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Target Taps Beauty Incubator to Develop Three Exclusive Lines

In a bid for more competitive beauty options, Target tapped Project Underground, a beauty incubator, to develop three lines exclusive to the mass retailer.

For Target, appealing to the masses means less me-too products on its beauty shelves.

In a move to cultivate unique merchandise, the mass retailer turned to upstart beauty brand incubator Project Underground to develop three exclusive bath and body brands: Mayfair Soap Foundry, Marlowe and You Are Amazing. Along with the recent acquisition of Sonia Kashuk and release of the nail polish line Defy & Inspire, the trio, which has rolled out across the chain with nearly 60 stockkeeping units priced from $3.99 to $12.99, demonstrates Target’s increasing emphasis on beauty.

Dawn Block, senior vice president of beauty and essentials at the retailer, underscored the partnership with Project Underground helps position Target as a beauty destination. “Differentiation is an important part of Target’s strategy, and our growing roster of in-house and exclusive brands allow us to bring guests a mix of high-quality, affordable products they can’t find anywhere else,” she said.

The relationship between Target and Project Underground began early last year, when the new company set out to create high-quality products for the retailer with a strong focus on design and affordability. Explaining the process, Monica Saracino, general manager of Project Underground and previously a senior buyer at Target, said, “We started with the total beauty space in mind. There were no rules. We came together with open minds. We brought to the table some of the things we were seeing in the marketplace, and Target has a lot of internal insight. Ultimately, we had a brainstorming session and came up with eight to 10 ideas. Then we continued to iterate and prioritize.”

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Project Underground focused on the ideas that seemed most likely to succeed. With unfussy packaging heavy on black and white, Saracino said that with  the men’s and unisex positioning, Marlowe addresses shoppers who embrace “a lifestyle of adventure. They love simplicity, ease and clarity.” For its formulas, Project Underground identified nourishing extracts geared toward men. The products contain passionflower fruit, green tea, willow bark and deep sea algae extracts. A few weeks in, Marlowe’s beard oil, the priciest item in its range at $12.99, is a standout performer. “The men’s facial and shave line is doing very well. It makes a great statement in the grooming aisle,” said Saracino.

You Are Amazing is the least expensive brand within Project Underground’s initial offering. Its products are $3.99, and are aimed at girls and women aged 14 to 24. The brand banks on bright colors and bold scents of lavender fields, coconut water, eucalyptus mint, juicy grapefruit, vanilla bean, mango papaya, lemon meringue and a bouquet of cherry blossom, rose and plumeria. “You can really see the personality behind the brand,” said Saracino.

The best-selling brand out of the gate is Mayfair Soap Foundry. The brand’s style and content  are intended to combine upscale British sensibilities with a modern flair. Its refined floral blends include white lily, jasmine, rose and sweet berry. “This one is [targeted] at working women aged 25 to 40 potentially with a family who really appreciate relaxation and a break in their busy days,” said Saracino.

The three brands have philanthropic tie-ins. Ten cents for every unit sold of Mayfair Soap Foundry is given to Starlight Children’s Foundation, and an equal amount goes to the organization Clean The World when Marlowe products are purchased. For every sale of a You Are Amazing product, five cents are donated to Girl’s Up, the United Nation Foundation’s campaign for adolescent girls. “I don’t think it is the primary factor in buying, but what we have learned is that it gives people an opportunity to feel good about their purchases,” said Saracino of a charitable cause.

To build recognition of its brands, Project Underground handed out 10,000 samples at Target’s headquarters and has trained hundreds of beauty concierges at Target stores. Mayfair Soap Foundry also got a boost from participating in Target’s February beauty box scheduled around Valentine’s Day. “One of the big things for us is driving trial and awareness through the different programs Target has to offer,” said Saracino, noting, “Mayfair has been a fantastic gifting story.”

Project Underground wouldn’t discuss first-year sales projections for Marlowe, You Are Amazing and Mayfair Soap Foundry. “Overall, they are doing well. We are trending and, every week, they are improving,” said Saracino. For the duration of this year, Project Underground will concentrate on the three brands and could possibly launch additional brands next year. At the moment, all its projects are attached to Target, but Saracino didn’t rule out associations with other retailers. “We are open to seeing what happens in the future,” she said.

Project Underground has staff members in El Segundo, Calif., New York and Minneapolis. In total, it has about 20 employees. Saracino described the firm as a beauty “think tank” dedicated to conceiving brands tackling specific consumer needs. “It follows the fast-fashion model,” she said. “People are looking for newness and innovation constantly. From my time at Target, I realized how long it takes in the whole production lifecycle to create, but I knew [as a consumer] I wanted new things. I wanted to be the first one to have them, and I wanted them quickly. We know that’s what the Target guest wants. An incubator can help do that.”