We (Really) Need To Talk About Niche Beauty
The term “niche beauty” sounds new, but the concept is not. Granted, the way the niche beauty market operates and has been expanding today is pretty novel, but niche beauty products have been around for a long time - but not nearly as accessible as they are today. Niche beauty is an invention-heavy part of the beauty business, but online accessibility and social connectivity has made it the market disrupter it has recently become.
Despite using and loving numerous niche beauty brands now, my first brush with them is a somewhat unfortunate one. For one, I came to age at a time in the 90s when the concept of “hair mascara” had come into vogue. This was also the same unfortunate time during the 90s that I was wearing platform sneakers and leather mini shorts thanks to Spice Girls (where were my parents, I don't know.) My best friend at the time, who is also one of the most objectively cool people I know, was big on blue hair mascara on her blonde hair while I was adamant on this ugly, weird pink that looked anything but flattering on me. And it didn't only look bad, but had this pretty horrible chemical smell to it as well. Yet I kept using it for a good six months, and possibly had a little brain damage from the dubious kind of paint. It was a brand that only made the *most* necessary products such as the aforementioned toxic hair mascaras, white pencils that you used to paint the inside of your nails to make them look like French tips (basically a white coloring pencil, and of course a product we used because we were stupid), and regular mascaras in irregular colors. I am glad neither of us got toxic poisoning or had our eyes fall out, but I am also *pretty* sure that we lost several IQ points by inhaling those hair mascara fumes.
Today’s niche beauty products are much, much better - better in quality, and most of them better for the environment as well as their consumers. In fact, they have been so successful that Euromonitor cites trendsetting niche brands as among the best performers between 2010-2015 in the beauty market, and fueling a boom in mergers and acquisitions in beauty business. For example, the beauty behemoths such as Estee Lauder, Unilever and L'Oreal have been active in buying niche brands the past several years - which has created a lot of movement in the market, and made mergers and acquisitions one of the driving forces in the industry.
These brands are defined as “niche” for several reasons. First of all, they are small brands born independently from the big beauty brands everybody knows. They usually emerge with a limited variety of products - sometimes only one or two specialized ones - unlike mainstream brands that have pretty much every kind of beauty product from eyeshadows to face masks. Niche beauty brands are also innovative in that their products either use ingredients nobody does, are manufactured in a way that is cruelty free and environmentally conscious, target very specific skin concerns, or basically just provide a new kind of product that works exceptionally well. Niche beauty is also good at cross-category innovation such as multi-purpose products such as “makeup as skincare” (remember Perricone MD’s breakout "No Foundation Foundation"? Probably one of the best I have ever used), or matte liquid lipstick - AKA the product that gave the world a billion millennial selfies. All in all, niche beauty brands have been the frontrunners in finding new kinds of hybrid products which bigger beauty brands adopt afterwards.
But maybe as important as their innovative nature, most niche brands are also “lifestyle” brands - they represent a defined, particular understanding of beauty, self-care, and, well, lifestyle. For example, Colourpop represents the millennial and experiential beauty consumption where young women are not afraid to try new colors and looks, but also change products more often than ever before. Glossier’s mantra is that you are individually beautiful, and looking good is more about your skin health than looking like somebody else. Tata Harper is about “nurturing natural beauty” and “beauty without compromise” - which means using organic and nontoxic skincare as a reflection of how you treat yourself. In fact, niche beauty brands have been the frontrunners of product proliferation that aim wellbeing, multiculturalism, inclusivity across age, gender, race, and “natural” beauty. A lot of them are more inclusive, despite its reach with regards to including women of all colors and ethnicities is still more a necessity than a reality.
They not only speak to their consumers directly through social media, but also talk to them in a way that goes beyond looking glamorous and “beautiful”. That’s also why Euromonitor argues, niche brands have “strong social ethos” that is “critical to conjuring meaningful brand-consumer relationships”. They create personal relationships with users that is not only about purchasing a product, but primarily about aligning the products they use with their social values. The incremental move from conspicuous to conscious consumption, more transparency, and more educated consumers will only increase the popularity of niche brands, and their proliferation - and push big brands to either catch up, or acquire them.
The niche beauty market as it evolved is also different from the past in that it has cut out the middleman (stores or independent sellers), and in that its success depends on its tech savvy in addition to product. Not all niche beauty brands can be found in stores, or some only found in very select few. That is why despite not being in stores, being tech savvy as such is a huge advantage for niche beauty companies. It is an advantage for numerous reasons from a marketing standpoint to a logistical one - one of which is consumers being more likely than ever to buy your product online. Plus, tech-savvy brands can get their name heard by marketing their products through engaging in conversation with bloggers, Instagrammers (“influencers”), or basic humans like me. Given millennials decide on what to buy through word of mouth and online reviews rather than classic advertising, that kind of online visibility is huge. It is so much so that almost 90% of Colourpop's Instagram account is regrams of photos sent to them by users taking photos of their Colourpop "stashes" and selfies using Colourpop products rather than Colourpop's own advertorials (SHREWD.)
In other words, there is so much direct connection and back and forth between the brand and the consumer within the online, direct-to-consumer business model many niche brands have started out with. And when the product is good, it is unsurprising that this socially-connected business model is both financially efficient, and loyalty-building for small, independent brands. As the Glossier (and Into the Gloss) founder, Emily Weiss argued in Inc.com in May:
“The medium became digital because: A) it was easier to do and took less capital. I think I invested like $750 initially. And B) because it just made sense. I think creating an online platform was the right medium for what were doing. I think now still, even with Glossier, the mission kind of remains the same and what we're doing is still striving to rethink beauty and elevate it, but also make it accessible to everyone. That's why with Glossier we're making use of extremely high quality "luxury products" going direct to consumers so that we can both have a better connection with that consumer and make it accessible for them in price and distribution, hopefully alleviating all those stressers that come with the beauty shop experience right now.”
I mean, think about it. My mom is horrified about me buying skincare online (obviously, that is not the thing she is most horrified about her 33 year old daughter, but that’s not the point), and she thinks it is ludicrous to buy skincare or color makeup without having tried it in real life. And yet, I do almost half of my beauty shopping online, without having seen or tried the product myself. That is a completely new way of buying beauty, and a big advantage for smaller, independent brands that does not have a counter at Nordstrom. Reading user reviews, seeing a product being praised multiple times on your Instafeed, watching makeup bloggers use the product on a video, and being able to buy a product while sitting on your butt is how small brands can market themselves - and from the way independent companies like Colourpop and Glossier create a place for themselves in the market, it is working.
(Of course, this is not to say I love each and every beauty product I buy online, without testing it first. Sometimes you use the thing and you wonder what the reviewers were smoking.)
Be it through innovation, philosophy, or direct contact with consumers, niche beauty brands have been market disrupters. The beauty market has been more fragmented than ever, and beauty brands now need to differentiate themselves even more clearly in the market. Personally, I love it and most of the products I use now are from such brands. Like most of other niche beauty fans, I get introduced to them online. I see them on blogs I follow or on Instagram, and read reviews from people who use these brands. But despite some being more tech-oriented, not all niche brands are online-only companies. Those like Murad, Kate Somerville, Tata Harper, w3ell People, Drunk Elephant, Nudestix, Herbivore, Milk Makeup, Sunday Riley, Coola, Supergoop, Dr.Jart, GlamGlow, Bite Beauty are also found in Sephora, Birchbox, Ulta, and other brick and mortar stores. They provide products that have not been in the market before, or provide better options to those that do - be it with better ingredients or a more innovative, effective technology. I dare you to find a better line of lipsticks than those Bite Beauty makes, and congratulate you if you were using “virgin Marula oil” before Drunk Elephant came into your life. Personally I use it, but still don’t know anything about it - that is other than it being an oil that can even inebriate an elephant.
Who does NOT like that? If it can make an elephant drunk, think what it can do for your skin. (No, I don't think it is a logical non-sequitur. What I am trying to say is that the stuff is supposed to be potent.)
I have tried most of the brands I talk about here - namely from Tata Harper, Sunday Riley, Nudestix, Milk Makeup, to Murad, w3ll People, GlamGlow, and Butter London. Obviously there are a lot that I have not tried despite trying my best to keep the beauty industry alive - and I am especially looking forward to trying out Herbivore, Rodin, and more of Sunday Riley. (And some of these brands that have emerged as niche brands have been acquired by mainstream beauty brands such as Unilever buying Murad and Kate Sommerville, and Estee Lauder buying GlamGlow - it is speculated that Tata Harper will be in demand for such an acquisition in the future.)
Other than Drunk Elephant, my personal favorites are anything created by Bite Beauty but specifically their new Agave lip balm (life-saver, game-changer, and all the good things), the Amuse Bouche lipsticks Thistle and Cremini, and the multi-stick Honeywheat. I am also a fan of Smith & Cult. All their polishes look shiny, and they have great color payoff - I especially like 1972, Feathers & Flesh, and Honey Hush. Another favorite nail product I keep repurchasing is Nails Inc.’s Montpelier Walk. Possibly one of the best brands in the market today, Dr. Jart, completely changed the products I use - their BB cream, Dermaclear Microwater, Dermaclear Microfoam Cleanser, and moisturizing sheet masks are so good I feel like I need to tell people I don't get a commission on their sales as I get way too enthused while talking about them. Ren's Radiance Renewal Mask is also quite good, despite being on the fence about their moisturizer. Supergoop’s sunscreen oil and handcream are really "super" (and goopy.) R+Co makes some of my favorite products such as Analog conditioner. I love using Farmacy’s honey mask (but do NOT leave this on for too long. Just take my word for it.) To top it off, I talk about Colourpop here. I am not sure Kiehl's (which has been acquired by L'Oreal in 2000) can be considered a niche brand, but if we can, this, this, and this need to be mentioned for their amazingness.
Overall, it looks like it will be a good time for niche beauty brands for a while still. The beauty customers are looking for new alternatives, and after 60 years of cosmetics advertising women know better not to take any brand's claims without a grain of salt. But what is also pretty great about these brands is that most founders of such companies are women, which will continue to increase the number of female leaders in the beauty market in 2017 (YAY!) Plus it allows for more women scientists in the industry as they lead their R&D departments.
I think it is time we got off the app train ladies. Y’all better come up with an innovative beauty product.