NEW YORK, United States — This summer, Amazon is launching a shot across the bow of the indie beauty industry with the kick-off of its indie beauty shop, a marketplace featuring emerging beauty brands that are at least 50 percent independently owned.
On the surface, the development marks a huge opportunity for small brands who could benefit from Amazon’s reach. Considering that almost 50 percent of all e-commerce transactions in the US take place through the retailer, front-and-centre placement on the site is likely to provide an immediate boost in both revenue and visibility.
But is it the right kind of visibility? The fine print reads that, in addition to their independence, indie beauty shop brands cannot be sold at Target, Walmart, or, perhaps most importantly, Ulta, a retailer whose surging growth is due, in part, to its position as a tastemaker and curator for highly coveted and often non-urban millennials. When you consider those strengths, the debate shifts: it isn’t a question of which outlet can drive revenue, but rather, of what your retailer says about you and your brand. Are you an Amazon brand, or are you an Ulta — or Credo, or SpaceNK, or Sephora, or beyond — brand?
Many newcomers have decided not to answer the question at all, opting instead to build out their own retail environments and digital infrastructure. The route is not an easy one. Even brands that excel at product, packaging, and social media often find the internet to be a vast, unforgiving place, flooded daily with new brands and new retailers chipping away at their market share. Suddenly, they find, product alone isn’t enough, and the boring bits — the analytics, the paid media, the SEO — may be the difference between winning and losing. And worse yet, that’s where Amazon excels.
So what about the independent darlings – the Everlanes, Aways, Glossiers, Caspers, and Warby Parkers of the world? The narrative that surrounds the success of these brands is, more often than not, idealistic — community as a feeling, not a tactic — but it’s more than that. That is, it’s more boring than that. In addition to building beautiful, effective products, these brands have mastered the internet in full, using its entire framework to capture attention — and then keep it.
Here are a few ways they’ve done so.
Get Your Framework in Place
Piece by piece, these brands have grown from the mom-and-pop shops of the internet to, essentially, corporate enterprises. What matters about the building blocks is not so much the individual pieces — product, website, paid media, email marketing, activations, loyalty programs, owned retail — and so on, but the seamlessness of their interconnectedness, the ways in which they form a net that captures consumers.
Consider, for example, this simple interaction: via a paid search ad, you land on Glossier’s homepage, where you enter your email for 10 percent off your purchase. Then, you make that purchase. In five minutes, you’re caught in the web: weekly branded emails, posts in your social feeds, daily retargeted display ads, and discounts for loyal customers. For Glossier, some of these ongoing interactions (emails and social, to start) are free; others, like display, are not; some, like that search ad you clicked on, have actually decreased in cost as a reward from Google to the brand for a successful conversion.
Fortunately, this isn’t five years ago. The content is good. You read it and share it, boosting Glossier’s SEO. The events recommended to you, spit out by Glossier’s CRM, are only those in your city. Better yet, they’re perfect for Instagram. The ads you’re seeing are for products you were planning to purchase, and they’re sent with stickers you put on your phone. They even have iPhone wallpaper, and you, like several hundred thousand others, download it.
The effectiveness is not rooted in the tactics alone. They’re available to anyone. It’s the brand’s ability to understand and utilise their interconnectedness — to know, for example, that if it invests in a good website, its paid media costs, seemingly completely separate, will actually decrease, all a reward from Google for giving your targets exactly what they want.
Personality — and Its Distribution — Matters
If indie brands have any advantage over the monoliths, it’s a human quality. Consumers want to buy into brands in which they can see their own reflections — in which they can see, say, Tata Harper, not Walmart’s Smiley. Scale and sincerity rarely align, and true values are hardly believable when they run counter to the PR stories that plague Walmart and Amazon alike.
Technology makes this possible. Glossier was born out of truly expert content and a direct online dialogue with the consumer, through which the brand’s line and formulation were conceived. A look into Everlane’s manufacturers can be found by way of a link in the brand’s primary navigation. Deciem has, somewhat infamously, unmasked the truth behind the exorbitant cost of some beauty products — hint: it’s not the actual ingredients — and then built a following by sharing that truth through ad hoc, often controversial, self-filmed footage of founder Brandon Truaxe.
This is to say that it’s not personality alone, but personality and online distribution aligning. Amazon may have the reach, but they don’t have the human quality. Indie brands can have both.
Risk It All
If one thing was made clear by the most recent presidential election, it’s that social platforms and search algorithms have wrapped consumers in a bubble of their own likeness — and they hardly know it. We live in a marketer’s dream, one where algorithms are as effective as they are accessible, and, as long as can identify your target, you can reach it.
In a memorable thread, CircleUp founder Ryan Caldbeck took this likeness issue to a higher level: the corporate board. There, where diversity is largely absent, innovation is secondary to experience, and the experience that’s rewarded is experience in protecting what already exists. While a slight shift may be happening further down the ladder by way of acquisitions and incubators — Walmart buying Bonobos, LVMH incubating its own future competitors, and so on — the barriers at the highest level remain largely the same.
Here, the indie advantage is an unrestricted sort of freedom to innovate rapidly and publicly. Whether it’s because of the relative youth of those working at these companies, or by necessity, many indies have mastered non-traditional means of connection, stepping outside of the traditional advertising channels legacy brands rely on and consumers have trained themselves to ignore.
While the ability to stay head on any giving platform will keep these brands visible, brands with more thorough, full-funnel infrastructure have one added benefit — the ability to experiment in a vacuum, in one channel, without disturbing the others. Dependence entirely on Instagram, for example, limits a brand’s creative range, forcing a need to be tactical and calculated to ensure sales goals are met. Conversely, a brand also investing in tactical, high-converting paid search — not a high priority for highly creative teams — can ensure a steady stream of revenue. That stream keeps the numbers up, decreasing social dependency and opening the door to innovation.
In this sense, it’s not necessarily about doing everything right. It’s about doing the necessary things right, and pushing the envelope with the others.
When done with a strong knowledge of the consumer as a jumping off point, these tools make a brand feel like a welcome part of day to day life, rather than an intrusive message they’d rather avoid. When it comes to the challenge of bringing back a personal touch to what’s become a depersonalised shopping experience, indies are perhaps the best placed brands to do it — if they have the right strategy. The big players will always have powerful weapons in their arsenal — faster shipping, lower prices — but where they can’t compete is on personality and real connection. The key is to keep them once you have them.
Brady Donnelly is the founder and managing director of Hungry.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.