Read our new manifesto
Feature

The new ‘cool girls’: how DTC darlings such as Trinny London are upending beauty

The Glossiers, Birchboxes and Trinnys of the world are forcing traditional beauty giants to rethink content, branding, personalisation and direct selling. The Drum catches up with beauty’s new school of ‘cool girls’ to find out more about how they’re changing the face of an entire industry.

You might know Trinny Woodall best as one half of Trinny and Susannah, the brutally honest, fashion-conscious Brits who – back in the noughties – dressed down the nation on BBC show What Not To Wear.

For a whole generation of women on Instagram and Facebook, however, Woodall is fast becoming a new kind of beauty and style influencer through regular content series such as ‘Closet Confessions’ (which delves into tricky fashion topics like how to choose the right shade of pink or the right pair of jeans) and ‘Makeup of the Week’ (tutorials on everything from ‘no-makeup makeup’ to red lippie).

Since 2017, she has also been the founder and chief exec of premium beauty brand Trinny London – a startup that operates primarily online and offers women of all ages mini ‘stackable’ personalised skincare and beauty products that can easily fit in their handbags.

Within five months of launching it had made £1m in revenues and has been growing ever since. It’s secret sauce? A mixture of digital marketing, organic content and offering customers tailored one-to-one experiences in-person and online. And it’s not just for young women.

“Our approach has been to speak authentically to a customer who is often ignored online,” explains Shira Feuer, the brand’s chief marketing officer who previously headed up Disney’s marketing efforts in EMEA.

The brand is part of a growing throng of fresh-faced, direct-to-consumer beauty and cosmetics companies looking to take a slice of beauty and personal care market that’s worth $532bn globally by finding new ways to build relationships with makeup-obsessed customers online.

You can add to that list Glossier, the no-frills brand that sells cult products like Boy Brow and Future Dew, all wrapped up in a smart social strategy. In 2018, the company says, its revenues doubled to surpass $100m. It has since raised nearly $200m in venture capital.

Subscription services like Beauty Pie (which cut a $290m profit in 2019) and BirchBox (with 4 million subscribers) are also finding new ways to take on the L’Oréals, Estee Lauders and Cliniques of the world.

Building new tribes

At the heart of the Trinny London’s strategy is organic content, featuring the brand itself as well as recommendations across other verticals, from skincare to fashion to wellbeing. “We’ve built a strong level of trust with our audience because they know we only showcase brands that Trinny really believes in,” says Feuer.

She concedes that bulk of its content is “short-form video” across its own or Woodall’s channels, which it has found to be effective in terms of ROI. This is complemented with paid media on Facebook and Instagram, and a strong email loyalty initiative.

The most “unique and powerful” element of the brand’s marketing strategy, according to Feuer, is the ”Trinny Tribe” – a group of fan-created Facebook Group communities comprising “tens of thousands of people” around the world who “bond over Trinny and the brand”. It’s a strategy that has also been adopted by women’s glossies, such as Glamour, which use the platform to cultivate engagement with their audience around products and content.

“Lots of brands use the term ‘community’ to refer to a social media audience; but I believe ours is a real community. The Tribe is not just about us and them, it’s about the relationships they have with each other that have developed over a shared passion for the brand. To have this level of brand advocacy is incredible, and while it remains community-led, we have a very close relationship with them and they are a huge part of the success of the business.“

Trinny’s London’s success has been aided by the fact that the DTC-focused model has become attractive to customers once more in the midst of a pandemic. Amid Covid-19, DTC brands have seen the bulk of their sales growth from owned channels, with Bluecore data showing that digitally native brands across categories saw 53% overall sales growth in April.

Subscription fatigue?

Can you ever truly recreate that tactile experience of sauntering around a department floor, however, squirting yourself with perfume while lavishly layering expensive creams on your hand until all smells smell the same?

Well, Birchbox seems to think so. Established back in 2010, its monthly subscription box sends personalised samples of beauty products through the post, with the hope of herding subscribers on to its website to buy the full-sized product.

“Birchbox pioneered the concept of testing beauty products in the comfort of your home,” claims its vice-president, Alex Valbona. “Education can happen at home and at your own pace, and doesn‘t have to be dictated to you in-store.”

Birchbox was an instant hit when it entered the beauty scene, earning $1.4m in seed funding in its first month of business, and within four years the company was valued at $485m.

10 years down the line and it feels like every company offers a subscription, from meal kits to razor blades... even Pret a Manger got in on the hype. If there‘s one industry at risk of subscription fatigue, however, it is the beauty industry. As well as Birchbox you have Glossybox, the Lookfantastic Beauty Box, the Pip Box for natural beauty brands, the Friction Free Shaving Box that makes supermodel legs attainable, and so many others.

“I wouldn‘t call it subscription fatigue,” says Valbona. “When Birchbox started, it was more about convincing everyone that subscription can be fun and purpose-driven. The challenge is making ourselves different from what‘s out there and making our customers choose us.”

Valbona thinks instead that the proliferation of beauty boxes has actually benefited Birchbox, because it has grown the subscription category. Enticing customers to trial a box isn‘t the hard part, however. The difficulty is retaining them after a couple of months. “That‘s one of our biggest challenges. But we also know and acknowledge that subscriptions might not be forever. That‘s why we try to offer customers something more than just a box.”

He explains that while it starts out with a subscription box to court potential customers, this is so Birchbox can begin building deeper relationships with them, with the aim that they will use its shop exclusively.

This is why, in 2021, Birchbox is looking to make its customer experience more sophisticated, says Valbona. “Personalisation and contextualisation based on content and data will be critical to shaping this real-time experience. Flexibility will also be critical to conquering the new customer, which means that we‘ll need to provide different ways to adapt her need to our product and service offerings.“

Beauty, but make it personal

Many beauty brands still heavily rely on the in-store experience to drive sales. According to NPD, the UK high street accounted for 80% of beauty sales in 2018. But that hasn’t stopped the likes of L’Oréal and Sephora from investing in virtual reality (VR) makeup solutions and remote beauty assistants for the past few years.

With big name brands still seeing most of their sales coming from physical retail, however, it ist he fiercely nimble digital native brands that have emerged best equipped with the data and tech-savvy to handle the crisis.

In April, at the height of the pandemic, DTC wellness and skincare brand Tula experienced a 400% year-on-year increase in sales. Even Avon has undergone a digital overhaul after a 200% digital sales uptick in the first half of the year, with chief beauty and brand officer James Thompson recently telling The Drum about its corresponding brand overhaul.

For Birchbox, with everyone at home during lockdown, the pandemic led to a slew of new subscribers. “We realised that we started organically acquiring more customers as the eyeballs were on us,“ says Valbona. “We had more traffic, especially with new customers, so we took advantage of this time to increase our customer base.“

Trinny London, meanwhile, relied on its Match2Me tech (which sets recommendations for women online based on their completion, skin needs and hair colour) and launched a virtual consultation service.

“These tools make the customer’s decision-making process much easier,” says Feuer. “And once they see it works the first time, it’s a key driver for retention because they know they can trust the product recommendations.”

On the response from customers to these virtual appointments, she says: “It’s been fantastic seeing people who have traditionally purchased in-store begin to buy makeup online for the first time thanks to the personalised service provided by our talented makeup artists.

“Even though it’s via a screen, they experience the same feeling they would at an appointment in-store.”

Additional reporting by Imogen Watson.