When Bona Fide Beauty Lab co-founders Pamela Baxter and Cathy O’Brien agreed to license media brand PopSugar’s full beauty line, the industry veterans — who both spent time at Estée Lauder — were drawn to the website’s highly engaged audience.
Baxter, who also worked for Dior and LVMH in the past, called the PopSugar community “proof of concept” for its beauty line, Beauty by PopSugar, which debuted in March exclusively at BeautyByPopSugar.com, Ulta Beauty stores and Ulta.com.
“When we met [PopSugar founder and editor-in-chief] Lisa Sugar and she filled us in on the company’s reach of 100 million unique visitors — and that beauty was one of its top 3 areas of interest — it just became too intriguing,” said Baxter.
PopSugar previously stepped its toe into beauty with PopSugar Must Have Boxes, a monthly subscription box service that launched in 2012. The curated boxes, which moved to quarterly in April, contain a mix of beauty, fashion, home and entertainment items, but are all sourced by third-party partners. (To note: The subscription box business has been difficult as of late — Memebox’s and Essence’s have shuttered, plus Birchbox recently sold a majority of its business to an investor.) Beauty by PopSugar is the media company’s first branded product. In May, it also signed a clothing agreement with Kohl’s.
Bona Fide Beauty Lab seeks out female-founder-led brands that do $20 million in sales and have a differentiated product assortment, though some are smaller, doing $5 to $10 million. Others in its portfolio include Sapelo Skin Care, a restorative anti-aging skin-care line, and Scent Invent Technologies, a brand that is rethinking how fragrance is applied and used.
Though Baxter and O’Brien declined to share sales figures, saying it was too early, Women’s Wear Daily previously reported that Beauty by PopSugar could do more than $20 million at retail in its first year.
Here’s how Bona Fide Beauty Lab launched Beauty by PopSugar.
Get to know your audience
Baxter and O’Brien worked closely with the PopSugar community to understand how they were consuming beauty — many of them were older millennials and some young moms. PopSugar, which has a total audience of 100 million annually, also has 27 million social followers and reaches one in two millennial women in the U.S., according to the media company. This research led to Bona Fide Beauty Lab sending out 2,000 extensive surveys to its audience to understand customer preferences around beauty for the 19-product launch.
“We developed the line by sending out surveys to their readership,” said Baxter. “We wanted to know anything and everything about the PopSugar readers’s beauty routine.” Sample questions included how readers described their beauty routine, how long they spent each morning on beauty, where they shopped, how much they spent on beauty and how frequently they bought beauty products. The lengthy survey took about 30 minutes to fill out, said Baxter.
Of the 2,000 surveys that were sent, Baxter and O’Brien received 800 back, or 40 percent. In those surveys, the duo found several commonalities among the audience, like the importance of cruelty-free makeup, non-toxic ingredients and the ability for makeup to be performance-packed, easy to use and long-lasting. “We found this space between what you see on Instagram with the Kardashians’s drama-queen look and the ‘I just rolled out of bed’ no-makeup makeup look,” said Baxter. “The Beauty by PopSugar girl is neither one of those girls. She’s sitting in the middle.”
The product was curated based on survey answers, and then Baxter and O’Brien tested the initial assortment on the PopSugar editorial teams across New York and San Francisco. From there, packaging and shade ranges were edited and fine-tuned with help from the PopSugar staffers. The company is currently working on adding categories to its existing lips, face and eye assortment.
In October, the twosome will conduct similar survey research for the skin-care and fragrance categories, with an impending skin-care range launching in spring of 2020. The launch date of fragrance is yet to be determined, but the survey is meant to gauge “interest in new ways of applying and wearing fragrance,” said Baxter.
Additionally, the Beauty by PopSugar woman is asking for primers, concealers and more shades in its existing tinted moisturizer category, according to the Bona Fide team. Still, O’Brien wants to build the core business not by continually launching one-off products, but rather by “taking the categories that are selling and adding to them.”
Currently, Beauty by PopSugar’s top-selling franchise is its Be Sweet Tinted Lip Balm with SPF, and two lip-care products, a salve and a scrub are also in its top-10 best-selling products, so there’s much opportunity for the brand in the lip business.
Don’t take retail for granted
While Baxter and O’Brien continue to build out their direct-to-consumer business, physical retail was where their head was from the beginning. “We wanted to build the brick-and-mortar plan out first,” said O’Brien. “Beauty is so tactile, and it’s important for a new brand that a customer can touch it, feel it, smell it.” For the next two years, Beauty by PopSugar has an exclusive agreement with Ulta and Ulta.com.
Opening in 250 stores from the get-go was no easy feat, so Baxter and O’Brien again turned to the PopSugar online community for information, including what markets their audience is strongest in. Subsequently, they organized store door counts accordingly. They found their biggest audiences are in California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, the New York tri-state area and Illinois.
While many newer brands like Glossier and Kylie Cosmetics emphasize digital first, O’Brien explained the Beauty by PopSugar approach is the opposite. “Our expectation and our plan was not that our digital business was going to lead this, our digital business is going to evolve over time,” she said. “We are learning how our girl is coming to the site and what she is coming back for.”
O’Brien said that while this DTC online audience was “small,” it was a fertile test ground for them, and they will continue to track results over the next two years. Right now, the brand, which has nearly 8,500 followers on Instagram, is seeing the most traffic and conversion from that platform.
“We are brand builders, and that takes time and focus. It’s about playing the long game,” said O’Brien.