Last week, the founder of a fast-growing beauty brand told me they were in a tough spot. A major retailer expressed interest in taking over the line – but with a caveat: it had to adopt “clean” messaging.
The problem, the founder told me, is that their brand, which launched a few years ago, never identified itself as clean or used that language in its marketing. The founder had even spoken publicly in the past about his dislike of the clean beauty trend. Suddenly adopting everything clean could alienate — or at least confuse — loyal customers.
They are not alone in their concern; Clean beauty has been embraced by niche and mainstream brands and retailers as a way to signal that their products are safer and more natural than the competition. But from the start, the movement has been criticized for its murky metrics (there’s no universally accepted definition for which ingredients are clean) and scaremongering marketing that suggests competitors are toxic or dangerous.
What should founders do? Should they let go of their beliefs on the scale? Or are they spending shelf space and millions of dollars in annual sales to stay true to their values?
Many beauty lines are willing to give up owning the customer relationship by entering into wholesale partnerships. These brands still have the luxury of building a digital ecosystem organized around the principles and causes they believe in. But partnering with a retailer also means adhering to that wholesaler’s terms. A retailer may have different ideas about how to advertise and display a brand’s products, or in the case of clean beauty, adopt an entirely different value system.
It’s tricky because a big part of why these ranges are successful in the first place is because they speak to a concept or trend that retailers haven’t been quick enough to grasp. Beauty brands, especially smaller or newer ones, can move online pretty quickly, especially after Covid. It’s hard when they need each other.
For years, retailers, beauty and non-beauty, have been narrowly focused on creating their own assortments. Everywhere, the definition of cleanliness remains at the discretion of whoever sells it, which means that Sephora’s cleanliness standards are different from Target’s, which are different from Goop’s and so on. Some have stricter standards than others.
There are even retailers entirely dedicated to selling skincare, makeup, and other beauty items free of parabens, silicones, and other ingredients that have been shown to be perfectly safe or would never be found in cosmetics. It reminds me of the (almost certainly apocryphal) story of the cannery marketing inferior white salmon as guaranteed to “never turn pink in the can” (not to mention that white salmon could, of course, never turn pink in first place) .
This begs an even bigger question: amid a growing anti-clean beauty sentiment, where a number of skincare brands are retreating from clean messaging, why are retailers clinging to the term?
Surely there is a compromise to be made. These stores are instrumental in setting trends, and it’s time to create new ones.
Maybe retailers could start by thinking more broadly about skincare and how it’s marketed and communicated to customers (and then branch out into makeup and hair, which have been influenced by cleansing, but not as far as skin care).
What about “Skin Barrier Health?” No one can dispute wanting skin to function properly or caring about the integrity of their skin. Or merchandising for skin care or skin needs? Admittedly, some people rely more on hydration than on exfoliation and vice versa, while others are looking for a surplus of active ingredients. Additionally, skin care needs vary by age; products designed for mature skin probably won’t resonate with a recent college graduate.
When I look at brands that have a long lifespan in the mass, prestige and luxury sectors, cleanliness is not the compelling differentiator. In a 2021 BoF case study, Cerave and Augustinus Bader were highlighted as successful skincare brands at opposite ends of the price spectrum — and neither identifies as own. Paula’s Choice is another great example of a brand that doesn’t market itself as “clean,” as is Pillowtalk Derm, Dr. Shereene Idriss’ skincare brand that has sold out multiple times since its launch last year. last. In fact, many of Sephora’s high-end lines aren’t marketed as “clean,” including The Ordinary, Glossier, and Sol de Janeiro.
As big trendsetters, retailers can shake up their marketing plans and introduce new buzzwords and terminology. If they succeed, through email marketing, in-store promotion, social media and more – boom – a beauty trend is born.
A departure from the proper term seems more appropriate than ever.