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A little over two years ago, Becca Cosmetics’ brand recognition among consumers was less than 0.5 percent, according to CEO Robert DeBaker. Then in October of last year, Estée Lauder snapped the company up for a reported $200 million. Out of all the indie beauty brands out there looking for new corporate homes or cash investments, Becca won the golden ticket. Or maybe the Champagne Pop-colored ticket is more accurate.
Becca is perhaps best known, in certain circles anyway, as the brand that was prescient enough to collaborate with YouTube and Instagram beauty influencer Jaclyn Hill (over 4 million followers on each platform) on a highlighter at a time when both Hill and highlighters were on a popularity upswing. Becca sold out 25,000 shimmery rose-gold Champagne Pop units at Sephora in July 2015 in 20 minutes. After that, the brand became better known, amassing almost 2 million Instagram followers in the process.
It would be obvious to point to this social-media success and the popularity of its highlighters as the primary driver for Estée Lauder’s interest in the brand. And these things are definitely factors. DeBaker contends, however, that Becca’s true worth lies in the people who buy the products.
“The products we offer, the imagery of our brand, and how we have talked in such an inclusive way about beauty leads us to a demographic that looks like what North America is going to look like when the census is taken in 2030. We’re already there,” DeBaker says, noting that 55 percent of Becca’s customers identify as nonwhite. “We have a product offering that allowed us to talk with credibility to that wide diversity of our base.” Magazines, bloggers, and YouTubers have long hailed Becca’s shade selections for women of color.
Then there’s age. While millennials and Gen Z are the focus of so many beauty companies now, DeBaker says that 48 percent of Becca’s customers are 35 years old and older. “We have a really great segmentation that allows us to play in multiple age categories. Look, our foundations start at $44,” he says. “This is a commitment. As we would view the world of price points, that’s not necessarily your first time foundation. An 18- to 25-year-old might not be buying us for foundation, but a 35-plus consumer is.” The other 52 percent are likely the ones buying the influencer collaborations and highlighter that looks like crushed opals.
So where did Becca even come from? The brand story starts 16 years ago in Perth, Australia. It was founded by makeup artist Rebecca Morrice Williams, who officially left the brand after the Estée Lauder acquisition. There’s not much written about her, with the exception of a few old blog posts and features in western Australian newspapers. But it’s clear she wanted the brand to be inclusive from the beginning. She told blogger Beauty Marked in an undated post (which looks pretty old by current internet standards): “[Retailers] must carry the full range. It’s a condition. Otherwise, if they don’t or are unwilling to, they can just go away. It has been very difficult. We say that unless you take all the colors, we don’t want to go with you.”
Morrice Williams sold Becca in 2012 to Luxury Brand Partners, the firm that owns Oribe, Smith & Cult, and others, but was still involved in the company. When Luxury Brand Partners sold Becca to Estée Lauder last October, the founder took home a reported $40 million payday.
DeBaker came on board just before the first sale, in 2011. The company was in a very different place than it is now. Prior to 2011, Becca had been in global luxury stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey Nichols, and Lane Crawford, then dropped from them for “lack of ability to execute well in those environments” and for “product development not being on par with what’s expected in the prestige world,” according to DeBaker. When he started, Becca had a whopping 350 products and was sold in more downscale stores like Duane Reade. DeBaker came on and shut down about 80 percent of the company’s distribution and got to work “reimagining the product assortment” by putting the focus back on the company’s strength: complexion products. The brand relaunched in late 2013 into fewer than 100 Sephora stores.
“When we got done reinventing the brand, we had fewer than 120 active [products],” DeBaker says. “Of the original 350 we inherited, there are only six that are still in the brand.” One of those is the now-classic Shimmering Skin Perfector liquid highlighter, a favorite of customers and working makeup artists alike. Becca then expanded the concept to a pressed version, which is now the brand’s No. 1 selling item.
The company started dabbling on Instagram at the same time, and even when it had only 5,000 followers, Becca would see an uptick in sales when it posted certain products. Influencers were an unknown entity to the company until Jaclyn Hill came along. According to DeBaker, she used the Shimmering Skin Perfector in Opal in a video, and after that, sales of the product skyrocketed. “It was that moment when we said, like other brands were starting to at this time, ‘Gee, we really should send some product out to these people who are doing videos, because they’re going to talk about our product!’” says DeBaker.
DeBaker met Hill for lunch to thank her for what she did for the brand and to ask her what color she thought was missing from the range. That’s when then they decided to do the Champagne Pop collaboration. The first one was released in 2015 and sold out instantly. Another more expanded collection, which included a new highlighter color, Prosecco Pop, was set to launch for holiday 2016, but the collaboration hit a snag and became the subject of a mini-scandal.
One of the products in the collection, an eye-shadow palette, was released to various influencers prior to the launch and got a lot of negative reviews for being chalky and generally bad quality. Hill took to her Snapchat to let everyone know that particular palette had been produced in a different lab than Becca’s usual one in the interest of speed and to facilitate shipment. Becca ended up not actually releasing it, and issued an apology via Instagram. Since then, there have been other rumblings that Hill and Becca had a falling out.
DeBaker laughs off this beauty-world drama, comparing the situation to something you’d see on TMZ. “We have nothing but love and admiration for Jaclyn, and I truly believe it’s the same for her toward us. We have had a phenomenal partnership and in many ways we set the bar together on what a collaboration between a beauty influencer and a brand should look like.” His pronouncement? “It was classic fake news!”
The two just released a two-year anniversary limited-edition Champagne Pop highlighter, so presumably they are working together just fine, at least as long as the profits hold up. Champagne Pop and Prosecco Pop are now permanent colors in the collection.
In addition to Sephora, Becca is also sold at Ulta. Right around the time the first Jaclyn Hill collaboration launched, indie beauty e-commerce site Beautylish, which has a reputation for scouting up-and-coming brands, picked up it up as well. It quickly became a bestseller on the site.
“They’re super entrepreneurial-oriented even though they’re a part of Estée Lauder now,” says Nils Johnson, CEO of Beautylish. “I don’t think anything has changed from our perspective. They have great product innovation. They’ve just always had great core complexion products. It’s the things they do with light, and it’s what they’ve always done.”
The Lauder acquisition has allowed Becca to grow in two key ways. First of all, it is launching globally faster than it would have been able to as an independent, thanks to Lauder’s resources and global experience. DeBaker says more than half of its social-media followers come from outside the US. Second, product innovation will happen faster because of the cosmetics giant’s huge laboratory access, so expect to see more new products launching.
Becca still is bullish on collaborations, too. Its newest is a type of collab you should expect to see more frequently: the celeb-fluencer. The brand just partnered with Chrissy Teigen on a limited-edition palette; DeBaker explains that he wanted to try to reach consumers outside of what can admittedly be an insular beauty bubble if you’re only working with beauty influencers. Teigen loves makeup, but she also has a large audience that maybe isn’t familiar with Becca. It’s a tactic that beauty brands are definitely starting to utilize. For example, Smashbox has partnered with Shay Mitchell, another “traditional” celebrity with a large social media following, on products.
As Estée Lauder’s own heritage brands falter, and new projects like the Estée Edit fail, it will be more important than ever for its up-and-comers like Becca to step up. DeBaker is pretty confident it’s up to the task, but he understands the stakes. “I think you’re dead in the water if you’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the world and the way the consumer’s relating to your brand.”
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