A botched tattoo healing experience left Oliver Zak dismayed. In 2019, the then-senior at Miami University was instructed to use petroleum jelly on his new ink, which left his tattoo in a cloudy state. The mishap led Zak and classmate Selom Agbitor to begin brewing their own healing balms in a crockpot with ingredients purchased from Amazon and apothecaries around their college.
“While Vaseline and Aquaphor are great for healing scabs, they are terrible for tattoos and contribute to ink loss,” said Zak, co-founder and chief executive of “tattooed skin” brand Mad Rabbit. “It’s a shame because you would’ve spent hundreds of dollars on a new tattoo only for it to be ruined.”
Since Mad Rabbit’s launch four years ago, the line’s hero product, a $20 tattoo balm, amassed over $400,000 in sales that year. To date, the brand has made over $26 million in sales, raking in $13 million in 2022.
The duo are among a number of indie beauty founders hoping to capture the attention of audiences in an increasingly crowded beauty market. Just a decade ago, upstarts like Glossier and The Ordinary were able to disrupt the market by selling directly to consumers online and reaching them via social media advertising at an affordable cost. Today, this fast growth is no longer feasible. With the saturation of new brands, securing investment and even landing a covetable retail partner are not guarantees of long-term success.
“With the great influx of beauty brands today, it is difficult to be a disruptor and chip away at the share of an established beauty brand,” said Larissa Jensen, senior vice president of global beauty industry advisory at Circana. “We’re seeing more and more brands shut down today because the stakes are higher.”
Brands looking to grow in this market are speaking to an ultra-specific audience, establishing a tiered approach to brick-and-mortar retail and are turning a profit in order to appeal to investors.
Finding a True White Space
Tapping an oft-neglected segment of the population or addressing unique beauty concerns is one way for upstarts to build audiences, but it’s not as easy as proclaiming a brand is “clean” or “clinical” and for it to fly off the shelves.
Mango People, a three-year-old brand that specialises in lip and cheek stains, is dubbing itself as an “ayurvedic makeup line,” the first of its kind to launch in Sephora in August, said Sravya Adusumilli, founder and chief executive. With core ingredients like ashwagandha and brahmi, the label hopes to infuse alternative medicine into colour cosmetics.
While hyper-focused on its “good-for-you makeup” messaging, Adusumilli hopes the brand reaches an audience beyond followers of Ayurveda.
“The brand isn’t specifically catered to South Asian people, even though that is where Ayurveda came from,” said Adusumilli. “We’re catering to people who think about their beauty routine holistically.”
The brand has gained name recognition on TikTok, with its own hashtag garnering over 11 million views on the platform. Mango People was also a member of the Sephora Accelerate cohort of 2022. Despite Sephora’s backing and popularity online, the brand has yet to raise money for investment.
Laura Schubert and Lillian Tung hoped their brand, Fur, would stand out based on the area of the body they were targeting: pubic hair.
“Everyone has body hair,” said Schubert, the founder and chief executive of Fur. “There should be options in the marketplace catering to this segment. As a business person, I found that compelling.”
Fur, which is sold at Ulta Beauty and Bluemercury, has not taken outside investor support and is projected to reach $20 million in sales this year, Schubert added.
Since its launch in 2016, the line has since expanded its assortment, now selling body washes and moisturisers on its website. It’s a tricky balance to remain true to a niche while also driving growth. Having a good pulse on the consumer and digging deep into a niche is one strategy. However, if a brand is vying to be acquired, it may need to expand in a measured way that doesn’t leave its core consumer behind, said Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group.
Janelle Freeman, merchandising vice president at Thirteen Lune, agreed. Being too niche at a retail location can also hurt a brand. Without enough product innovation to increase their shelf space and marketing spend to attract new consumers, brands can lose their spot, even at speciality stores, she added.
“Niche brands are generally not making enough of a dent when it comes to sales and market share,” said Jensen. “Retailers are wary of that and don’t want to stock brands that will underperform.”
The Rush to Brick-and-Mortar
New-to-market brands can no longer ignore brick-and-mortar retail.
Luckily, there are plenty of options. Retailers like Whole Foods and online fashion site Revolve have ramped up their beauty offerings in recent years, posing an opportunity for new brands to develop a physical footprint.
Kushae, an intimate skincare brand, partnered with Whole Foods as the retailer was looking to expand its assortment of feminine health products. Inked by Dani, a nail stickers and temporary tattoo brand, entered wholesale in 2019 with Ulta Beauty but is now looking to expand its network of stockists by working with Revolve and ASOS as retail partners. The company plans to add around 8,000 retail doors by year end.
“Most people haven’t thought of temporary tattoos since middle school,” said Dani Egna, founder and chief executive of Inked by Dani. “Our retailers and in-store placements are our shining moment, where most of our customers find us.”
But young brands must be careful in meeting the demands of a large retail chain, said Jensen. While a lucrative prospect, entering wholesale requires resources and infrastructure such as a robust supply chain and strong networks that indie brands often lack.
“Supply chain issues have impacted smaller brands in more significant ways than the bigger guys,” she said. “The big players have established networks and the ability to source from multiple ingredient suppliers and they tend to have huge orders that they often become a priority.”
Mad Rabbit experienced this first-hand when their sunscreen manufacturer opted to give their bulk supply to a larger client with more leverage, resulting in the brand being out of stock of a bestseller for 12 months. The brand had to partner with a new supplier that was willing to rework their formulation. A task that took six months.
“[We] ended up sending out apology coupons to encourage patience with our customers, but it hurt our sales by approximately $1 million,” said Zak.
Whereas investors in the early days of the direct-to-consumer boom were happy to generate sales growth at the cost of profit, the market today demands profitability.
“When we launched our investors were interested in whether the company was growing in terms of revenue. In our most recent funding round, investors were more concerned about whether the brand is profitable, ” said Zak, of Mad Rabbit.
Having appeared on Shark Tank, Mad Rabbit has raised $11 million in total funding and counts Lucas Brand Equity, Mark Cuban and Acronym Venture Capital as investors.
The brand had to “trim a lot of fat, make every dollar count and become more efficient,” Zak said. August 2023 marked the first month Mad Rabbit has turned a profit since its founding in 2019. The founders shifted their focus from acquiring new customers through expensive social media marketing and instead focused on retaining their existing customers by sharpening their products and entering into wholesale partnerships.
While the market is not catalysed to respond to niche brands and a small brand may have a tough time growing. Collectively, however, indie brands are chipping away at the share of established players, said Jensen.
“It’s a David and Goliath situation,” she added.