Lessons learned in 2020 – Indie brands

Lessons learned in 2020 – Indie brands

What did happen?

Whatever anyone thought would happen to beauty in 2020, it wasn’t a pandemic-related total shutdown. However, that is what the cards dealt us all and, at first glance, Indies looked like they had the ace. After all, Indies have always had agility in their deck not to mention the fact that many are digitally native, fluent in D2C and selling via social media. Indeed, many pivoted quickly and early, turning their hands to producing 2020’s two products of the year: hand sanitizer and soap.

On the other hand, supply chain disruptions and widespread delivery delays hit Indies harder than they did heritage. Consumers may well have been supporting small in theory – but faced with month-long delays and shortages, not to mention financial pressures, many switched allegiances.

The pandemic has accelerated prevailing trends too; most notably for the Indie camp, the shift from make-up to skin care. By their nature, Indies are usually single-category focused, so those whose trade is lipstick and foundation will have experienced a sharp drop in sales this year – although that didn’t stop Puig investing in Charlotte Tilbury in June.

While we’re on the subject of M&A, a combination of COVID-19-related cash-flow difficulties and caution and the furore over Kylie Jenner’s overblown net worth has introduced a note of hesitation into the previously booming buy-out market.

What should have happened?

Whatever comes next, it’s worth noting that, while Indies had the market all but wrapped up in 2018, heritage waged war and was beginning to make headway as 2019 drew to a close. Make-up’s fall from grace, combined with some high-profile acquisitions weakened the Indie message.

What Indies had yet to realise in late 2019 / early 2020 was that their long-held measure of success was not working in their favor. For years, Indies had used the yardarm of being bought out by a multinational or being stocked in the likes of Sephora and Ulta as a sign they’d arrived; hit the big time. In fact, it marked the beginning of the end.

Sitting on a high-street shelf, or becoming another feather in L’Oréal / Lauder’s bow wasn’t different. And these brands had shot to popularity in the first place precisely because they were different. Shoppers delighted in discovering something new, enjoyed a sense of kinship and belonging. That gloss wore off when these brands were suddenly everywhere – in other words, they became a victim of their own popularity or, to borrow the millennial vernacular, they were now basic.

What will happen next?

To succeed, Indies need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new definition of what success looks like. They could learn a lot from Glossier – a privately-owned, billion-dollar beauty brand that lives and breathes online and specialises in that no-make-up look. Indeed, there are signs that this is happening already – the launch of Jones Road is a case in point. Indies will never be able to compete with the likes of Amazon in terms of delivery but they can create a sense of community and purpose that a large corporation just cannot inspire. The boost black-owned Indies have received this year as a result of the BLM movement urging solidarity is a case in point.

Of course, what we have yet to touch upon is the 2020 trend that is playing right into Indie’s hand: wellness. From CBD to microbiome, the next big beauty buzzwords are attracting huge amounts of cashCamillo Pane’s latest venture is a fine example – and new launches abound with celebrities flocking to put their name to wellness brands.

On the other hand, with pandemic-related restrictions predicted to last well into 2021, it’s looking increasingly likely that the recovery will be K-shaped. Indies are predominantly positioned in the middle, making the next 12 months make or break for many.

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