This week, I look at how the rise of “viral” beauty products is shaping the experiences of indie brands as retailers focus on selling trendy products.
Every brand wants a viral product, and indie brands especially seem to be feeling the squeeze.
In the competitive worlds of social media, e-commerce and retail, capturing attention via a viral product is the shortcut many brands could only hope for. With a viral product comes new customers, lower cost-per-acquisition, elevated brand awareness and increased cultural currency. Viral products, once a rarity, are now common thanks in large part to TikTok. And indie brands, which often don’t have the marketing budgets to try and manufacture virality, are experiencing both real and perceived pressure from peers and retailers to capture their own viral moment.
“There is a natural frustration [among] brands that haven’t hit virality, when virality is something that nobody can predict,” said Robbie Salter, founder and co-CEO of Jupiter hair care. Jupiter, which is sold through Bergdorf Goodman and approximately 100 dermatology practices, has yet to experience a viral social media moment. “As a brand owner, you can deal with that frustration in two ways: You can throw a lot of money at trying to become viral, or you can focus on what you believe is going to [grow] your business in the long term.”
There’s no clear definition of what constitutes a “viral” product, and no concrete industry data exists on viral beauty, as a whole. But the extent to which virality and clout chasing have impacted and framed the beauty industry is well-known. A quick Google search for “viral beauty product” yields dozens of publications’ product round-ups. Meanwhile, beauty brands often tout the sell-out nature of a product in their advertising. According to Insider Intelligence, social media has become the No. 1 method for how people discover and purchase products.
Though retailers are not explicitly telling indie brands that they need a viral product to enter their sales channels, a review of recent retailer earnings indicates an emphasis on wanting trendy products. There has always been an understanding that both brands and retailers are responsible for the sales success of a brand within retail. Still, the emphasis on brand awareness seems greater than in the past, when fewer brands existed. Ultimately, younger and smaller brands eager to enter retail are feeling pressured to show they can drive customers to retail to purchase. During its third-quarter 2023 earnings, Ulta Beauty’s executive team noted that “trend-relevant” products from Redken and Biolage “resonated strongly,” while social virality drove sales growth at the retailer for IGK and Mayo.
“During the quarter, we enhanced our assortment with trend-relevant brands in every category,” said Dave Kimball, CEO of Ulta Beauty, during the earnings call. Examples included introducing Pat McGrath Labs, Half Magic, Polite Society, Rabanne and PanOxyl, a dermatologist-recommended brand popular with Gen Z. All of these brands have received great attention on social media, including Half Magic on TikTok, where it has 58,000 followers and 267,000 likes, and Pat McGrath Labs, which especially draws social praise when Dame Pat McGrath handles runway makeup — see: last week’s Margiela couture show. “In addition to strengthening our core assortment, we are leaning into broader trends in beauty through our cross-category platforms,” said Kimball.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Tom Kingsbury, CEO of Kohl’s, during the retailer’s third-quarter 2023 earnings call. During the same call, the Sephora shop-in-shop at Kohl’s was said to be on track to becoming a $2 billion business by 2025. “We know that customer wants trends. … Now, we’re going to be using the marketplace so that we can react to the business quickly [by] getting into trends, and we know there’s a connection between trend[y] products and the Sephora customers,” he said.
“In the past five years, there has been a proliferation of [beauty] brands. And if you haven’t built a loyal customer base, I could completely understand [the pressure to go viral] since you’re competing with so many brands in the same space,” said Jana Blankenship, founder of Captain Blankenship. The indie beauty brand, which has been around since 2009, rebranded in 2022 to focus on hair care exclusively.
Captain Blankenship has had a brush with virality, though Blankenship said the experience may not qualify for the “viral” label, as the beauty industry has come to know it. It did, however, result in significant and unexpected sales growth for a product. The brand’s 10-year-old Nourish Hair & Scalp Serum, formerly called Mermaid Hair Oil, experienced a viral sales moment in early 2023. The product, not formerly a bestseller, subsequently saw a 200% sales growth throughout 2023. Blankenship attributed the product’s sales spike to the brand’s influencer strategy and the overall growing customer interest in rosemary oil for hair growth, which is a key ingredient in the serum. The brand typically works with 5-10 influencers at a time, out of a network of 100, including people like Andrea Dahr (@Switch.Natural; 30,200 Instagram followers).
“People think a viral or trending product has to be a new product, but this is something that’s tried and true and beloved [by our team] for so long. [It’s also] our most expensive product, at $48,” said Blankenship. “But it’s one thing for a product to go viral — where does it leave [a brand], if it’s a one-hit wonder? … We’re focused on customer retention for 2024.”
Overall, Captain Blankenship’s DTC sales increased 50% year-over-year across all product SKUs, which Blankenship attributed to the halo effect of the hair and scalp serum’s success. Additionally, retail partners like Detox Market and Credo benefited from the sales virality of the scalp serum, though Blankenship did not immediately respond to an email request for further details.
“Virality is fleeting, but product quality isn’t,” said Salter. “Retail is certainly the dream for many companies, including ours, but it’s not the end all, be all.”
Inside our coverage:
California Naturals partners with actor Owen Wilson.
Skin-care brands hone in on rosacea.
E.l.f Beauty debuts mockumentary of Gen Z.
What we’re reading:
Even in war-torn Ukraine, beauty still sells.
Beauty brands revive TV adverts.
Pat McGrath wows with porcelain doll runway look.