Fresh off a controversy surrounding the brand’s SPF 30 sunscreen — which became the subject of an angry online grassroots campaign claiming the product didn’t work, complete with photos that showed badly sunburned users — Alba is gearing up for the Sept. 9 launch of a full color cosmetics and skin-care line called Honest Beauty.
This story first appeared in the August 19, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Regarding the sunscreen controversy, The Honest Company has been relatively mum, declining to elaborate beyond a statement saying, “Our team is reaching out to everyone who has posted on social media to assure you that we’re committed to your safety and satisfaction. As always, we’ll do what it takes to make it right.” Brand experts say Alba can ultimately overcome the backlash, but they’re urging her to be more aggressive about publicly tackling the problem.
Sitting down with WWD exclusively — pre-sunscreen snafu — at The Honest Company headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., Alba was more forthcoming about her strategic vision for her brand and how beauty fits into the picture. “The values we stand for — safe, effective products to lead a healthy life — translate into every vertical,” she said. “Beauty was always part of the plan. It was just a matter of when, how and being able to execute it properly. I didn’t want to do this half-ass.”
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So Alba assembled a 50-person Honest Beauty team, including director of beauty Kristin Mason, who cofounded Delux Beauty with Jillian Dempsey. Its Web site and e-commerce will exist separately from The Honest Company, and will have its own logo and look. The target demographic is 15- to 35-year-olds, although Alba hopes to reach a wider customer base than The Honest Company, which is known for its diapers and bath and body products geared toward kids and mothers.
If successful, the beauty side could eventually dwarf its parent company in terms of scale and revenue. “The size of the beauty market is much larger than the other categories we are claiming today, so does it have the potential to be larger than The Honest Company? Absolutely,” said Brian Lee, cofounder and chief executive officer of The Honest Company. “We wouldn’t go into a category unless we thought we could make a large impact.” Lee declined to give beauty sales projections, but The Honest Company continues to grow, reportedly recently raising $100 million in a new round of funding, valuing it at about $1.7 billion.
The 83-piece collection includes 17 skin-care products and a 66-piece makeup range. There’s a Daily Beauty Fluid with SPF 30 (it contains 19.7 percent non-nano zinc oxide, a different formulation than The Honest Company SPF 30 sunscreen with 9.3 percent that caused the uproar), tinted SPF 20 moisturizer, gel cleanser, moisturizers for oily and dry skin, and an eye cream. In cosmetics, there’s a double-ended mascara and lash primer, crème concealers and blushes, chubby lip pencils and glosses, eyeliner, eye shadow and brow pencils and a cream foundation compact.
As Alba looks over the lineup of pink and gray bottles and silver compacts, she’s drawn to the primer, rice powder cleanser and makeup-remover wipes. “There’s no hero product; we tried to offer anything you could ever need,” she said. “If women like one product, they’re likely to try more. I will always try something that a girlfriend tells me she loves, way more than watching a commercial about it.”
To that end, social media will form the core of the brand’s public relations strategy at launch, ranging from quick-take tutorials on Instagram to inspirational quotes on Pinterest. To date, The Honest Company hasn’t employed traditional media such as print ads, television or billboards. “We’re not there yet,” said Alba, who has 5.8 million followers on Instagram. (The Honest Company has 363,000.) “We’re still wrapping our heads around that ROI [return on investment]. Online, you can track your investment in a very real way, so we’re doing what we know.”
That means mobile storytelling and shopping. “We want to reach our customer in an interesting, innovative and on-the-go way. Women are on their phones consuming fashion and beauty content, connecting with their families and friends. We wanted to integrate our launch and e-commerce capabilities into a seamless mobile experience,” she said.
Honest Beauty will have a brick-and-mortar presence with a six-month pop-up shop opening at The Grove in Los Angeles on Sept. 25. The 1,100-square-foot space will feature midcentury modern lines with warm, organic materials and eclectic touches. Local artists will contribute to video installations and store windows. Tech will also feature prominently: Customers can try on makeup virtually with real-time 3-D makeup application stations, take a selfie to share with friends and capture their look in a photo booth.
While no other pop-ups are in the works, Alba said she’s open to retail in the future. “Having the choice to come in or order online is a convenience we know customers want,” she said.
Like other famous faces in the beauty biz, Alba’s years of on-camera experience have given her a certain insight into the product base. “I’ve been working since I was 12, so I have over 20 years’ experience with makeup, and I am used to a really high standard of effectiveness and quality,” she said.
She observed that the current beauty market falls into two camps, the first being products that are natural and ineffective (an ironic assessment, perhaps, given the sunscreen dustup) or those that contain chemical ingredients an increasing number of consumers are looking to avoid.“The most important thing for us was effectiveness and safety, so we led with that,” Alba noted. “It’s about giving people peace of mind and telling them what we are honestly free of.” That refers to potentially harmful ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, petrolatum, sulfates and chemical sunscreens. Instead, the products contain naturally derived botanicals such as chamomile, calendula, aloe vera, rosehip and green tea.
Prices range from $8 to $40 for skin care and $15 to $30 for cosmetics. Sourcing such ingredients and products in small batches can be costly, but Alba and Lee said the company is willing to work on smaller margins in order to make the products accessible. “We are building a prestige brand, but we are offering it at a price point that is within reach. That has been challenging operationally as far as figuring out what that sweet spot is, where we’re willing to take a hit on margins, and will certain things ever scale,” said Alba. Lee added, “The company was founded to help create a healthier environment for everybody, not just rich folks. That’s why we take a hit on margins, because we’ll only make a difference if we get it in people’s hands.”