When Brandy Hoffman and Patricia Santos crisscrossed the globe establishing new markets for the skin-care brand Algenist, they fantasized about breaking down the walls between executives and consumers. “We saw too often product decisions are made behind closed doors of conference rooms,” says Santos.

Now the duo are flinging open the doors with the launch of their own venture, Volition Beauty. The beauty counterpart to merchandise creation crowdsourcing concepts like Threadless or CafePress, the San Francisco-based Volition seeks suggestions for products from consumers and behind-the-scenes cosmetics creators and, after vetting the suggestions for feasibility, quality and safety, lets consumers vote on whether they’d be willing to purchase them. At the moment, it takes 500 to 1,000 “yes” votes for an item to be manufactured by Volition Beauty, and its first crowd-approved skin- and body-care products, including Detoxifying Silt Gelée and Moringa Silk Body Oil, went on sale, priced from $40 to $45, on November 11.

“We had a hypothesis that, if we gave con- trol to the people who are using the products, they would come up with ideas to solve problems, and we have been blown away by some of the ideas they have come up with,” says Hoffman.

Volition isn’t the only beauty company turning to crowdsourcing for product development. For a growing number of brands, the concern isn’t too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s too few. In an age in which consumers are constantly communicating with brands, marketers are increasingly soliciting consumers’ opinions directly, inviting them to participate in product development in person or electronically.

“I believe in democratizing beauty,” says Emily Weiss, founder and chief executive officer of the Web site Into the Gloss and skin-care brand Glossier. “The next generation of successful consumer brands will be built digitally, in tandem with their consumers. Brands that maintain a ‘we’ ll make it, you’ ll buy it’, elusive and exclusive presence will increas- ingly be seen as stuffy and old-fashioned.”

Divya Gugnani, cofounder of Wander Beauty and founding partner at Concept to Co, views crowdsourcing as a logical extension of social media interaction. “People are so quick to tweet you or Instagram. It’s so much easier to get direct, immediate feedback about what [consumers] like or don’t like over social media,” she says. “Being in touch with your customer makes for the best brand experience because you really cater to them.”

Wander Beauty has leveraged its social media relationships by asking fans to share their opinions about in-the-works shades on its Instagram account, and the account of model and brand cofounder Lindsay Ellingson, who has nearly 770,000 followers on the platform. The company received almost 200 comments on an Instagram post showing four shades of eye shadow that asked followers to share their favorites. A Champagne hue was the most popular and was part of an Exqui- site Eye Liquid Shadows duo that launched on QVC in September.

In addition to social media, Wander Beauty sends lab samples of potential products to up to 150 people and gives them about a week to reply to survey questions. “You need a lot of votes. Having 10 people vote on something is not crowdsourcing,” says Gugnani, who tweaks formulas based on feedback. After sending out surveys for its upcoming Flash Focus Hydrating Foundation, Wander Beauty discovered users said they were too sheer. “We were shocked because we thought it had enough coverage,” Gugnani says, “but the general trend is that people want more coverage, especially in a stick formula.”

Marta Wohrle, the founder of the ratings and review site Truth in Aging, ventured into product development after conducting a survey with 10,000 of its members that contained questions about products missing from the market. About 1,000 people responded; among the insights—that there is a lack of effective hair-growth products for women.

Wohrle subsequently produced Truth Vitality Advanced Complex. During the development process, she distributed it to roughly 200 people who used the product for three months and filled out questionnaires every month. In reaction to their critiques, the scent of the hair-growth product was one of several elements modified.

Truth Vitality now has six stockkeeping units for hair and skin priced from $25 to $279 sold on Tuth in Aging’s Web site.

A large personal-care conglomerate may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on quantitative and qualitative assessments to garner such consumer insights. Small companies don’t have that kind of cash. Crowdsourcing “is a much more efficient process because you are not taking a big bet on the product and hoping for the best. At a small company, you don’t have the funds to redevelop it and relaunch it two years later,” says Wohrle.

Crowdsourcing can funnel product investment to sure winners. “We know for a fact when [customers] want a product. It seeds the market so that there is
assurance products are going to be successful,” says Hoffman.

Julep ceo and founder Jane Park started crowdsourcing its ergonomic Plié Wand with a display ad that cost a few hundred dollars to gauge if its idea to revamp the nail-polish brush had legs. “It was super cost-efficient. We were just measuring clicks on that ad and seeing if people were interested,” says Park. After the clicks signaled it should forge ahead, Julep summoned customers over Facebook to join it — for free — at Ideo, the Palo Alto, Calif., design firm, where it was evaluating polish-brush prototypes. “The leading concept was knocked out after five minutes of watching people using different tools,” recounts Park.

Julep hosted three further rounds of consumer-product testing in California and Washington, and embarked on a crowdfunding campaign that raised $125,000 to pay for the initial production run of the Plié Wand. “We met our [fund-raising] goal within 24 hours. It was 100 percent funded in terms of the minimum we needed to get manufacturing across the finish line,” says Park. “The whole product design process from beginning to end took three months. It’s one of our bestsellers now.”

Julep adjusted its strategy for its Lip Mousse. It sent out e-mails to ascertain if customers would want to test the product; 80,000 replied. The brand selected 500 who received spinning and gliding versions of the applicator. The gliding version triumphed. Julep then turned to Instagram to drive followers to a branded landing page, where the company collected votes on shades and suggestions for shade names. They racked up 14,000 of the former and 2,100 of the latter. “That was a way for people who didn’t participate in the physical product development to have a voice,” says Park.

Julep releases some 300 products a year and only crowdsources for unique products. “You can’t crowdsource everything because you will end up with nothing,” says Park. “Only ask questions when you really want to listen to the input.”

Not all companies are organized to easily crowdsource. Collaboration across multiple departments is essential. “This doesn’t work in a company where marketing, inventory planning and product development don’t work completely hand in hand,” says Park. “When we have a major product launch, we have cross-functional teams that meet weekly so we can be moving together.”

It’s also tough without active communities. Julep has 10,000 members of its so-called Idea Lab who regularly offer input, while Truth in Aging attracts approximately 380,000 visitors monthly to its Web site. “It takes years to create a real community of people who are genuinely engaged….That’s hard for others to replicate,” says Wohrle.

When Weiss wrote a post on Into the Gloss titled, “What’s Your Dream Face Wash?,” it drew 377 replies that formed the basis of a brief provided to the chemist concocting Glossier’s face wash. The deluge of feedback was possible because more than one million beauty enthusiasts populate the site and product line’s community.

Gregg Renfrew, founder and ceo of Beautycounter, says tapping the direct-sales brand’s customers and consultants for information can help it predict how a product will sell. Eighteen months ago, Beautycounter surveyed its community on product desires and a sunscreen stick was high on their list. “We bought deeply into that, and we sold out immediately. Previously, you had to take a position based on trends that you thought would occur and go deep into inventory, and hope it would work,” says Renfrew. “[Now], we know in advance of launching a product how it is going to perform, and we are 99 percent accurate.”

While some brands shun crowdsourcing for fear that it will give competitors a sneak peak of products prior to release, Park says speed-to-market counteracts such issues. “We are faster than the bigger companies,” she says. And as for angering consumers whose ideas aren’t heeded? Park has found consumers are satisfied when their voices are heard regardless of product outcomes. “When you let people into the process,” she says, “they are invested in the results, even if they don’t get their way.”

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