This week, I examine dupe culture, including how it impacts the beauty industry and what brands are doing about it.
There is a specter haunting the beauty industry. The specter of dupes.
Over the past three years, dupe products and the subsequent dupe culture have quickly ascended to become the boogeyman of the beauty industry, with duped brands concerned that customers will buy lower-cost duped items and erode their brand value. If, in prior years, the word of choice for dupes would have been pejoratives like “imitator” or “copycat,” the word “dupe” instead has an air of pride as consumers outwit capitalist corporations to find cheaper and equally good alternatives. As a result, premium brands are more burdened than ever to further justify their prices. Brands have always aimed to educate the customer on why their products are worth buying, but dupe culture is pushing — even forcing — brands to further explain why their product is worth buying and why no others can compete.
“The younger generation doesn’t see [dupes] as a copycat of a brand. They see it more as an alternative,” said Anna Mayo, vp of the beauty vertical at Nielsen IQ. “We know this is top of mind for big brands, especially those that are duped often and want to understand what it means for them.”
It’s hard to quantitatively derive which platform has the most impact on dupe culture, but it qualitatively feels safe to say that TikTok is a key driver, given that the content is engineered to reach the largest audience possible. On TikTok, the hashtags #makeupdupes, #beautydupe, and #highenddupes have more than 1.2 billion cumulative views, and they’re growing every day.
Some brands are unabashed about embracing dupe culture, while others have a wink-and-nudge-style approach. Fragrance brand Dossier is one such brand that directly embraces it, offering designer and luxury fragrance dupes with names that reference the original scents and sell for $29-$49. Best-sellers include Woody Sandalwood, “inspired” by Le Labo Santal 33, and Ambery Saffron as a dupe for Baccarat Rouge 540. Dossier customers are younger, about 20-35 years old, and mostly females, according to the brand. Dossier sells through a DTC e-commerce site and Walmart, and plans to open an unspecified number of DTC boutiques in 2024. Dossier significantly promotes the brand through affiliate-focused gifting to content creators on TikTok and YouTube. Sergio Tache, co-founder and CEO of Dossier, said the 4-year-old brand was born out of a conversation regarding how the margins for perfume are generally higher than other beauty products and that fragrance juices cannot be trademarked. Additionally, he said manufacturing costs for perfume juices are typically only a few dollars, meaning that offering a less pricey version of a known expensive perfume can still earn a substantial profit for the duper brand.
“We didn’t necessarily see the trend of dupe culture; it was more about providing [great products] at great prices, specifically perfumes,” he said. “That is our North Star, but we don’t shy away from saying that we make perfumes inspired by designer and luxury scents.”
Tache said that embracing the term “dupe” is a fine balance because Dossier wants to be known for making quality fragrances overall. The brand also offers its original creations, called Dossier Originals, which first launched in 2022. Tache said the ambition to create original fragrances stemmed from wanting to provide customers with more unique items. After all, a dupe brand doesn’t want to get duped themselves. Other dupe fragrance brands include Alt, Oakcham and Perfame. Dossier plans to grow its original collection throughout 2024, including functional fragrances. In the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing American companies for 2023, Dossier was listed at No. 31, having grown revenue by over 10,000% between 2020 and 2023. According to a Yotpo case study, SMS text messages drive 20% of Dossier’s total revenue.
In a newly published report in November, Nielsen IQ looked into dupe culture to quantify how it impacts the beauty industry. Mayo said it was a surprise to discover that dupes offer original brands a halo effect and grew the overall beauty category instead of cannibalizing sales. Nielsen IQ examined four undisclosed brands known to offer dupe products and five undisclosed brands often duped, and found that duper brands had a 41.1% increase in sales during the 52-week period ending July 15. But during the same period, duped brands saw a 53.5% sales increase. Growth for both sides held true for household penetration and repeat buyers: Duper brands grew household penetration by 2.9 points and duped brands by 2.3 points. Repeat buyers increased by 2.3 points for duper brands and 1.4 points for duped brands.
But the most surprising was that niche categories, like makeup primers and setting sprays, saw sales boosts as a result of dupe products. The interpretation is that dupe products provide an entry point for consumers to new categories. If, for example, a person never used a makeup primer before and is interested, they’ll start with a low-cost dupe and eventually trade up to premium-priced offers. Conversely, experienced customers may trade down from their premium product to remain in a category.
For duped brands preoccupied with how duper products impact their bottom line, Mayo said she would advise brands to embrace dupe culture without endorsing it. It’s also important for brands to acknowledge how consumer prices have risen, even outside of inflation, and how this impacts their relationship with shoppers. The consumer price index increased 3.7% over the 12 months ending September 30, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. consumer confidence declined 4.8 points to 103 points, according to the NielsenIQ Omnishopper Panel Total U.S. survey measuring the 52 weeks ending July 15. Irish poet Oscar Wilde once quipped that a cynic is a person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. In some ways, that cynicism pervades consumerism. According to the Nielsen IQ report, 44% of consumers bought a dupe product because they could not afford the higher-end original item, while 22% bought dupes because they did not believe that purchasing high-end or designer beauty products is worth the high prices.
“As prestige marketers, it’s our job to show that [dupes] are not the same. There will be competitors out there, but it’s not the same — and it’s my job to get it out there and say it’s not,” said Angela Simpson, svp of marketing at Nars, in an interview earlier this year. “There’s a temptation for brands to discount to be on par with a dupe, but that’s a losing game.”
Earlier this year, Lululemon had its own dupe campaign where it hosted a “Dupe Swap” at its store in Los Angeles’s Century City Mall. It encouraged customers to bring in their knockoffs of its incredibly popular Align pants to trade them in for the original. And in September, Olaplex created a cheeky social campaign called Oladupe that sought to “dupe the dupers” by reminding people that there can be no true dupe for Olaplex’s proprietary formulas and product innovation. Olaplex, as a category innovator in bond-building that has resisted discounting, has been especially vulnerable to dupe products. At the time, the hashtag #olaplexdupe had 30 million views on TikTok organically.
“We’ve experienced a lot of misinformation circulated this year. … The campaign, therefore, deliberately reinforced our science and technology and the proof points of the products,” said Charlotte Watson, CMO of Olaplex. “It’s exactly why Oladupé had all the same elements as Olaplex. It was a way for us to cross through the entire consumer journey in the broader context of dupe culture, reminding the audience that there are reasons why products are [higher] priced. You are buying into technology and proven results.”
Olaplex worked with the TikTok creative agency Movers + Shakers to craft the campaign concept called “Oladupé.” On September 25, Olaplex launched a fictitious product called Oladupe via an unboxing campaign featuring over 100 earned and paid influencers, including Lelani Green, Yesly Dimate, Shae Alexis and Audrey Boos. Consumers were driven to Oladupé.com, where the first 160 people to register were promised a free bottle of Oladupé. What arrived was a bottle of Olaplex No. 3, explaining the joke. On September 29, Olaplex revealed that Oladupé was itself a dupe developed by the brand.
Watson declined to share investment figures for the campaign, but the publicly-traded Olaplex previously shared that it expected its marketing costs, including sampling, sales and marketing payroll, to increase to $70 million in 2023, up from $40 million in 2022. Olaplex has not performed well in the public market for five quarters in a row, with its most recent, third-quarter 2023 earnings, shared on November 7, showing that net sales were $123.6 million, down 30% year-over-year. Several factors have led to poor sales performance, and Watson said it wasn’t possible to attribute the extent to which dupes impact its sales directly. But it does not take a stretch of imagination to see how increased competition in the bond-building space, especially those benefiting from the #Olaplexdupe hashtag, has hurt Olaplex sales. Recently, Olaplex announced that former Supergoop CEO Amanda Baldwin would replace JuE Wong, who helped the brand grow and IPO in 2021, as CEO.
“[Oladupè] has managed to create a bit of a movement [on social media], with consumers saying to other brands, ‘Show us why you can’t be duped,” said Watson.
Initial insights from the campaign show that the branded hashtag #Oladupe saw 72 million views on TikTok and an increased use of #OlaplexDupe. Watson said Olaplex regained its No. 1 spot in earned media value for haircare in September, according to TribeDynamics, because of the campaign. Paid promotion of the campaign extended through to the end of October. Olaplex also tracked new customer conversion from the campaign via a discount code that was provided on Oladupé.com after the free products ran out and shared by paid influencers — their followers could use it when making their first Olaplex purchase. Watson declined to share exact conversion figures but said the brand was seeing strong traction.
Watson said that the marketing messaging encouraging people to purchase the Oladupé product — including pointing out its 160 patents and proprietary active ingredients — reinforced Olaplex’s unique science and technology. The landing page listed its points of difference and showed the efficacious results. What is ironic about the campaign is that there was nothing different about Oladupé, compared to Olaplex. Yet, it seemed to benefit from more customer interest and positive sentiment than the Olaplex brand itself.
“There is a whole conversation happening around [and about] us on social media, and this was an opportunity here for us to insert ourselves and remind people, ‘Yes, you can imitate us, but you really can’t duplicate us,’ and do it playfully,” said Watson.
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