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Next Generation D-to-C Beauty Brand Founders Talk Shop

Founders of Mented Cosmetics, Nécessaire and Kristin Ess Hair discuss learnings gleaned from this past year.

The dust hasn’t yet settled from the coronavirus pandemic, but some best practices are emerging from successful direct-to-consumer beauty brands.

Mented Cosmetics flourished last year, despite trading in makeup — the beauty category hardest hit during the health crisis.

“We feel fortunate Mented actually was able to thrive in 2020 for a couple of reasons,” said KJ Miller, chief executive officer and cofounder of the brand. One was that Mented is digitally native, so when other brands found themselves pivoting hard to e-commerce, Mented was already poised for additional traffic.

“It’s like we had trained for this race,” Miller said. “We had the shade-matching tools, the quizzes, dozens and dozens of tutorials, models of every skin color. The consumer wanted something that felt familiar and comforting. We were able to offer them that.”

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Another reason was that Mented had always focused on everyday beauty.

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“Last year for a lot of people was about paring back,” Miller said. “So that’s how we were able to weather the storm and have a pretty strong 2020.”

Also last year, Nécessaire, the body care and wellness brand, launched premium body care online — a rarity. Three fundamentals gave it the courage, according to Randi Christiansen, CEO and cofounder of Nécessaire.

“One is we thought we could break through with a product that was simply better than what was in the marketplace,” she said. “That we could bring facial-grade skin care into body care. Number two, we very much felt that in this world of abundance and choice, this idea of essentials, the necessary, would give our clients some comfort.”

From a communication perspective, the idea was to strike up a two-way dialog with consumers about self care and wellness as a necessity.

“It’s what allowed us to start,” Christiansen explained.

Meanwhile, Kristin Ess Hair took another route, having debuted in brick-and-mortar before launching its own d-to-c platform. Online selling gave the brand’s founder Kristen Ess better inventory control, and she could use her training know-how online.

All three beauty executives found that communication with their consumers had shifted over the past 12 months.

At Nécessaire, the brand has always considered the client as a friend, and the importance of such a relationship has been emphasized over the past year, Christiansen said.

“It went from: ‘Where’s my order?’ to ‘How do I draw a bubble bath?’” she said. “One of the things I’ve been most pleased about is the dialogues we’ve been able to have on a very micro-personal level. For me, it spans product, content, service, education — remembering there is this special human being on the other side. One of the things I love about d-to-c is having the opportunity to own the relationship with that person. It’s a powerful and humbling thing.”

Miller said some barriers had to come down regarding how Mented communicated. It needed to be a bit more human and real in its discourse. In June, for instance, in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s police killings, Miller wrote a letter for social posting that she said began: “Essentially, right now, I don’t feel like selling lipstick. Right now, I’m heartbroken like the rest of you. And we’re in a pandemic.”

That struck a chord.

“It wasn’t about sales — it was just about being honest,” she said. “That’s what’s relatable. A lot of brands had missteps last year in trying to cash in on a moment.”

The honesty, Miller believes, helped Mented forge even deeper relationships.

For Ess, a lot of the conversation with consumers revolved around how they could get through the time when they couldn’t leave home and see their hairstylist, even though it was necessary to still look presentable for work. Another part of the discussions was about people wanting the brand to expand into other categories.

The entrepreneurs said they are bullish on brick-and-mortar retail’s prospects.

“There is very much a future there,” Christiansen said. “All these wonderful retailers are reinventing their relationship with their clients — fast, with incredible excellence. I believe the consumer will come back. What does matter is that the partners with whom you are doing trade, or where your brand is sold, has to really funnel up to your bigger purpose. They have to embody what your brand believes in, what it stands for.”

Christiansen has faith in the omnichannel approach to buying beauty. The executive said she’s humbled by her retail partners.

“There’s a tremendous value-added to those partnerships,” she said.

“I agree,” continued Miller, saying she’s thrilled with partnering with retailers such as Target “because at the end of the day, that [shopping] experience is singular. If and when we ever make it out of this pandemic, people are going to be craving in-store experiences. So I’m pro-retail. Will it shift? Will it change? Absolutely. But is it going to go away entirely? I’ve never thought that.”

Retailers today are requiring much more from brands, noted Ess.

“Their standards have been raised, their expectations are higher,” she said. “We have to meet that demand. I like that overall, because it’s better for us, the customer and the world.”

“I really want to echo that,” Christiansen said. “Retail partnerships can also propel you and be a phenomenally positive thing. I’ve had with our retailers some of the best, most strategic dialogues about sustainability as a topic, which is key for Nécessaire.”

Entering brick-and-mortar retail can also bring down customer acquisition costs versus online.

“I benefit from people just walking down that aisle — whether they’ve heard of my brand or not,” Miller said. “If I do it right, hopefully, I’ll catch their eye. So that opens a whole new channel of customer acquisition. That’s what we’re really excited about as we think about our new retail partners.”