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A few months ago I attended the launch for a new skincare product from a luxury, heritage beauty brand. I asked one of the executives how his company was trying to appeal to millennials, a group which thus far has not responded to “anti-aging” language the way previous generations have. He was pretty confident that this new product would be a great gateway into the brand for them. The price? $250.
Thinking like this by older cosmetics brands might help explain why there are suddenly tons of new indie skincare brands flooding your Instagram feed. Study after study has shown that millennials value, well, value. They want products that work but that don’t cost three figures. Millennials, in case you haven’t heard, are now America’s largest living generation. And according to a report by TABS Analytics, they are also the “heaviest buyers” of beauty products.
Old school brands are now finding themselves competing with new direct-to-consumer brands, often founded by millennials themselves who intuitively know how to speak to their peers. Glossier is obviously the godmother of these. Even though it’s not quite three years old, it has clearly inspired — or emboldened — a whole slew of new beauty brands, especially brands selling skincare.
Here’s a look at six millennial-focused skincare brands, complete with commentary from millennial women. Most had never heard of any of these brands, and more than half had never even heard of Glossier. Since social media plays such a big role in marketing now, especially for indie brands with tiny budgets, I asked them to make snap judgments based on the brands’ websites and Instagram feeds.
Instagram: 133,000 followers, based in Seattle
Herbivore, a natural brand, started out on Etsy in 2011 (not new, but definitely newly buzzy) and was founded by the husband-and-wife team of Julia Willis, 36, and Alex Kummerow, 29. Urban Outfitters came calling in 2013, and it’s now at Sephora, Nordstrom, and multiple boutiques across the country. It’s known for its graphic, minimal white labels with black font and clear bottles that let the color of the product shine through. A representative describes it as “very millennial-oriented. It was the right time and right place” for both pastels and natural product. Herbivore’s most popular products are the Blue Tansy mask ($48) and the Lapis face oil ($72). The voice on the site is straightforward and conversational, if a little generic, explaining the ingredients and benefits. (“We believe skincare should smell and feel amazing and add enjoyment to your daily routine.”)
What some millennials think:
“I will say this: The person doing the photos on their website should be commended. The color coordination is working for me; the layout is beautiful, down to the shadows. If I were ever going to spend seventy. two. fucking. dollars. on oil to reduce my facial redness, these photos would be the reason why.” —Anneliese, 25
“Beautiful packaging, and the oils, mists, and soaps are interesting! Definitely up my alley, as I am trying to go for the natural thing.” —Claire, 33
Instagram: 697,000 followers, based in Australia
Frank, founded in 2013, also pre-dates Glossier, but is at its peak popularity now thanks to a successful Instagram influencer strategy. The pouches of “natural” coffee scrubs ($18) are still best-sellers, but the brand has expanded into facial products. Its most recent launch, Shimmer Scrub, which comes packaged in a holographic pouch, had a 50,000 person waitlist and is currently sold out. Urban Outfitters is its biggest US retailer, but it’s sold in over 140 countries. Its voice is one of the voiciest of all these brands. Frank is imagined as a benevolent male presence who speaks, sometimes in double entendres, to his “frankfurts,” which is what the brand calls fans. “Our frankfurts have a relationship with Frank himself. Frank talks to them, and never at them. It was a refreshing change from the hyperbole of the beauty industry,” writes Frank co-founder Jess Hatzis, 30, in an email. “He’s cheeky and a bit of a flirt. His mission in life is to make babes feel great.”
What some millennials think:
“I could potentially see myself purchasing something like this as a gift for a friend. It's impossible to not feel pandered to with a quote like ‘For babes who eat glitter for breakfast,’ but it works for being cute and fun, which I assume is what the brand is going for. —Jenna, 27
“I'm not overly into this whole sparkle and glitter obsession going on, so their Instagram makes me feel like I'm choking on it. But the brand seems authentic. It’s flat out is called ‘Frank,’ and they're pretty frank about it all.” —Courtney, 23
Instagram: 5,000 followers, based in ?
Feel launched a few months ago, but its founder declined to be interviewed for this story because he felt the brand was too new. But it’s been making the rounds on Instagram, and Tanisha, Racked’s associate market editor and a person I trust implicitly to tell me about cool things, saw it and was drawn to it. Its website greets you with this: “You’re more than just a pretty face. You’re also pretty whip smart. Pretty hilarious. Pretty dynamic. Pretty incredible.” Feel wants to sell you emotional well-being along with charcoal sheet masks, hair texture spray, self tanner, and a floral face mist, which comes complete with a self-love mantra printed on the box and flash tattoos inside it. Millennial pink abounds, as does a vaguely ’90s print on the packaging.
What some millennials think:
“This Instagram panders to me on the deepest level. What are they selling? I'll take the silk bathrobe or the pearl ring inside a fig or the dewy freckled skin, whichever it is I can get on this site.” —Lizzie, 26
”The site definitely makes me want to purchase products. Any beauty message of ‘looking good on the outside starts with what’s on the inside’ is in line with my view of beauty and makeup.” —Jenna, 27
Instagram followers: 8,000, based in Australia
Co-founders Carla McGraw, 28, and Mitch Toohey, 29, launched Mint in Australia last November. It just opened up its US website this month and is also going to be making its debut at Urban Outfitters in June. It’s focused on masks, which come in pouches as either powder that you mix with water or apple cider vinegar, or pre-mixed, complete with an applicator brush. Again, the message is natural and the color is pink. More categories are forthcoming. The founders feel that millennials and teens have been “a little underserved, especially in the natural department. There are some beautiful natural products out there, but $170 for a skin lotion was not attainable for most 18-year-old girls.”
What some millennials think:
“The make-at-home mud mask concept is interesting, and something seems special with this Australian mud. I've been really into clay based masks lately, so this hits me at the right time. But it's pretty singular/one-dimensional in concept and marketing.” —Claire, 33
“The website does [make me want to buy products] because of the information provided on the products.” —Courtney, 23
Instagram followers: 59,600, based in San Diego
Kopari was founded in late 2015 by Kiana Cabell, 28, and beauty industry vets Bryce and Gigi Goldman and James Brennan. Kiana was raised in Hawaii and her dad was a pro surfer. The line is coconut oil-based, and its best-seller is a jar of coconut oil with nothing else in it, though there are multiple other face and body products that use the ingredient. It took off last year with the news that several celebrities, including Jared Leto, had invested in the brand. It’s now carried at Sephora, Revolve, Free People, and on QVC. The look is beachy, the voice is perky, and the ingredient story — words like “pure” abound — is focused on clean. “We talk to them the same way we talk to your best friend: approachable, inclusive, and in an authentic way,” says co-founder Bryce Goldman. “Beauty, especially natural beauty, has always had a tendency to be overly serious, but we’re just having more fun talking about it.”
What some millennials think:
“Loved the feel of this Instagram page! I am a big beach lover, so the beachy feel of this product was a huge plus for me. That alone would push me to research the product more and potentially buy it (if I wasn’t totally broke right now).”—-Ally, 22
“Their Instagram confirms that, yes, they're doing a whole beach thing. More coconuts. I'm exhausted by it. I'd rather watch Blue Crush and enjoy my Lubriderm-slicked legs in peace.” —Anneliese, 25
Instagram followers: 6,700, based in South Korea
This Korean brand launched last August, but its parent company, which has a clinic in Seoul that attracts celebrities from around the world, has been around for 60 years. This is the most aggressively “millennial” brand on the list, but it seems to be working. It’s carried at Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, and Aerie, and more stores are coming. This brand doesn’t really play up the fact that it’s K-beauty, but rather focuses on the ingredient story. It’s meant to be fun, but also highlights the science and actually isn’t afraid to talk about aging. “In Korea we know when to start and how to start taking care of our skin, versus out here it’s still a new concept. I wanted to approach American women with the concept of early anti-aging skincare,” says Sydney Baek, the executive vice president of the brand.
What some millennials think:
“While they are similar to the other brands with the colors, their goal of making you feel the way you do on a perfect Saturday seems different.” —Courtney, 23
“There is a big disconnect between the ‘feeling’ of the brand versus the medical nature of the active ingredient behind it. If it weren’t for the credibility factor of it being popular in Korea, I would probably discount the whole brand altogether.” —Claire, 33
Obviously the handful of millennials that I spoke to are not anywhere close to representative of an entire generation, and none of them actually tried any of the products. While a compelling Instagram post might get you to try something once, ultimately it’s going to have to work. But the snap judgments the women had about these brands are one clue that there probably is room for more new brands out there. Millennials, like human beings in general, do not all want the same things, despite this avocado toast stereotype that’s been foisted on them. Even in the microcosm that is Racked, my co-workers, who probably recognize better than civilians when they’re being aggressively marketed to, had almost violently different reactions to some of these brands, ranging from utter cynicism to the heart-eye emoji. So what ultimately makes someone want to buy?
On the surface, these brands sure look the same. So many words have been written about millennial pink, and I don’t really want to write any more except to say that they feature the color either in their packaging, on their websites and social feeds, or both. Herbivore uses it to represent nature. Saturday Skin uses it to represent a “youthful glow.” Mint uses it because it has a rose product and people liked it better on Instagram than green, the brand’s original color. (Don’t sleep on green, though, marketers. The color, ranging from minty to beachy, often shows up with millennial pink in these brands. Is it Millennial Mint? Aspirational Aqua? Supplemental Seafoam? Whatever it is, it’s almost as prevalent as pink. Milk Makeup, which offers mostly makeup with some skincare, is the glaring exception in this packaging trend.)
Packaging is obviously just one part of a brand’s overall messaging, though. Intangibles, like whether or not a brand reads as authentic, how it engages with customers, and how it builds community, are crucial. “What we’ve learned from Gen Z and millennials is that they’re tired of this big brand pushing down aspirational images and want people and companies and brands to really reflect who they are,” says Crystal Sai, a graduate student and research team leader in the master’s program in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management at FIT. Her group has been conducting consumer research into the buying habits of millennials.
Millennials are more aware (and wary) of ingredients than other generations, according to the FIT researchers, which is why language like “natural” and “clean” is prevalent. But innovation is ultimately crucial for indie brands’ survival — they should be “bringing newness to the market,” according to Sai. When you get past the blush-hued chatty exterior of these brands, Herbivore has a strong natural story, Frank has coffee, Mint has mud packets, and Kopari has coconut. They’re not all doing the same thing in the same way.
For Urban Outfitters, whose buyers have an eye for these brands before anyone else and stock five of the six brands discussed here, this is a key point. “Even core brands that we may have brought in, their best-sellers are not our best-sellers. [Being at Urban] gives it that edge, that credibility that it’s not average,” says Laura Zaccaria, Urban Outfitters’ divisional merchandise manager. Being at Urban is often a tipping point for brands, as it was for Herbivore and may be for Mint.
All of these brands have a pretty distinct voice, whether it’s on their websites or in how they respond to fans on social media. From Frank’s “frankfurts” to Kopari’s package instructions telling you to put its product on your “bod,” these brands have personalities. Mint Skin’s McGraw, who herself is a millennial, says you can tell when a brand isn’t authentic. “You can pick it up in a second. It’s like, ‘Stop, Dad. Stop doing that!’” she laughs. “It’s a language and you either get it or you don’t because you either speak it or you don’t.”
One thing probably will remain constant, though, at least for the short term. “I see the theme of this pink across all these brands showing up one way or another,” says Courtney, one of the reviewers. “I can't deny that I'm a sucker for it.”
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