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How Candles Explain What’s Happening in the Beauty Industry

As the candle category has boomed, the product now matters just as much as the branding around it — a sentiment reflected across beauty.
This week, private equity firm New Castle Partners bought a majority stake in home fragrance brand Nest.
This week, private equity firm New Castle Partners bought a majority stake in home fragrance brand Nest. (Courtesy)

Earlier this week, Nest, an early player in the now-ubiquitous prestige candle category, announced it had a new owner.

North Castle Partners, a private equity firm, led an investor group that acquired a majority stake in the brand, which had been majority owned by Eurazeo, another PE firm, since 2017.

When brands are passed from owner to owner — as opposed to becoming part of a strategic’s portfolio — it can be a sign that all is not well. Either sales are slumping or management is worried about the company’s future. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Nest: the brand has posted growth since Eurazeo’s investment in 2017, according to WWD, which reported that sales tripled in that time.

Still, the transaction does point to ongoing changes in the home scent and fragrance category, namely that there are more entrants and a lower barrier to entry than ever before. Candles and perfume were winners during the pandemic (no surprise there, people stuck at home wanted their environments to smell nice). Perhaps more unexpectedly, the boom has continued even as some other Covid-era trends have sputtered. According to NPD, in the 12 months ending September 2022, sales for home scents were $310.5 million, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Overall, prestige fragrance sales in the US for the same period were $7.1 billion, up 22 percent from the year before.

Founded in 2008, Nest was one of a few brands that set the tone for the prestige home scent category. It was selling its candles at retailers like Sephora, Ulta Beauty, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s well before every beauty brand had a candle line, and at prices above what consumers were used to paying at Yankee Candle (Nest’s popular 8.1 oz. candle size costs $46).

When Nest first launched in the home scent market, its appeal was as an affordable luxury. Now, thanks to an influx of newer lines, as well as existing brands growing their home scent offerings, that’s a harder proposition to base a business on.

In recent years, luxury candles have become more mainstream, an easy way to buy into a fragrance brand. Someone may not want to spend upwards of $250 on a perfume, but they may be more willing to spend $72 on a Le Labo candle so their house smells like santal. Byredo, Tom Ford Beauty, D.S. & Durga, Le Labo, Jo Malone London and Malin+Goetz have cornered the high-end candle market.

The middle of the market, where Nest has thrived, is getting more crowded too. Otherland, Boy Smells and Dedcool have joined the space and Glossier recently released its “You” candle, which costs $45, a dollar less than Nest’s candle of a similar size. Sephora sells 257 different candles online from about 20 brands, compared with about 180 two years ago.

The proliferation of “luxury” candles was a sign of things to come for the rest of the beauty industry. Making a good product in almost any category has become easier in the last five years; the easiest and lowest barrier to entry is probably candles and home scent. To make a great candle, you need to fill a vessel with wax and a wick. There are nuances, like percentage of fragrance oil and “throw” (how a scent circulates), but mostly, it’s about packaging and the scent. There hasn’t been much innovation in terms of candles themselves.

In other words, “brand” is now everything, replacing convenience (Yankee Candle’s ubiquitous mall stores), or even price as the key differentiator for consumers. Today, any company that wants to sell candles can sell candles, and they can come up with a solid product. Once you decide on a scent and add a signature — Le Labo’s dented tin vessels, for instance — it’s a product that could be brought to market quickly. It’s harder to stand out, so you’re left with the hardest moat to build, which is the brand. Byredo, D.S. & Durga, Otherland have managed to do this, and at different price points. (Otherland’s candles are $36 while D.S. & Durga’s are $65).

Maria Dempsey, Nest’s chief executive officer, said the brand has innovated by way of marketing, putting ingredient stories and “wellness” — two leading beauty trends — at the forefront of messaging. The line incorporated eucalyptus, chamomile, Himalayan salt and other “time-honoured botanicals that are known to improve mind, body and spirit.” The Clarity collection that debuted last year included a candle with wild mint and eucalyptus, ingredients known for their “invigorating” qualities, was the most successful launch in the brand’s history, according to Dempsey.

The focus here is candles, but the thesis that “brand” is everything extends to every category, from skin care and makeup to celebrities starting beauty brands. It’s harder to differentiate from the pack, and new entrants with similar-seeming products are popping up all the time.

Dempsey thinks Nest’s positioning — not super luxurious, but not particularly affordable either — is an asset.

“It [candles] used to be a specialty item, now it’s for everyone. College kids are burning candles. It’s become part of everyone’s daily life,” Dempsey said.

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