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Beauty’s Never-Ending Product Launch Cycle

Brands are betting that constant newness will drive sales, with some planning to double the number of releases this year. Is there a limit to how many products consumers are willing to try?
Harrods Beauty Hall's Skincare Emporium | Source: Courtesy

New York-based publicist Juliette Levy’s early days in beauty PR revolved around drumming up press for two big product launches per year. Over the course of six months or more, she would work with brands to map out a marketing plan, typically centred around an event with a guest list featuring editors, socialites, celebrities and, in more recent years, bloggers and influencers.

Most brands wouldn’t stop with a party, however. Members of the press would receive grandiose mailers months before products hit shelves, sometimes filled with dozens of items, plus digital screens filled with prerecorded videos.

All that time and money was spent to ensure each new item, be it a moisturiser or a mascara, was a blockbuster. At the biggest conglomerates, product releases might be scheduled as far as five years in advance, Levy said.

Times have changed. More brands rely on a constant stream of new products, rather than a handful of big launches, to drive sales. The pace is set by direct-to-consumer brands that come out with new items whenever they want. Customers expect monthly (or close to) launches from brands like ColourPop and Morphe or The Ordinary and The Inkey List, which rely on a new ingredient serum or palette to perennially drum up buzz.

“Consumers now have a larger role in guiding the product cadence and launch cycle,” said Levy, who owns her own boutique agency and works with colour and skin care lines like Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories, Peach & Lily, Huda Beauty, Kinship and BeautyCounter. “The rule book has been tossed out the window — and it needed to be.”

The pandemic accelerated this trend, as staging events became impossible and skin care brands rushed to release products to treat mask-related acne or perfect that Zoom glow.

Fred Khoury, co-founder of Above Rinaldi Labs, said his team worked on about 30 percent more skin care launches in 2020 than in the previous year. Most of those products will hit the market in 2021. Few companies cancelled launches planned before the pandemic, instead opting to shift their development to better fit changing consumer habits.

“There is always pressure to launch new skin care, but the amount of products that [are] being launched is just insane,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”

Traditionally, makeup, rather than skin care, lent itself to more frequent releases. It’s simpler to release an existing eye shadow or lip gloss in a different shade than develop a new eye cream. (Think of Urban Decay’s bestselling Naked eyeshadow palettes, of which there are now eight.)

Skin care is trying to mimic this cadence, despite the intensive R&D, active ingredients and clinical testing often required to bring a serum or exfoliator to market.

Marla Beck, co-founder of retailer Bluemercury and skin-care label M-61, said the pandemic was responsible for the early release of M-61′s extra strength peels next month. Beck said the stronger version of the brand’s bestselling glycolic and salicylic acid exfoliating peels fit into the DIY, self-care at-home trend that continues to gain momentum.

Beck, also the co-founder of makeup line Lune+Aster, said some colour launches were pushed because all focus went into bolstering M-61′s range.

“We completely transitioned and accelerated the products that we knew would do well,” Beck said. “If you look at our mix, it really is around what are the products people are using because of the pandemic?”

Jacqueline Flam, chief marketing officer of Pierre Fabre Group, which owns Eau Thermale Avene, Klorane, Rene Furterer and Glytone, said an uptick in the acne space informed Glytone’s decision to release 10 new products in 2021 (two of which were supposed to come out last year). In 2019, the skin care line launched two products.

Elana Drell Syzfer, chief executive of RéVive Skincare, said the brand will have eight launches this year, including seven products plus a tool. This is double the launches that took place in 2019.

“There are brands launching a lot of product and are sometimes educating the entire market quickly on different concepts, whether it be hyaluronic acid, niacinamide or Vitamin C,” Drell Syzfer said. RéVive started a blog to tell customers about various products’ ingredients.

Many companies have had to abandon the “secret” sauces and carefully told stories that fuelled past success, opting instead for marketing around what’s inside the products. That’s easier to do when an item has just one ingredient when advertising and influencer testimonials can quickly get consumers up to speed on the latest obscure plant extract or chemical.

Sourcing and creating single-ingredient products is also faster and easier, according to Dr Ranella Hirsch, a Cambridge, Mass.-based dermatologist. Brands, playing on consumers’ familiarity of buzz words like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, Vitamin C and glycolic acid, can bottle products and drop them online with shorter lead times.

“You have all of these releases coming out where they’re giving you item by item by item,” Dr Hirsch said. They’re a brand favourite for two reasons: they allow for constant newness customers never buy just one. “There is just nothing innovative coming out of this at all.”


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