“The next phase of investments are to drive traffic, trial, conversion, repetition on your own site.”

We are in a moment of significant evolution for beauty’s biggest companies — and it’s leading major players in the industry to chase investments in smaller brands and innovations to keep up.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused most of the category’s largest players to take a hard look at their brand portfolios and decide what should stay, and what should go. Divestments and brand closures have ensued, but so have acquisitions and venture capital-type investments. Experts say those smaller deals are here to stay as big beauty companies look to match the pace of change. 

Many of those businesses — L’Oréal, Unilever, the Estée Lauder Cos., Procter & Gamble, Natura & Co. and others — have built out venture-level investing capabilities to do just that.

In 2018, L’Oréal set up Bold, a fund that takes minority stakes in start-ups and backed social commerce platform Replika in December; Unilever Ventures has backed a slew of beauty companies, including Beauty Bakerie, Saie, Nutrafol, True Botanicals, The Inkey List and Uoma; Lauder led a $3 million round for men’s cosmetics brand Faculty earlier this year; P&G Ventures has backed Metaderm and Opte, and Natura & Co.’s Fable Investments just inked its first deal with a minority stake in Perfumer H.

For Natura & Co., Fable may potentially help expand the Brazil-based company’s geographic reach — something it has also worked to do with the major acquisitions of Aesop, The Body Shop and Avon. “We’ve got a very strong Latin American presence but certainly in Asia, certainly in North America and even Europe, we’ll be looking both organically and inorganically to grow,” said Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive officer of Aesop. He is using his experience scaling Aesop to help lead the fund, which will aim to make between 10 and 15 investments. 

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Some of those smaller investments may eventually become acquisitions, he noted. “This is part of the process, I suppose, planting some of those seeds that will hopefully become the larger brands in the coming decades for us,” O’Keeffe said. 

That strategy — big conglomerates looking to invest in little start-ups — is one that will continue as the beauty industry’s scope, distribution and marketing strategies evolve, causing a shift in the needs of the large beauty companies. Those changes are a big part of the reason the sector has seen so many divestitures, including Shiseido’s sale of the mass market portfolio, and even brand closures, such as Lauder winding down Becca and Rodin Olio Lusso.

“Corporations have been doing VC investments for a long time — generally, it’s a reaction to the pace of change, real acceleration in multiple trends, a lot of transformation in beauty that’s happening very quickly, which is now being driven more by technology than anything else. It’s a way to play a little bit outside of your box and keep a pulse on the market,” said Dipika Soni, managing director at Evercore.

“It’s sort of a way to tap into an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, technology leaders, visionaries that are outside of your game, but you want to learn what’s going on,” Soni continued. “There’s a way to learn and continue to be at the edge and it’s more important today in the market than it ever was.”

Soni said modern beauty companies are using three different models: outright acquisitions, minority investments and VC investments. So far, few conglomerate-led VC investments in beauty have turned into outright acquisitions, but several of the minority acquisitions have. Lauder, for example, bought the rest of Seoul-based Dr. Jart+ in 2019 after making a minority investment in 2015, and plans to buy the rest of Deciem in three years, after buying a minority stake in 2017.

One financial source noted that while VC investments and smaller deals may help keep a brand portfolio fresh, having a major product hit in a billion-dollar brand will still generally bring in more in sales.

On the super-small VC front, many beauty businesses are looking to invest in technologies, in addition to brands, Soni noted.

“There’s a real push toward getting, in the case of L’Oréal for example, 50 percent of sales through e-comm. There’s a whole slew of things that you may want to do to support that. It includes buying digitally native brands, it includes buying technology that makes the shopping experience frictionless or more entertaining,” Soni said. Companies may also want to invest in marketing and data analytics to maximize marketing return on investment, she added.

“The next phase of investments are to drive traffic, trial, conversion, repetition on your own site,” Soni said. “The consumer is more segmented, and in some ways when you’re [selling] online, there’s no retailer, you also get to have a very segmented brand portfolio. You’re almost able to manage multiple brands but those brands have to have a reason to exist, they have to mean something to somebody. And we have to have scalability across geographies.”

Beyond direct-to-consumer capabilities, experts expect to see continued investment behind clean and sustainable beauty brands, as well as personalized offerings.

“The d-to-c shift is pretty permanent, but outside of the that, there’s somewhat of a health and wellness shift as well,” Soni said. “In terms of the big bucket investments, they’re going to come in to play around d-to-c brands, e-commerce technology and tools and clean beauty and personalization.”

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