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How Beauty’s Cultiest Cult Brand Plans to Grow Without Selling Out

Biologique Recherche’s growth trajectory has been remarkable and demand for the brand and the uber-popular P50 has never been higher. But it won’t leave the niche professional spa channel for wider distribution, despite landing new investors.
P50 has become a holy grail for users, with tight distribution and an almost obsessive control over buying channels | Collage by BoF
By
  • Cheryl Wischhover
BoF PROFESSIONAL

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NEW YORK, United States —  The smell has been described as "the quart of milk you pushed to the back of the fridge and forgot about," "salad dressing" and "hot garbage." Yet the Olsen twins, Brad Pitt and numerous beauty insiders reportedly swear by the glow-inducing properties of lotion P50, the marquee product from French luxury spa brand Biologique Recherche.

P50 is a chemical exfoliator that predates by decades the standard-bearers of today’s topical acid craze, such as Sunday Riley’s "Good Genes" and Drunk Elephant’s "Babyfacial". It comes in multiple formulations for different skin types featuring ingredients like vinegar and horseradish. But the original “1970” version favoured most by true brand believers contains an even more caustic ingredient: phenol, an antiseptic, sometimes found in sore throat sprays, that is prohibited for use in cosmetics in some countries. Even so, Biologique Recherche says the phenol-charged 1970 formula makes up about half of P50 sales.

How a smelly, face-scorching toner became a skin-care holy grail is a story of tight distribution, measured growth and an almost obsessive devotion to keeping it out of unauthorised channels like Amazon. The hype around P50 is all the more remarkable coming at the peak of the "clean" beauty movement, whose adherents shun chemicals like phenol. Not to mention the product is difficult to buy; Biologique Recherche doesn't sell its products at traditional beauty retailers, preferring the professional spa channel almost exclusively, with minimal online availability.

In short: by pointedly going against today’s hottest beauty trends, Biologique Recherche has created an outsized mystique and stoked desire for its products, escaping the obscurity of other expensive spa brands. Sales are up 25 percent this year, to almost €50 million ($55 million).

In an age of transparency, they're very comfortable being a little less than that.

"In an age of transparency, they're very comfortable being a little less than that," said Jamie Rosen, a consultant and beauty editor who works with The Conservatory at Hudson Yards and Town & Country magazine. "That's one of the many things that makes them unusual and different from every other brand that people are obsessed with."

Rosen said that for years she has heard from makeup artists, retailers and brand owners who have tried to work with Biologique Recherche, to no avail.

“We would have loved to work with the brand,” said one veteran beauty retail executive. “We did reach out to them, but it was complex.”

Early in the 2010s, when interest in skincare was starting to hit the mainstream, sites like Into the Gloss were talking up P50. Dozens of fashion and beauty industry insiders and models have included the product in the “top shelfies” they have shared with the beauty site, and a review of P50 is currently one of Into the Gloss’s most popular posts. Glossier now sells its own version, called Solution.

P50 has since been featured everywhere from The Telegraph to The New York Times, where in 2014, author and actress Jill Kargman told the paper, "You'd think it was a military nuclear bomb formula — and it smells beyond, like something you'd pour in your car engine."

Biologique Recherche has no plans to expand to more traditional retailers, despite a new infusion of cash and plans for growth. This month, the company took on investors — three European family offices (the Van Rapparts, the Freres and Christopher Descours) and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman emeritus of the Nestlé Group, as first reported by WWD.

"We had been looking for partners who understand the essence of Biologique Recherche, which is a professional brand dedicated to personalised treatments," Co-President Pierre-Louis Delapalme told BoF. It will use the investment for research and development, to explore new partnerships and to improve its manufacturing and logistics capabilities.

Our challenge is to beat that kind of organic growth but at the same time, keep the quality.

Delapalme and Co-President Rupert Schmid, who both joined the company in 2007, bought a majority stake five years ago from the Allouche family, which founded the brand in 1978. Dr. Philippe Allouche, the charismatic son of Biologique Recherche’s founder, is the face of the company and its head of creation.

The brand operates 40 spas globally, though only one in the US, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Otherwise, just over 150 independent spas and hotel properties carry the brand in the US and purchase the products for their back bars. Of these, a smaller number sell the products online. For potential customers to even view pricing, let alone purchase P50, they must register online with authorised retailers, such as the Paul Labrecque Salon in New York City. Bottles of Lotion P50 1970 cost $68 or $108. A facial incorporating the product starts at $180 and goes up to $500 for a full-body version.

“They don’t want people buying randomly,” said Paul Grasso, the co-owner of the Paul Labrecque Salon, which has carried and offered services with Biologique Recherche products since the late 1990s. To purchase via the salon online, customers are encouraged to get personalised skin care advice first, though it’s not a hard requirement. Grasso said that about a dozen people a day do this before purchasing.

The brand intends to continue doing business this way, because it still sees an opportunity for growth in the professional spa market, especially as self-care and wellness merge with beauty. In 2017, the last year data is available, there were over 149,000 spas worldwide and revenues exceeded $93 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Delapalme said the market is growing 8 to 10 percent annually.

“Our challenge is to beat that kind of organic growth but at the same time, keep the quality,” he said.

In the US, Biologique Recherche sees potential for more spa partnerships in places like Chicago and the West Coast, where the brand has less presence. But it doesn’t plan to dramatically widen distribution in cities where multiple locations offer access to the product.

“We will stick with [our partners] and not open dozens of spas. We will remain exclusive in a way,” said brand Co-President Schmid. “There is a lot of space left for a brand like ours without changing the rules of the game.”

The executives know what kind of sales they are potentially giving up by not offering their products widely in traditional retail channels. La Mer, which is about 10 years older than Biologique Recherche, surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2018.

There is a lot of space left for a brand like ours without changing the rules of the game.

“Of course in retail you have much bigger numbers ... We are probably refusing an opportunity to grow faster because we have decided to focus on a smaller market, but it’s a market where we really have time to give advice, check the skin and deliver personalisation,” said Delapalme.

Still, as upscale department stores have focused more of their beauty strategies on experiences, Biologique Recherche has formed limited partnerships with some. It has dedicated counters and treatment rooms at Liberty in London, Le Bon Marche in Paris, and, as of this September, Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.

The brand has over 130 different SKUs, which are incorporated into a six-step methodology. Lotion P50 is the baseline for most of the treatments, including in newer formulations for the body and scalp.

But the product is still the gateway to the brand. Grasso at the Paul Labrecque Salon sees this on a daily basis. He says periodically there have even been shortages. The enthusiasm for that product gets new customers in the door, many of whom ultimately do try other Biologique Recherche products and book services.

“As people experience P50 they’re like, ‘Wow!’ and the logical next step is ‘OK, what next?’” said Grasso.

Even with products so tightly distributed, products end up on Amazon, which is a pain point for many prestige brands that choose not to sell there via its luxury beauty marketplace. Biologique Recherche’s bottles are labelled with a tag developed in France, also used by fine wine and watch companies, which allows customers to scan it to be sure the product is legitimate. Biologique Recherche often repurchases their product from Amazon, retail upcharge and all, to get it out of those channels and to protect consumers from unauthorized sellers.

Most of the products that end up on Amazon are purchased in multiples by retail buyers and sold at inflated prices. Grasso said recently a batch on Amazon was traced to his salon, but that they usually can catch potential resellers. The salon’s online system works to flag shoppers who buy a suspicious amount, like one recently who was buying three bottles a day. The salon frequently denies people purchases.

Still, plenty of customers are buying legitimately. Rosen, the beauty consultant, said, “[Editors] who are used to getting everything for free pay for it, and happily so.”

THIS WEEK IN BEAUTY

If it feels like there might be too many eye shadow palettes, you're not wrong. In the wake of plummeting makeup sales, here's a look at the extremely crowded beauty brand marketplace and the implications.

Estée Lauder has a new beauty line. The great-granddaughter of Estée Lauder, Danielle Lauder, is launching a brand aimed at Gen Z and inspired by Old Hollywood.

Perhaps makeup's problems can be blamed on the VSCO girls. A subset of teen girls are eschewing makeup for a more natural look achieved by mists and lip balm, and the industry may be feeling the effects.

But: Euphoria-inspired makeup is a potential bright spot for brands. Who did it first: teen drama Euphoria or Pat McGrath? A report on the colourful, artistic makeup showing up on runways.

Jeff Bezos ghosted Gwyneth Paltrow. The Goop founder admitted to making some mistakes early in her Goop business, and also said that she tried to reach out to the Amazon founder for mentoring, to no avail.

Yes, another CBD story. CBD is a runaway trend in beauty, but the health concerns affecting the vaping market could bleed over to beauty.

Other brands going after Botox. Merz, which makes Botox competitor product Xeomin, is restructuring and putting medical aesthetics at the core of its business.

Here's a way for beauty brands to be more transparent. UK-based beauty e-commerce site Cult Beauty has partnered with Provenance, a company that analyses product ingredients using blockchain to provide more supply chain transparency to customers.

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