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How Big Brands Can Adopt a Start-Up Mindset

In beauty’s entrepreneur-driven era of personal connection and authenticity, nothing’s less cool, or more (perhaps unfairly) maligned than being part of the system. Sarah Brown talks to the pros about how to rethink business as usual.
Sources: Glossier, Milk, Harry's, Flamingo and Warby Parker
  • Sarah Brown

NEW YORK, United States — The word "corporate" does not exactly fill one with the warm fuzzies, but when did it become such a dirty word? As we have witnessed the rise of beauty independents, we have also witnessed the subtle villainisation of the megabrands that comfortably dominated makeup bags, bathroom shelves, billboards, magazine pages and general goodwill up until recently.

The underdog indies, with their relatable, Instagram-famous founders, became darlings of a personal care industry that oddly wasn’t very personal before. These fledgling upstarts, admired for their free-spirited ideas and system-bucking tactics, tireless drive and inspirational boot-strappy-ness, were christened as the keepers of heart and humanity (notably during a tumultuous age of uncertainty when we could all use a little). They put forth the image of companies guided by lofty principles, built brick-by-brick on passion, purpose and honesty.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the establishment conglomerates — makers of the iconic brands many of us have loved for so long — became suspect, unwittingly cast as soulless giants with little regard for their customer, or perhaps even their own product. In contrast to quirky, boundary-pushing introductions coming from the small fries (who can risk more, having less to lose and more to prove), their global launches felt impersonal, as if dictated by market research, made by committee instead of inspired individuals with personal stakes in the game, and fuelled by the bottom line.

But, all businesses — no matter how charming, no matter their mandate — are grounded in turning a profit and growing bigger than they were last year. Otherwise, they would be out-of-businesses.

And every business was originally founded by someone. Usually, that someone — Elizabeth Arden, Charles Revson, Estée Lauder, for example — had trailblazing ideas, hopes, dreams. If they were really good at what they did (and who they hired), their (indie) business thrived and expanded, perhaps made acquisitions or was itself acquired, and suddenly inhabited a dozen floors of a skyscraper. Boom: Corporate.

No one wants something that looks and feels like it was made inside a boardroom by anonymous marketing executives.

Being corporate is not a negative. By its most basic definition, a corporation is simply a large company or group of companies that operate as a single entity. If you've become a corporation or have been absorbed into one (the goal of many indies, let's not forget), you've become, by many measures, a success. It's acting corporate that's not so sexy.

What it comes down to is that no matter what we are buying today, no one wants something that looks and feels like it was made inside a boardroom by anonymous marketing executives. Truly inspired products can’t just be churned out for next quarter.

Indies have intimacy on their side. For many, which entered the market during the birth of social media and the new era of transparency, communicating one-on-one with their customer, often via direct-to-consumer (DTC) models, is native to them. Whereas corporate brands can seem distant and untouchable (building a fanbase, rather than a community), independent brands — which are staffed by many more people than just an amiable founder who might write you back on Instagram — can feel close, in-touch, real.

So, what can admittedly corporate establishment brands, and all brands on the rise for that matter, do to maintain connection, relevance and trust — or in some cases, to get it back?

Here, our handbook for how not to be corporate… even if you are:

1. Live Your Mission, Remember What You Stand For

Whether yours is an ambitious start-up or a legacy that could use a gentle reboot, the most basic piece of advice for keeping the magic alive and the brand on-point is wonderfully simple: know who you are. Keep sight of the distinct reasons people have related to your brand, enjoyed your products, and come back for more.

Jeff Raider, co-founder and co-chief executive of Harry’s, and a co-founder of Warby Parker, advocates having a clear mission statement and living it, always. He cites companies like six-year-old Allbirds (“comfort, good design and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive”) and 56-year-old Nike (“to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”) as businesses that successfully imbue their belief system into everything they do, in ways that inform product creation and reach the consumer. Making values an explicit part of company culture helps ensure that employees at all levels use these defining principles as the guide by which to make decisions big and small, said Raider. “We make our values catchy so people will remember them, and we embed them into our recruiting process and the performance reviews. Fifty percent of your performance review is if you live those values.”

You need to find the authentic roots and reinterpret around them.

Authentically standing for something, whatever that may be, creates what Sarah Willersdorf, partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group, calls “cultural credibility.” Trust. BCG’s research shows that building an emotional connection with the consumer — among Gen-Z and younger Millennials especially, she notes — is a key factor in driving “disproportionate passion for brands.”

When reviving a brand that may have lost its message or mojo, Raider advises closely revisiting the values that made it fruitful in the first place. “What does it stand for in the world? Who is the customer, and what do they want from the brand? What made it amazing?” Then, he said, “put a stake in the ground and get to know the customer deeply: when did they have their best moments with the brand, and their worst moments? And then take some bold bets on ways to bring it back to life that are consistent with those beliefs and will delight the core customer. If you can do that, you’re at least on the right track.”

Willersdorf points to fashion and luxury brands which have staged successful comebacks with new creative directors after a designer’s departure: “You need to find the authentic roots and reinterpret around them,” she said.

It is advice Raider will certainly be taking into account as he begins his new role as co-president, US operations at Edgewell Personal Care, the company that acquired Harry's this past May and includes heritage brands like Schick, Banana Boat, Hawaiian Tropic and Playtex in its portfolio.

2. Keep the Customer Front and Centre

“Sometimes, when people think about 'corporate,' they think of people making decisions that are entirely profit-driven, instead of good for people. We really think about who the people are who will be using the products,” said Raider.

Instead of making decisions based on what will sell, make decisions based on what your customer will love, what they need, and what you can exclusively provide — because that, indeed, is what will sell.

A good way to do this is by truly getting to know your customer — not just researching them. And, crucially, by including people on your teams who are them. It's why founders who make products for themselves can do so with so much conviction — and insight. They're living the brand.

Sometimes, when people think about 'corporate,' they think of people making decisions that are entirely profit-driven, instead of good for people.

At Harry’s and its sister line, Flamingo, Raider counts on brand loyalists to help dictate what moves to make next. “DTC is an incredible way to do that,” he said. “We proactively reach out to every one of our customers, and we learn a lot that way. We just launched hair, and I think over 60,000 people asked for it. ‘Okay, so what about your current hair products don’t you like, and what can we do better?’ That helps to inform our roadmap.”

Mazdack Rassi, co-founder and creative director of the Milk Group, and chief executive of Milk Makeup, keeps in touch with his customers by being part of their community, especially via the company's in-house photography studio and creative agency. He equates the lobby at Milk — with its steady stream of edgy young actors, musicians, models and creatives coming and going — to an on-site market research lab. Of the company's impending move from its Meatpacking District HQ to a new Brooklyn facility later this year, part of the impetus — in addition to finding bigger space in a neighbourhood where trucks can drive in and out of soundstages 24/7 — he said, is "we need to be where the kids are, and the new generation."

3. Continue to Make Bold Moves

Keep doing the things that have set you apart, established your brand and won your original fans.

As Raider acknowledges, “that gets harder as you get bigger because you have more to lose.” When recently considering what he felt was a risky concept for a new product’s design, he said, “half of me was, ‘oh, man, this feels scary,’ but the other half was, ‘we didn’t get here by doing what everyone else does.’”

Raider took a gamble with novel merchandising tactics when Harry’s launched in-store for the first time, at Target in 2016. “It was a little bit uncomfortable for us, and for Target, but we took that risk together and it enabled us to come to life in a way that’s different,” he recalls. It certainly paid off: Harry’s exceeded its forecast by 5 times.

You have to allow the companies to do the things they've done to be successful.

For brands that are absorbed by larger companies, Rassi stresses the importance of bringing on-board all of the people who helped make the brand what it is and who know it best. “The idea that they move everyone to a corporate HQ, sometimes get rid of their vendors, and centralise everything — these are things that are going to significantly affect the company. You have to allow the companies to do the things they’ve done to be successful,” he said. The point of a partnership, he continues, is “to be with a great partner to help you do the things you can’t do on your own.”

Being bold also means mixing it up, not relying upon old formulas that worked in the past. Keep the spirit; keep pushing forward.

4. Keep Product Development With Product Developers

Hands down the best way to stay relevant, newsworthy and authoritative is with inspired product development.

“When you look at most big companies out there, their product development is created by the marketing team based on data points and market research,” said Rassi. “The corporatisation of product development is a major killer.”

Indeed: there’s nothing quite as flat as products inspired by trend reports and competitive analysis — and the consumer is adept at sniffing it out.

The corporatisation of product development is a major killer.

"For us, and the Glossiers, we know we're new and we know we have to do things that are innovative. We know it all goes back to the product; if the product isn't great, it doesn't work," said Rassi, whose recent hits at Milk Makeup include Hydro Primer, Flex Foundation Sticks, and Kush Mascara — one of the first on the cannabis superhighway. "The good news," he said, "is we have a product development team that gets to do what they want to do, and we give them a lot of leeway that lets them think outside of the box. That's our playbook."

When helping companies refresh and rebrand, Rassi and his team at Milk’s creative agency stress the importance of taking this critical piece of the pie out of the domain of marketing departments and putting it back in the hands of creatives who see nothing but blue sky. A lot of times, he said, “it’s infrastructure work that needs to be completely overhauled in order to move budgets back to the people who make the products and have their ears to the ground. They need to be the decision-makers, and not controlled by C-level executives.”

5. Redefine What Corporate Can Mean

Adopting some sort of business culture as a company evolves and professionalises is a reality of being in business. While organisations can’t necessarily help being, or becoming, “corporate,” they can determine how they govern themselves, staying true to guiding principles on both the creative and more mechanical operations sides.

“When I speak with younger entrepreneurs, I tell them: don’t be afraid of the corporate thing,” said Rassi. “It’s the business aspect of any business. You build this thing; at some point you become a viable business with all of the creativity and culture and wonderful community, but behind the scenes is the business machine that runs the company.”

Don't be afraid of the corporate thing... It's the business aspect of any business.

Rassi learns as much as he can from the corporate world — joining boards, talking to Wall Streeters, gaining exposure during fundraising rounds — in order to determine which practices to incorporate and which to avoid, and to acquire decision-making insight as his company grows. “In three and a half years, we have become a global business and actually a player. We didn’t do this because we were a bunch of cool creatives sitting in downtown NYC. We built a real machine behind us to go where we need to go.”

One way to operate in a less corporate fashion, said Rassi, is to keep a “firewall” between the creative and business sides of the company: “Those machines have to work together, but you separate the two.”

Willersdorf agrees: “Ideally, you separate from business the parts that would typically be driven by a founder or creator: product creation and development, any type of assortment planning and merchandising, creative content, the overall brand positioning and marketing.”

In the end, said Rassi,“We want to make sure our north star is true to who we are as an organisation and stays that way, even from a business point of view.”

6. Cut Your Red Tape

Antiquated timetables and layer upon layer of decision-making trip up companies large and small. It’s why corporations can appear so sluggish and disconnected. How can you be in the vanguard when it takes two years to launch a product? Though large companies face a set of complexities agile indies don’t yet have to think about — sheer volume, for one thing — to keep pace with their ankle-biting competition, they have to do something to create some flexibility.

You can't just get a new creative director and try to make it new again; there have to be structural changes as well.

“I say my job as a CEO is to keep the company small, even though we’re growing,” said Rassi. “Make it feel like we are still a small family so we can make decisions together in the way that a small company can, not a corporate juggernaut.”

For companies beholden to cumbersome timetables and thorny internal processes, “their hands are tied,” said Rassi. “Even if you have something really awesome, by the time the product hits the market, that thing is irrelevant, most likely. Brands can lose their edge in that environment. Nimble brands like us can put product out in six months. We’ll be on-trend, and we’ll move on.”

For big companies looking to recapture their magic, it is precisely these systemic changes — thinking and moving differently — that must be implemented for thoughtful reinvention. “You can’t just get a new creative director and try to make it new again; there have to be structural changes as well,” said Rassi.

7. Make Meaningful Change — Before You Have To

The best way to show the customer you share his or her belief system is by proactively changing course when necessary — animal testing, sustainability, questionable ingredients, inclusivity practices — before the drumbeat begins and your back is against the wall. Use your authority to be good leaders and thoughtful citizens. It’s what people expect today, and it doesn’t help that the so many of the start-ups — which have substantially smaller resources — seem to be able to swing it. Ingrained systems, supply chains and politics are complicated, but getting on the right side of the conversation as quickly as possible will serve every company well. And when change is slow, which it no doubt can be, be transparent about your intentions and welcome conversation. That’s how to redefine what “corporate” means.

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