In a cluttered and competitive beauty market, I look at how new brands are nailing their brand identities.
When Ami Cole, a makeup line for melanin-rich skin, finally launched direct-to-consumer in June, the buzz had been building for months. Founded by Diarrha N’Diaye, a former social media strategist and product developer at Glossier, the brand took a nuanced, no-makeup makeup approach to complexion with six shades (versus 50) that were based on the most popular and purchased shades among brown and Black women. But it wasn’t just the products that were exciting.
The bright orange shade that washed Ami Cole’s packaging and website was a welcome jolt from the millennial pink and pastels that we’ve been seing for the better part of a decade. And the “Inspired by Senegal, born in Harlem, NYC” tagline was clear and to-the-point, and told shoppers almost everything they needed to know about the new brand. (N’Diaye’s family is from Senegal, and she was raised in Harlem.)
“I have always been deeply moved by how Black women show up in the world via beauty. I grew up in Harlem, surrounded by the culture. My friends, joyous Black women at brunch, the Black women that frequent my mom’s hair salon — they all inspired me. But, when it came to makeup, I was never able to find a brand for women of color that represented the ‘my skin, but better’ makeup style that so many of these women in my neighborhood ascribed to,” said N’Diaye.
Furthermore, N’Diaye wanted a full brand experience, complete with storytelling and an aesthetic that would compel consumers to engage with Ami Cole beyond making an initial purchase. “I wanted to create a brand that celebrates a truer version of women of color, paring [that makeup look] down [so they can] stand out and glow. Our formulas are designed to enhance versus mask the skin. We want to give women of color the tools to actually celebrate their skin [and] their rich, deep stories,” she said.
Certainly not all beauty founders today have as many pillars that N’Diaye could call upon to stand out on a retail shelf or a social media feed. But increasingly, companies are recognizing the need to move beyond the millennial packaging, “clean” and “sustainable” storytelling, and “community” ethos that have been commonplace. And this is especially true for Gen-Z brands that know their demo prefers a raw, messy, in-your-face, meme-filled aesthetic.
“The issue of brands looking and feeling the same is not new. As generations and trends change, brands tend to try and shift to stay relevant. But the brands that do it best are the ones that don’t feed off trends and culture to make their own [identity],” said Erin Kleinberg, founder of creative branding and ad agency Métier Creative.
Still, Kleinberg said the aesthetic popularized by Glossier and Goop isn’t going away. In some ways, it even reflects the approach of longstanding legacy brands like Chanel. “There are brands that follow the millennial aesthetic and playbook to a tee. They’re succeeding because the user is so trained to understand this format, and it can work. But at Métier, we dig deeper to find new niches and push for brands to have distinct worlds.”
Two examples include the agency’s work with Megababe, founded by influencer Katie Sturino, and beauty marketer-turned-influencer Deepica Mutyala’s Live Tinted. Megababe’s logo takes cues from the New York City subway, said Kleinberg, which is where Sturino was often looking for answers to her thigh chafe and boob sweat. And Métier worked with Live Tinted on its latest launch called Hueguard, a SPF that does not leave a white cast. In order to focus on the pillar of real people and to foster community, Metier cast its video, posted on social and online, with real people through Instagram. Participants told their stories of not feeling that the right products existed for them.
Leilah Mundt, founder and CEO of brand development agency Crème Collective, said she’s is insistent that brands have a differentiation point before she takes them on as clients. Many of her projects include work with OG clean brands like Goop. “In clean beauty, specifically, there were a lot of [founders who were] sick people that had experienced some major life change, and that was an authentic story about them to switching to clean. But now, as more people get ahold of it, they are beating that story to death. It’s a lot of the same, and only now are we starting to come out of that. You can’t hide behind clean anymore.” Mundt says that many brands are pivoting to not only being clean but also proving their sustainability mettle in storytelling.
Thus, clarity seems to be a guiding light for new brands. For Mundt’s client clean fragrance brand Snif, a casual tone, versus its clean formulation, is its prominent position. Online, lists of top and base notes have been replaced with more conversational product descriptions like, “A low-key sweet and earthy scent that goes from inviting to addictive fast. Its silky blend of moss, woods and fir balsam is balanced by hints of tonka and black vanilla bean,” as well as application instructions.
For her part, N’Diaye was acutely aware that she needed to make a splash when launching — and not with performance or influencer marketing hacks. “We knew what we were building was a different and authentic approach to beauty. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to position the brand and all its elements in a way that would welcome the customer versus shock them,” she said. “We didn’t want trendy or controversial. Very early on in development, we thought about what it meant to be timeless.” Thus, the team spent time looking at global heritage brands and explored what made their aesthetics feel just that — timeless.
Ami Cole worked with beauty creative agency School House on its packaging, content, overall strategy, retail presence, and approach for digital and social platforms. The two companies were connected when School House offered services to Black founders with its 1,000 Hours Pledge following the racial reckoning of summer 2020. It also counts La Mer, Ideo, Kosas, Briogeo and Dr. Dennis Gross as clients, among others.
Chris Skinner, founder and principal of School House, said underscoring N’Diaye’s Senegalese heritage and Harlem upbringing was imperative in telling the story of the brand. The final product was meant to be “vibrant” and “visceral.”
“My client service philosophy is to be whole-heartedly committed to translating the unique and equitable assets of each founder and brand into an equitable story and concept,” he said. “It’s my belief that a creative agency would not be able to survive by copying and pasting a single identity approach from brand to brand based on consumer and market trends. At the same time, I don’t believe an agency can survive going against said trends purely out of desire for a differentiated body of work.”
For new brand Ideo Skincare that launched in July, School House translated for the lay consumer Dr. John Blass’ expert-led research on Alzheimer’s and how those proof points could benefit the skin.
To be fair, Ideo founder Andrew Shemin said the brand didn’t know where to start with its creative identity, hence the partnership with School House. “One of Dr. Blass’s mantras about science is, ‘If it works, it works.’ We’ve seen that the serum works, and just as Dr. Blass’s neurological research showed such great promise, we wanted to communicate that link from the brain to the skin through all aspects of the brand identity,” he said. “It’s one thing to try the product and see the results, but in order to get people to try it, you have to convey that trust in science in ways specific to the brand identity.”
But like clean and sustainable brands that are flooding the marketplace, science-backed brands are also popping up more than ever.
“We are a scientific brand, to be sure, but science can feel a bit cold. We decided to bring the brand beyond the pure hard science of a chemical formula and reflect some of the magic that goes into the imagination of making scientific discoveries,” said Shemin. One example of reinforcing that is through the copy “The Work of a Medical Maverick” that is posted front-and-center on Ideo’s website.
As Kleinberg said, new and established brands alike need to have an “extremely clear visual identity” to come to market today. “What is visually represented on social platforms [needs to be] as ownable as possible to the brand,” she said. “We want consumers to have that thumb-stopping moment where they think, ‘Oh yes, I know that brand,’ or ‘I want to know that brand.'”
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