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Behind the Business of Beauty Dupes

A new breed of beauty brands is taking a page from fast fashion, winning business by offering cheap and accessible 'dupes' of it-products.
Source: Instagram users @makeup_rev_pt, @miss_criss09, @sundancegirl, @actorslife_beautybleedsmua, @dia.mak@sophiesbeauty2
  • Helena Pike

LONDON, United Kingdom — When Kylie Jenner's Kylie Lip Kit launched in November 2015, it sold out in under a minute, setting Twitter and Instagram alight with emoji-laden declarations of joy and frustration. The response to the reality TV and social media star's $29 matte liquid lipstick and lip liner set wasn't entirely surprising, of course. Anticipation had been building on social media for months, turning the launch into a hotly-anticipated event and driving increased interest in special-edition, limited-release products amongst beauty players.

But for shoppers left empty-handed, beauty “dupes” — or alternative products that are cheaper and more accessible, but close enough in colour and finish to pass for the real thing — are becoming more attractive and a new wave of nimble, rapid-response beauty brands that can get a dupe to market before the hype dies down are capitalising on what can be golden opportunities.

Creating a successful “dupe” — one deemed by the online beauty community to be a near-perfect match to a cult product like the Kylie Lip Kit — can be worth “millions and millions of dollars” for a brand, says Karen Grant, global beauty industry analyst at NPD Group.

“The right product can always give a brand overnight success… the same is true for something that is a good dupe,” agrees Christine Mielke, founder of Temptalia, a beauty blog that includes a searchable catalogue of more than 75,000 dupes.

Certainly, consumers are more willing than ever to take a chance on a dupe. While copycat beauty products are not a new phenomenon, they have found legitimacy in recent years thanks to the rise of beauty bloggers willing to endorse them. “Before, people might have been a bit apprehensive [about using a dupe] and they considered that [a lower] price meant lower quality. But these digital influencers are passing on confidence to the consumer to take the risk on a mass product,” says Hannah Symons, beauty and personal care associate analyst at Euromonitor.

According to Google Trends, interest in the search term “beauty dupe” has almost tripled since January last year. And the online beauty space has no shortage of YouTube accounts, Reddit forums, Instagram feeds and apps dedicated to helping consumers find the perfect dupe.

It's about instant gratification. They want it now. They don't want to have to wait six months for it to come back in stock.

The popularity of dupes has also been buoyed by the decline of brand loyalty and quickening trend cycles. Consumers care more and more about getting hold of a similar product sooner, rather than the original item later. “It’s about instant gratification. They want it now. They don’t want to have to wait six months for it to come back in stock,” says Symons.

The brands that are most successful at tapping the dupe opportunity are generally those which are fastest to market with new products. While heritage beauty brands often take a year or two to get a new product to market, “fast beauty” companies like NYX, Colourpop, Kiko and E.L.F. have successfully applied the principles of fast fashion to the cosmetics industry, introducing new trend-led products every couple of weeks, while keeping prices low. Critically, they also have the agility to rebrand and remarket existing products as dupes when the opportunity emerges.

Beauty dupes are marketed primarily online and through social media. The name and the description of a dupe typically includes SEO-friendly terms so the product appears alongside — or even ahead of — the original cult item in online search. Marketing campaigns directly comparing dupes to original products have also proved successful for NYX, which, shortly after the Kylie Lip Kit sold out, sent an email blast to customers promoting its lookalike.

According to a report by research firm L2, Colourpop and NYX own the first two organic results for “matte liquid lipstick” on Google, while NYX, E.L.F. and Colourpop are among the top five most visible brands online for “matte liquid lipstick.” It’s not surprising then, says the report, that Colourpop and E.L.F. are amongst the top 50 best-selling beauty brands on Amazon.

Beauty dupes are also great marketing. “It’s as much about getting your brand in front of consumers as it is selling one particular product that is a mimic of a different one. It’s about awareness and increasing your consumer base,” says Charlotte Libby, senior beauty analyst at Mintel. “When the trend for the Kylie Lip Kit dies out, I’m sure NYX will continue to be a brand that consumers now know to turn to for trending, lower cost products,” adds Giulia Prati, associate director for beauty at L2.

For the beauty brands behind the must-have products driving trends in the first place, however, dupes are a mixed blessing. “It is creating a lot of hype around the original product, but on the other hand, it is taking away [sales] from their product as well,” explains Libby.

“If you are the leader in a category and you launch a product and you educate the market, then when you have the competition coming up with another product, they do gain some market share,” says Maria Hatzistefanis, founder of skincare brand Nip and Fab, which has experienced extensive “duping” of its “Glycolic Fix” cleansing pads, which, when launched three years ago, were the first product of its kind to use glycolic acid as an exfoliant.

When the trend for the Kylie Lip Kit dies, I'm sure NYX will continue to be a brand that consumers turn to for trending, low cost products.

As a result, some brands are working to reduce the time it takes to restock items to reduce loss of sales, while others are releasing products more frequently to try and balance exclusivity with sales volume.

For 2017, cosmetics brand Kat Von D will release new shades of its “Everlasting Liquid Lipstick” in monthly drops. At the start of each month, a limited quantity of a new colour will be available to buy online for 48 hours only, several weeks ahead of its in-store release. “People are trying to move away from the whole limited-edition notion,” says Symons, who believes Kat Von D’s strategy combines “the best of both worlds.”

“They’re building the hysteria and the hype by having it online-only for 48 hours, but then they are going to release the rest of the volume of the stock in the shop two or three weeks later,” she says.

Trend-driven products have inherently limited lifespans, of course. But there are ways to extend the halo of one-hit-wonder items to other products, extracting additional value and mitigating risk. Nip and Fab has expanded its “Glycolic Fix” range to comprise 10 different products, with a further five in the pipeline. “By bringing new formats and building a regime rather than a one-hit wonder… we continue to have this strong following,” explains Hatzistefanis. “When the Glycolic pads are potentially not as exciting anymore, we’re in a position where we have a lot of other products out in the market.”

Heritage beauty brands, which typically have long product development lead times and release products on a seasonal schedule, are under increased pressure to become more flexible in order to compete in a market where the trend cycles turns faster and faster and speed and agility are critical. “Whereas it used to be the strategy that you had to think about when they make an investment, ‘Will it last for three years or five years,’ now it’s ‘Can we ride this new wave for a few months? How quickly can we just turn something out of this movement before it moves again?’” says NPD’s Karen Grant.

In response, some traditional beauty players are buying up smaller brands with nimble research and development models. L’Oreal, for instance, acquired NYX cosmetics in 2014.

“Ultimately, a brand’s ability to be agile is going to start to define how successful they are in today’s market,” says Temptalia’s Mielke. “Brands that take longer to respond are see as out of touch — as followers rather than industry leaders.”

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