of indie brands, except on the retail side”) like Detox Market, Cult Beauty and Credo.
Customization, Heart and Design: A Powerful Combination
“What’s providing oxygen to the market is the distinct shift in consumer preferences,” said Naeymi-Rad. Today, people are looking for innovation, customized solutions, products that suit their values, lifestyles and demographics, and which are environmentally friendly. In short, non-mainstream products.
The change in consumer preferences also extends to how people are shopping for beauty, shifting from celebrity-driven advertising to influencer YouTube videos as a key purchase driver.
“Consumers are moving away from old, established brands that have been over-marketed,” said Naeymi-Rad. “Women look up less to movie stars and more and more to people who overcame big odds and have made a difference. A founder’s story and a mission-oriented business, like [skin care brand] Violets Are Blue, are very appealing to consumers. It’s harder for large multinationals like P&G to infuse authenticity in their brands like indies do.”
“Consumers are moving away from old, established brands that have been over-marketed.”
The founder story of Violets are Blue’s Cynthia Besteman is emblematic of Naeymi-Rad’s point. Besteman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and quickly cleared her lifestyle of anything toxic or misleading labeled as natural or organic. This, paired with a love of formulating her own skin care, led Besteman to develop Violets Are Blue four years ago.
The brand comprises natural ingredients and has a simple motto: “skin care does not have to be complicated; in fact, keeping it simple is best.” Besteman’s personal story is at the heart of her branding and marketing, something that is difficult if not impossible for multinational brands to replicate.
Aesthetics and supply dynamics also play a role. Naeymi-Rad explained, “Twenty years ago, indie products looked grungy, now they look prestige. As demand has gone up, supply has become easier. This, coupled with e-commerce removing barriers to entry, and access to digital influencers, has leveled the playing field.”
So what makes an indie brand stand out to retailers? “There is a desire for a more elevated natural beauty,” said Leilah Mundt, founder and CEO of Crème Collective, a beauty and wellness brand management agency that acts as a matchmaker between indie brands and retailers.
The agency counts brands such as Rituel de Fille, Patyka, Worker B, The Beauty Chef and Vapour Organic Beauty in its portfolio. It’s telling that Crème Collective receives five to 10 submissions per week from indie founders. Indeed, demand for indie brands is increasing exponentially, and is said to be in the double-digits, or two to three times the overall market, according to a recent Kline study.
To meet that demand, Mundt and her team focus on helping brands get retail-ready, which translates into making sure that all the elements of a brand are aligned before the agency finds a retail home for its clients.
“A new breed of retailers are gravitating toward brands with high quality products, sophisticated packaging and an active founder that is taking the messaging forward,” said Mundt. “We get to know brand owners and their story, and do all the vetting on behalf of retailers. I have no interest in getting a brand into a retailer that is not a good fit.”
“A new breed of retailers are gravitating toward brands with high quality products, sophisticated packaging and an active founder that is taking the messaging forward.”
Of course the products must deliver on efficacy, but indie brands must also have a unique story to tell if they are to rise above the fray.
“There is so much emotion that goes into building a brand,” said Therese Clark, partner and head of creative at Crème Collective. “You can’t copy or manufacture the authenticity of indie brands. Brand-builders can get stuck in product development. We are able to coach a brand if something is a little off with the messaging or the packaging needs to be changed.”
The Beauty Learning Curve
Indie Beauty Expo also provides support to entrepreneurs with its pre-show Connect Indie workshops, which enable brand owners to learn and network with other founders, as well as industry experts.
“Buyers are also realizing that they need to adjust the way they work with indie brands, by incubating them and building a relationship with them,” said Naeymi-Rad. “Indies are not L’Oréal. They don’t have a global supply chain, so buyers need to work without those capabilities. It’s about discovering indie gems and finding the best way to work with them.”
"Mindful retail buyers are looking for brands with real value.”
Niche retailers with a smaller footprint are geared to work with indie brands, said Naeymi-Rad. For many small brands, indie retailers such as CAP Beauty in New York City and Shen Beauty in Brooklyn are the best places to start when it comes to distribution.
Naeymi-Rad continued, “Everyone wants a piece of Ulta’s business. The smaller retailers can’t beat Ulta by price or local presence in suburban strip malls, so they promote a differentiated brand selection. Mindful retail buyers are looking for brands with real value.”
Some large retailers, such as Urban Outfitters, are also aggressively scouting indie brands at IBE, according to Naeymi-Rad, making them the newest havens for indie beauty. For Crème Collective, this knowledge helped them place Vapour Organic Beauty, a color cosmetics brand with synthetic-chemical-free formulations in its portfolio, at fashion retailer Free People (part of the URBN portfolio). Other brands, such as luxury green skin care brand Patyka, have found a retail home in fast-growing, natural beauty emporiums such as Credo.
Making Retail Connections
Sephora spotlights its own selection of indie brands via its Scouted By Sephora program, enabling brands such as athleisure beauty player Yuni (“mindful beauty for an active life”) to gain prominent distribution.
“For a small indie brand, starting to work with large retailers is an important step as it requires much more planning and investment [than a small indie retailer],” said Emmanuel Rey, co-founder of Yuni. “It takes time to adjust to the various departments involved, including merchants, marketing, e-comm, logistics and finance.”
By contrast, working with smaller retailers—such as luxury e-tailer Cult Beauty, with which Yuni recently partnered—brings out different facets of the relationship.
“Smaller indie retailers have a very personal relationship with brand founders, and it is very easy to formulate and put in place an overall plan,” said Rey. “That said, with a big retailer, once the fundamentals are in place, it is usually quite easy.”
He concluded, “The indie revolution is obviously fueled by the information access through digital and social media, but also by a certain defiance of young consumers toward big corporations in general. There is a true thirst for authenticity and to be able to connect almost directly to the founders. In this respect, we are amazed by the amount of direct personal communication we receive.”
Laura Ziv is a creative brand strategist specializing in beauty, fragrance and personal care. Her work spans trend analysis, innovation, ideation and concept development for brands. Ziv has a Master of Arts from Oxford University, and previously worked as a magazine writer and editor for international magazines based in New York.