The turbulence of 2020 has given rise to a period of transformation for the beauty industry, a period in which categories are expanding, consumers are demanding and the very definition of beauty is evolving. Keeping up with the pace of change — much less leading the way — is no easy matter, but the 45 brands here have managed to do just that. From actively driving meaningful social change to navigating a forever-changed post-pandemic retail landscape to approaching product development from a new and unique point of view, all have pivoted to better reflect the realities of winning in the brave new world of beauty.
The Establishment: Their roots in beauty grow deep.
In a year when hair care grew faster than any other category in prestige beauty, Aveda was a key player, adeptly amplifying key themes of the year, including sustainability and sourcing transparency. Under the new leadership of global president Barbara De Laere, the brand, an OG when it comes to environmentally friendly practices, reformulated its assortment to be entirely vegan, named supermodel Arizona Muse its first sustainability advocate, launched a carbon-offsetting program and partnered with Wholechain to make supply chain information readily available, while also launching a relief program for salons and spas hard-hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Despite headwinds, makeup is still the largest category in prestige beauty, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Benefit is the biggest brand in prestige color, according to the NPD Group. With consumers focusing on the area above face masks, i.e., the eyes, Benefit’s hero eyebrow products were shoppers’ favorites in the segment, occurring to Cosmetify. The brand’s agility showed that it’s still playing well digitally, too — in 2020, Benefit garnered $507 million in EMV, per Tribe dynamics, and its virtual They’re Real! Magnet mascara launch party attracted 77,000 visitors.
Talk about cleaning up. Once the province primarily of dermatological offices, Cerave was catapulted into primetime relevance by skin care obsessives like TikTok creator Hyram Yarbro, whose #cerave-tagged content generated over 300 million page views. Social media clout translated into sales: Cerave was said to have grown sales 82 percent to $600 million in the first nine months of 2020. According to search data from Spate, it’s also the fastest growing beauty brand on Google Search, and per IRI, the top-selling cleanser brand in mass, increasing sales a whopping 131 percent in a category that only grew 3.6 percent.
Amid turning tides at Coty Inc., no single brand’s comeback is more emblematic of the company’s potential than Cover Girl. The brand, which had encumbered growth at Coty along with the 40 others it acquired from P&G in 2016, gained market share for the first time in four years in 2020. While the reprise of its partnership with original Cover Girl Niki Taylor appeals to an older consumer base, the vegan and clean repositioning of its new launches is also resonating with younger ones. According to data from IRI, its Simply Ageless foundation is the top seller in the category and its Lash Blast Clean Volume Mascara was a mass-market first.
Dove has always been a leader in driving purpose through its brand message, and this year was no exception. As the new social justice movement took root in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Dove’s actions spoke as loudly as its marketing. The brand cofounded the CROWN Coalition in support of the CROWN Act, legislation which prohibits discrimination based on hair texture and style. The products still resonate, too: stalwarts like the Beauty Bar, which was included in Beauty Inc’s list of the greatest skin care products of all time, sells over 26 times every second, while men’s products and hair care held their own in a challenging market.
After pivoting to a multibrand business with W3LL People and Alicia Keys’ Keys Soulcare, E.l.f. Beauty’s eponymous beauty brand is still a powerhouse in its own right. Due in part to its early adoption of TikTok, where its catchy namesake song soon went viral, sales are still doing well. The value-priced brand is the second-fastest growing makeup brand, according to NPD, and it tops the list in terms of concealer and eye shadow brands, according to date from IRI.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the ultimate in legacy beauty brands is still going strong. Lauder is the third-largest skin care brand in the U.S., according to NPD, and a powerhouse in China. Even its tried-and-true heroes are still snagging awards: the reformulated Advanced Night Repair topped the list of the Marie Claire Prix awards, as well as Beauty Inc’s tally of the greatest skin care products of all time, as voted on by industry insiders.
The La Mer wave shows no sings of slowing. The luxe skin care brand continues to drive core products like the original Crème and Soft Cream, and newer ones like Renewal Body Oil Balm and Eye Cream, which won awards from Allure and Glamour, respectively. One of the strongest-performing brands globally in the Lauder portfolio, La Mer also leads the way on ocean conservation efforts with its Blue Heart fund.
With 86 years under its belt, the heritage brand (and crown jewel of L’Oréal’s portfolio) hasn’t lost any relevance. According to data from the NPD Group, it’s still the third-biggest skin care brand, and is keeping interest high with purpose-driven initiatives. Last year, the brand bought four acres of organically farmed rose fields in Grasse, France, for fragrance production, and donated $3.5 million worth of product to nurses across the globe on International Nurses Day.
Despite a challenging year for the brand’s key categories, L’Oréal Paris held its spot at the top of the food chain as the world’s largest beauty brand. It has led the surge in skin care, with the Derm Intensives line growing 61 percent in the U.S. in a category that only grew 2.9 percent, according to IRI, and its Revitalift Laser Ampoules winning a Marie Claire Prix Award. Even in color cosmetics, the brand cemented its spot as the top powder and blush, according to IRI, and remains second overall in the market, according to Euromonitor, which reports L’Oréal Paris is the top brand globally in hair care and number two in skin care.
The Lauder-owned cosmetics heavyweight has adeptly navigated a turbulent year in makeup with the digital know-how and forward thinking of an indie. According to Tribe Dynamics, MAC generated over $300 million in EMV last year with a hearty network of over 14,000 influencers; the brand was ranked third on last year’s L2 Digital IQ Genius List for the beauty category. Moreover, it’s still the second-biggest makeup brand, according to NPD, which MAC is leveraging for good — as of its last Viva Glam campaign, starring Spanish pop star Rosalía, it had donated over $500 million to the campaign’s namesake fund, which benefits AIDS-related causes. It tacked on an extra $10 million for coronavirus relief efforts, too.
Maybelline New York
The world’s biggest makeup brand shows no signs of slowing. Maintaining its position as the top brand according to Euromonitor, last year’s launch of its Sky High mascara was the biggest in the brand’s history. Online interest also reached a crescendo: data from Cosmetify reported Maybelline has the top-searched mascara and BB cream. As Maybelline targets a newer, younger group of devotees, it also tapped “Euphoria” actress Storm Reid as its latest face and to provide consumer insights for the brand’s Brave Together mental health initiative.
With consumers ever savvier about what ingredients they’re putting in their hair, and why, the Johnson & Johnson-owned hair care brand has maintained its top positioning in the mass market shampoo and conditioner category thanks to an ingredient-driven approach that consistently hits key trends in health and nutrition. The strategy is working: shampoo sales were up 10 percent in a category that fell 0.4 percent, and conditioner sales totaled over $146 million, according to IRI.
Procter & Gamble’s global powerhouse keeps getting stronger, reinventing itself to stay on the cutting edge of relevance. The world’s fourth-biggest skin care brand, Olay has used its scale to drive everything from the gap of women in STEM to racial equity to an end of animal testing in the skin care industry overall. Olay is also focused on safety and sustainability, testing refillable packaging for its Regenerist Whips franchise, which landed a spot on Beauty Inc’s polling of the 100 greatest skin care products of all time.
The Unilever-owned hair and body care brand is a leader in creating clean products that work for myriad skin tones and hair textures, but what really sets it apart are its purpose-driven initiatives that draw on its heritage of community commerce. In one of the most turbulent times in recent history, SheaMoisture used its voice to help drive progress in the social justice movement. For example, “It Comes Naturally” commissioned six Black and multicultural women artists for a campaign, donating all of the proceeds to Black women entrepreneurs. According to IRI, the brand’s products are hitting the mark, too: it has the top mousse and styler, and the second-best-selling conditioner in the hair care segment and body care is a standout, too.
The Independent Spirits: Watch them grow….and grow…and grow.
Sales may have kicked off with rave reviews from the likes of Melanie Griffith, but consumers are returning for the results. The brand’s hero creams topped Beauty Inc’s list of the 100 greatest skin care products of all time, and has taken its trademark biotechnological approach into ingestibles. Fans can’t get enough — industry sources report the brand could hit $150 million in retail sales in 2021, more than double last year’s projections.
The OG clean beauty brand has piqued interest from consumers and investors alike. After The Carlyle Group acquired a majority stake in Beautycounter — a deal that valued it at $1 billion — founder Gregg Renfrew went on to testify as an expert witness in Congress after the Personal Care Products Safety Act was reintroduced. Renfrew was also quick to expand into new categories and channels, giving credence to her network of advisers with a pop-up in Sephora last year and new category expansions in 2021, ranging from body care to color cosmetics.
Is there any brand better at harnessing cultural cognoscenti to drive sales? From collabs with Travis Scott to tapping makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench to be co-creator of the brand’s color line, founder Ben Gorham has cemented his position at the center of the zeitgeist. The strategy is working, resonating with consumers and industry insiders alike. Space Rage, the Scott project, sold out in less than three hours, while Tobacco Mandarin, one of Byredo’s fragrance launches, received The Fragrance Foundation’s Fragrance of the Year, Universal Luxury award.
The brand whose Supersonic hair dryer disrupted the staid category of hair tools and transformed them into objets d’art has continued to combine form and function to great effect. Dyson’s latest launches in the hair category — the Airwrap (an Allure Best of Beauty winner) and Corrale devices — are consistent bestsellers at Sephora and Ulta Beauty, helping fuel the fast-growing prestige hair category.
Digital fluency drove The Ordinary and its parent company, Deciem, to new heights this year, doubling sales to $460 million. That seems minuscule compared to the $2.2 billion valuation that came with its acquisition by The Estée Lauder Cos., but the brand is just as appealing to the internet set as it is to the beauty giant. According to Spate, The Ordinary is the second-most searched brand in beauty, and July 2021 data from Skincare Hero showed it’s the most hashtagged brand on TikTok. It’s expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint, too, by going into all Sephora doors and Ulta Beauty at Target.
Drunk Elephant is a mainstay on Sephora’s bestseller pages and repeatedly gets called out for its resonance by Sephora Americas chief executive officer Jean-André Rougeot, too. Look for it to expand its footprint even further this year, as an anchor brand in Sephora’s shop-in-shop concept with Kohl’s. Drunk Elephant may no longer be independent — Shiseido acquired it for $845 million in 2019 — but the brand has kept its cool factor intact with its category expansions into body and hair care.
Fenty Beauty By Rihanna
Early to both the celebrity beauty frenzy and among the first with a truly inclusive vision in prestige beauty, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna is one of the most highly regarded brands in beauty when it comes to consumer sentiment. Talkwaker’s 2021 Love Brands report named it the most loved brand in the U.S., while Tribe Dynamics said it garnered over $456 million in EMV. Shine bright like a diamond indeed.
A trailblazer in several senses — from wellness and ingestibles to clean beauty and celebrity skin care — Goop (and founder Gwyneth Paltrow) has shown itself to be on the cutting edge of what’s next long before it hits the mainstream. Moreover, the products themselves clearly win over customers. GoopGlow Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator is a favorite among industry insiders, as ranked in Beauty Inc’s list of the greatest skin care products of all time, and a winner of multiple Allure Best of Beauty awards.
The Honest Company
An early adopter of ingredient transparency and environmental consciousness, Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company has proven that clean beauty is where the cash is. The brand raised $412.8 million during its IPO in May, selling more than 25 million shares and giving the company a value of $1.44 billion. Last year’s revenues for the brand hit slightly above $300 million, and while household and wellness currently account for the lion’s share of sales, Alba is firmly focused on increasing Honest’s beauty business, which currently account for 26 percent of overall revenues.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian
The LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-backed brand has long been the best-kept secret of beauty insiders — but increasingly consumers are coming to the party as well. Kurkdjian has been one of the brands driving sales of upscale niche scents, a category considered one of the big winners in an overall tough year, ranking fifth on Spate’s running list of fastest-growing beauty brands by search. Search is translating into sales: According to the NPD Group, its Baccarat Rouge 540, whose fans include Winnie Harlow and Kacey Musgraves, is fragrance’s fastest-growing product.
Among the first to partner with influencers and achieve digital dominance, Morphe’s online persona is still among the strongest in beauty, despite its associations with influencers such as James Charles and Jeffree Star whose offensive statements caused Morphe to cancel its partnerships with them. Still, the company, which was ranked second on Tribe Dynamic’s list of EMV with over $660 million garnered over 200,000 posts, and parent company Forma Brands has pivoted, incubating offshoots like Morphe 2 with TikTok creators Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Bad Habit skin care with Emma Chamberlain.
Few brands benefited from the prestige hair care boom to the extent that Olaplex did. A leader and early mover in bond technology, the brand doubled sales in 2020 to a cool $600 million under chief executive officer JuE Wong. According to the NPD Group, that makes it the largest brand in hair care and the second-fastest growing. Cosmetify also declared it the hottest hair care brand, being the most tagged across social media, a status Olaplex is looking to capitalize on with its newest launch, the No. 8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask.
One of the earliest crusaders for ingredient safety, Paula Begoun’s brand reformatted its approach to better appeal to Gen Z, going from longer-format web-based stories into TikTok bite-sized pieces of information. Also an original d-to-c player, Paula’s Choice expanded into brick-and-mortar distribution via Sephora, where its Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant garnered five-star reviews and bestseller status. The brand is slated to hit $300 million in estimated sales for 2021 (up from $220 million last year and $70 million in 2017), figures which didn’t go unnoticed in the industry. In June, Unilever bought the brand for an estimated $2 billion.
With founder Vicky Tsai back at the helm as CEO, the brand — a consistent bestseller at Sephora and favorite of Meghan Markle and Kim Kardashian West — is exploring new digital territories. It was the first brand to launch a product on the social selling platform Newness. Sources say the Unilever-owned line is poised to overshoot its consistent 40 percent growth rate, not bad for an 11-year-old company and counting.
Microbiome-friendly Tula, under CEO Savannah Sachs, has made its probiotic-infused approach to self care irresistible for young consumers across a spectrum of concerns. Its positive approach to skin health, as opposed to aging, has resonated deeply with a core base, 75 percent of whom are under age 35. According to the NPD Group, Tula is the fastest-growing skin care brand and the second-fastest growing makeup brand. Tula was also the fastest-growing prestige brand at Ulta Beauty.
The Up-and-comers: Planting the Seeds of Tomorrow
Founder and cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson demonstrated his product development prowess when he launched in 2019 with a serum featuring patented, encapsulated Vitamin C. The product has won multiple awards, including being voted one of the greatest skin care products of all time in Beauty Inc’s industry-wide survey. Distribution has expanded — originally d-to-c, BeautyStat now counts Dermstore and Nordstrom as key partners, and Robinson is growing the line as well, with a new moisturizer and eye cream and promises of more to come. Watch this space.
Heretic made headlines two years ago with its best-selling, X-rated collab candle with Goop, but breaking taboos isn’t all that founder Douglas Little does well. A pioneer in the area of natural fragrances, Heretic is steadily gaining steam, thanks to the originality of its own offerings and continued collaborations with everyone from body care brand Nécessaire to cannabis innovator Drew Martin, who created a THC perfume with Little in honor of April 20.
The Inkey List
Come on TikTok’s recommendation, stay for the ingredient simplicity. On the heels of getting into hair care last year, The Inkey List has translated social media street cred into Selfless by Hyram, its skin care range created with Hyram Yarbro. The launch alone garnered $892,000 in MIV, according to LaunchMetrics, of a total $4.5 million.
Like many a beauty brand, the spark for Mented’s founding by Harvard business school grads KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson was born out of their own personal need, but its retail expansion tells the tale of a brand with universal appeal. Mented ably withstood the hit the overall lipstick category took last year, gaining kudos for its full-face offerings, nabbing an Allure Best of Beauty awards and expanding into Target.
Sol de Janeiro
Inspired by Brazil but resonating with consumers around the world, Sol de Janeiro has been a leader in the body care boom. Its hero Bum Bum Cream continues to win accolades and great reviews, as does its expansion into hair care and fragrance. Sales are following suit: Industry sources estimate sales will hit $200 million globally in 2021. Bright future indeed.
Pat McGrath Labs
Despite the perks of damehood, Pat McGrath has fine-tuned her mastery of marketing to still win in categories battered by the pandemic. Late last year, her namesake brand’s collaboration on red lipstick with Supreme sold out in seconds — seconds — and her MatteTrance lipstick is among the top-wishlisted items on the Klarna app, according to the bank.
Pattern Beauty by Tracee Ellis Ross
Ross brought her trademark whimsy to her hair care line, Pattern Beauty, which she launched with Ulta Beauty in 2019, (where reports say it is a top performer), but it’s the seriousness of her purpose that has really resonated this year. She recently deepened her partnership with Ulta, becoming diversity and inclusion adviser, funneling the same passion that led her to become an entrepreneur into insuring inclusivity and equal opportunity for all.
Peace Out Skincare
With a keen sense of ingredients and a positive approach to frustrating skin concerns, Peace Out still owns a category reinvigorated by the advent of mask-ne. Not only has it sold over 28 million of its signature acne dots since its launch in 2017, but its retinol eye balm beat the brand’s revenue projections six times over — despite the closure of brick-and-mortar doors for much of the product’s launch period.
A slew of C-suite hires and category expansions later, personalized hair care brand Prose has put the hair care boom to good use. Sources say that sales are expected to double into over $100 million in 2021, and the brand recently took its bespoke approach to another burgeoning category: ingestibles.
Selena Gomez coupled star power and purpose with the launch of Rare Beauty, her Sephora-exclusive beauty line. The brand’s primary cause? Mental health, which it hopes to donate $100 million of revenues in its first 10 years to related causes. The concept was well received, winning Beauty Inc’s start-up of the year honors and posting first-year retail sales of more than $50 million, according to industry estimates.
Supergoop! founder Holly Thaggard has been unwavering in her mission to make sunscreen a daily occurrence — and in an era when skin health is top of mind with consumers of all ages, that message is more resonant than ever. Unseen Sunscreen and Glowscreen are perennial bestsellers no matter the season, and more recent launches like a first-of-its-kind serum combining SPF with vitamin C have cemented Supergoop!’s status as an innovator in a once-stagnant category.
Talk about the power of purpose. Entrepreneur-activist Sharon Chuter continues to gain share of mind —and wallet — with consumers. Her inclusive color cosmetics line, Uoma Beauty, expanded into Nordstrom and mass-market sister line Uoma by Sharon C. launched in over 3,000 Walmart doors. Chuter, who created the Pull Up for Change campaign, continues to advocate for true equity, creating the “Make It Black” campaign and enlisting brands including Briogeo, Morphe, Maybelline New York and others to repackage their most popular items in black for a limited-edition Black History Month awareness campaign.
Under the Clique brand family, WhoWhatWear founder Katherine Power has transformed data analytics into actionable insights. Proof point: Versed, the clean skin care brand she launched at Target. With an average price point of $20, the brand has quickly gained a cult following: On The Rise Firming Serum is among the top wishlisted products on the Klarna app, and expansion continues apace, most recently with an at-home dermaplaning tool.
Makeup artist Gucci Westman has long been the secret weapon of choice for A-list celebrities, and with her clean makeup line, which blends color with functional skin care ingredients, she is quickly gaining traction with the masses, too. Sources said sales are estimated to double this year to $40 million at retail, driven by high performance at specialty retailers and the brand’s expansion into Sephora earlier this year. As the “skinification” of makeup continues, look for that figure to continue to rise.
Youth to the People
A favorite among Millennial and Gen Z-ers, YTTP consistently tops bestseller lists. An early entrant in the superfoods beauty sector, the brand has built out the offering with more traditional actives, like its its 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum. YTTP is also on the cutting edge of beauty’s new collaborative spirit, teaming up with competitors including Ren Clean Skincare, Biossance, Caudalie and Herbivore on its #WeAreAllies zero-waste pledge.
WWD Beauty Inc consulted a variety of sources to compile our list of beauty’s most powerful brands, including our own reporting throughout the year.
Domestic and International Sales
For the prestige market in the U.S., we looked at rankings provided by the NPD Group. We also looked at the fastest growing brands in the prestige market by category. For the U.S. mass market, IRI provided sales information for the 52 weeks ending June 26, 2021. Globally, Euromonitor International provided sales rankings for each category for 2020. We also used sales and growth data from the WWD Beauty Inc top 100 annual ranking of the world’s largest beauty companies.
To determine the brands with the highest digital engagement, we consulted data from Tribe Dynamics, Launchmetrics, Spate, and the L2 Digital IQ Genius List. We also consulted Klarna’s top wishlisted products, as well as bestseller pages and lists on sephora.com and ulta.com.
Agility and Innovation
We took into account our own reporting when factoring in product innovation, trend leadership and agile response rates to the factors that have most impacted the first half of 2021. Additionally, we relied on companies’ self reporting when compiling figures related to monetary and product donations.
We took into account industry awards, such as the Allure Best of Beauty awards, the Marie Claire Prix d’Excellence, and the Fragrance Foundation Awards, as well as our own Beauty Inc Awards and ranking of the 100 Greatest Skin Care Products of All Time.