We unpack the rise of celebrity beauty brands and their effects on the beauty industry
Kylie, Rihanna, Kim, Madonna and soon Ariana, Gaga, and Hailey Bieber, not to mention countless others already on the market – it seems every celebrity has a make-up or skincare line these days. While celebrity-owned beauty brands are nothing new, there has been a resurgence in recent years, with the announcements in 2019 so far suggesting it could be the biggest year yet. But why are there so many new celebrity brands cropping up all of a sudden?
Celebrity beauty brands are nothing new – Elizabeth Taylor was the first star to create her own fragrance back in 1987, while supermodel Iman launched her cosmetics line for “Women with Skin of Color” in 1994. The nineties and noughties saw new celebrity fragrance and cosmetics brands by the dozens, but the recent influx of celeb-peddled wares has felt different. The evolution of celebrity branding has seen stars go from endorsing products through traditional advertising to partnering with brands on fleeting products of their own, arriving presently at brand ownership.
There are a few celebrity beauty brands dominating the landscape and unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know I’m talking about Kylie Cosmetics and Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, with Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty a close runner up. Both of these first two brands have broken records: Kylie’s business model has been heavily praised and imitated, with Kylie Cosmetics valued at over $900 million by Forbes, and that’s just three years since launch. Meanwhile, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, created by Sephora’s private brand incubator Kendo, launched with a groundbreaking 40 shades of foundation in 17 countries around the world on the same day. The phenomenon has even garnered a name, “the Fenty effect,” wherein 40 shades of foundation (or in the least a decent shade range) has become the new standard in the industry. For this, the brand even received a Time Magazine award as one of the Best Inventions of 2017.
The story of these two very young beauty behemoths encapsulates what is happening in the beauty industry today as a whole – it’s being turned on its head. Through the growth of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales, the rise of social media relevance in advertising, and increasing millennial buying power—the World Data Lab predicts that by 2020 millennials will hold greater spending power than all other generations—the beauty industry is, as Forbes put it, “not in an evolution, it’s a revolution.” And for that, there is no clearly defined path. Backing this up are 2016 statistics that show traditional corporate make-up sales were down 1.3 per cent, while independent brands such as Glossier and Milk Makeup were up 42.7 per cent.
Perhaps the best example of this shift from the old guard to the new is Estee Lauder’s failed venture with Kendall Jenner, The Estee Edit, which launched in 2016. Attempting to capitalise on the millennial market, Lauder signed the elder Jenner first as a face of the brand, followed by an 82-piece collection fronted by the model. Public interest was directed more at Jenner herself than the products, resulting in lacklustre sales and prompting the corporate giant to discontinue the collection in 2017. Meanwhile, in November 2015 Kylie had first launched her Lip Kits and by 2016 expanded to Kylie Cosmetics to much fanfare. The fact that Lauder went down the route they did shows an attempt to stay relevant, but the failed outcome confirmed that old hat brands are increasingly redundant in today’s millennial-driven market.
The impact of social media on upstart independent and celebrity brands is key. Co-founder of global consultancy collective The Akin, Sarah Johnson explains how brands like Glossier make “the industry feel more human and accessible, having ‘real’ people interact with it.” Gone are the days of a select few gatekeepers dictating stale and often toxic standards of beauty. Now that there is an interest in identity politics, inclusivity and ethical image standards, Johnson says, “social media has spawned a new form of content and advertising around beauty, where independent or DTC brands can be more agile and reactionary too.” This ability to react quickly worked in Fenty’s favour recently when they were called out by Estée Laundry after announcing a new Killawatt Highlighter named “Geisha Chic”. The culturally insensitive name surprised many considering Fenty’s “woke” appeal, but the brand’s immediate apology and ownership of the gaffe, as well as pulling the product before it even reached shelves, served to highlight the brand’s strong ethical stance.
This all ties into the broader notion of relatability. Millennials want someone they can relate to and celebrities they idolise fit that bill much more than a corporation. Though celebrities aren’t exactly relatable—their lifestyles are aspirational and that’s what actually sells product— in the case of the Kardashian-Jenners, we’ve seen their rise to stardom, we’ve grown up with them in our living rooms, we’ve contributed to their success and that counts for a lot. Take Kylie’s first Lip Kits for example: created in response to intense interest and scrutiny over whether she’d had lip fillers (as well as a general obsession over her sudden favouring of nineties-esque browns such as MAC’s Velvet Teddy lipstick), Kylie came clean to the world about her childhood insecurity over her thin lips and not only received admiration for her honesty but started a beauty empire in the process. The Kardashian-Jenners excel in taking a weakness and leveraging it for clout – one only needs to consider how Kim’s sex tape began their rise to fame in the first place. So while Kim and Kylie aren’t relatable with regards to wealth or lifestyle, their road to beautification is more so.
Bridging the gap between celebrities and their fans is social media, the rise of which has allowed them to communicate directly with their following while creating a sense of community. This provides the perfect conditions for a brand launch, as the target audience already exists, while the celebrity has access to a free marketing platform via their personal social channels. But that’s not to belittle the work involved in launching and maintaining these brands. The onus is then placed on celebrities to actually participate in the brands they’ve created, with Kylie, Rihanna, and Kim standout examples of heavily involved brand heads.
Compare the success, for example, of Kim’s KKW Beauty with the Kardashians’s previous foray into beauty: Khroma Beauty, which became Kardashian Beauty, and was plagued by legal problems and eventually shuttered, but not before a lawsuit was taken out against the sisters for not holding up their end of the promotional agreement. The suit was ultimately rejected and parent company Hillair Capital Management were demanded to pay the sisters $10 million in damages. But it’s a case in showing that simply putting a name to a product won’t suffice, celebrities need to put in work for their brands to succeed.
With celebrities already in the business of curating an image combined with the beauty industry’s current booming growth, finding a way to shill a version of their likeness to fans is completely logical, with big profits to be made by both celebrities and beauty incubators such as Kendo and Seed Beauty. And considering the immense success of Kylie, Rihanna, and Kim’s ventures, it’s little wonder that the industry is going into overdrive in an attempt to capitalise on this success.
The question then becomes, if and when the celebrity beauty market will oversaturate? It’s certainly becoming fuller by the day, but as long as Ari, Gaga and the like have devoted fan bases, someone will be buying. Provided what’s being offered is considered and not purely a money grab, there’ll surely be longevity for these brands. Ultimately millennials and Generation Z after them will be the ones to decide on how these brands fare. We’re living in a time when the beauty buying majority has more sway than ever before, and just as they’ve helped build these brands to where they are, they can just as easily withhold their purchasing power.