Indie Cosmetics Brands are Disrupting the Cosmetics Industry — by Better Understanding Their Millennial Customers

Jul 10, 2017 · 10 min read
Courtesy of Glossier

When I first started buying make up, the reasoning was quite simple: A blemish needed some covering up or my lips were too pale. If I needed a product, I would go to the department or drug store, both of which would carry the usual big name, trusted brands like Estee Lauder and L’Oreal. It was a functional, straight-forward process because there were really only so many brands to choose from.

Nowadays, buying make-up is a whole ordeal that involves multiple rounds of YouTube-review-consulting and Instagram-stalking to narrow down your choices from the endless number of speciality brands popping up everywhere. From targeting specific price points like Colourpop that offers more affordable products, to specific ethnic groups like Iman Cosmetics which was created for women of color, there seems to be a specialty market for any need. Furthermore, these indie brands have proven to be stiff competition to the big brands in the cosmetics industry.

What about these indie brands is so enticing, especially to millennials? And how have they been able to take the cosmetics industry by storm?

To answer this, let’s consider the following questions in this article:

  1. What are indie brands?
  2. What is unique about the key messages that indie brands market to their customers?
  3. What is unique about the marketing tactics of indie brands?
  4. What can big business learn from this?

Note: This article is based on my personal observation as a customer myself, supported by articles / books I’ve found. I’ve cited other sources to support my argument where possible, but I fully acknowledge that some hypotheses may differ from others people’s. If you would like to leave comments or challenge my view points, please do so!

1. What are indie brands?

Let’s first understand what we mean by “indie” brands. Intuitively, I would consider indie brands brands that are not, well, “big” brands like Covergirl and Maybelline. I found the following definition from however that will hopefully help the non-make up consumer get a better understanding of what “indie” brands are:

1. Purpose Driven

2. Independently Funded

3. Design Conscious

4. Small Batches

5. Non-traditional Marketing

If you’re into fashion, an indie brand in the cosmetics industry would be what Everlane (indie) is to H&M (big). See also below for some examples to illustrate which brands I will consider indie vs. big for the purposes of this article (with the understanding that there may be some grey zones):

Table 1

2. What is unique about the key messages that indie brands market to their customers?

Wearing make up as a fun, exciting experience

To understand how indie brands have transformed the industry, let’s take a look at why cosmetics have been used and what the consequences of wearing make up have been.

Cosmetics usage dates as far back as the Egyptians with the purpose to create aesthetically pleasing features. While this purpose still holds true today, wearing cosmetics has also come with stigmas. Ask any woman (or man) who has ever worn make up, and they will probably tell you that they have been discouraged from wearing “too much make up”. Some of this can be attributed to societal standards for and expectations of beauty, that “less is more”, that “men don’t like women who wear too much make up” and that wearing make up means you’re “insecure”, “vain” and “obsessed with yourself” (if you’re not convinced, check out the titles of this and this article).

As we have been witnessing a renewal in feminism, women are being encouraged to transcend societal norms and celebrate their femininity. Make up then has become a way to embrace individuality and express oneself. It doesn’t just stop at expressing one particular personality. Wearing make up is a way to try different looks, feelings, characters. For millennials whose personalities, values and beliefs are still changing, make up is a powerful and fun tool to explore oneself.

How do indie cosmetics brand capitalize on this changing perception of wearing make up? Let’s take a look at the website of a brand called Limecrime:

Courtesy of Limecrime
Courtesy of Limecrime

Yes, these are bubbles drifting across the screen. This website already screams fun, femininity and experimentation (mermaid looks, anyone?).

Also check out the shipping box that carried the lipstick that I bought from their website:

I fell for the marketing!

It has unicorns and pink roses inside.

Indie companies are so successful because they truly understand how consumers feel. They understand that putting on a red lipstick is no longer about just painting your lips red — you are trying to show the world you are a confident individual who embraces her / his more daring side. Every point of contact they have with customers reiterates this message, from websites, to their product designs to shipping boxes. When you buy products from them, you feel that you’ve been given tools to be your own self, to be creative and to have fun. These brands get you.

Celebrating diversity among their customers

Shopping for make up as a woman of color has traditionally had its frustrations. Many brands are mostly focused on products for lighter skin tones and have limited selections for darker skin colors (see here and here for some stories on how awkward and even humiliating this can be for customers).

Some indie companies like INGLOT, Becca Cosmetics and IMAN cosmetics were founded to provide women of color with more options. How does this make indie brands successful? Firstly, this value proposition provides the immediate first-mover advantage of entering an underserved customer population. Secondly, this value proposition will serve the brand in the future by being conscious of shifting customer demographics.

To explain this, let’s take a look at the current US demographics and how they are projected to change by 2050 (published in Forbes based on findings by the Pew Research Center):

While minorities currently take up 34% of the US population, they are expected to make up 51% of the US population by 2050. Minorities will be an even more significant economic and social force than they already are today. By creating relationships with this market segment now, indie brands have a head-start to owning a continuously growing customer base.

Let’s also consider how understanding diversity affects the brand image. We already know that millennial customers want more than just good products. They care about the experience that the company delivers. They want to feel understood, represented and empowered. Millennials are among the most socially progressive age groups. Issues like social representation of minority groups and the LGBTQ community matter to them. By supporting diversity causes like MAC which is well-known for its support of the LGTBQ community, indie brands help customers identify with the brand on new, refreshing levels. A brand that is able to recognize the need for more inclusive representation shows that it values its customers as dunique individuals, and puts the customer at the center of the company mission.

As an example of this item in action, let’s take a look at the Instagram feed the indie brand Beauty Bakerie.

Courtesy of Beauty Bakerie
Courtesy of Beauty Bakerie

Diversity galore!

Making the consumer the hero

Consumers want to feel good about the purchases they’re making, especially millennials. As more information on cosmetics ingredients becomes available, millennials want to know whether the make up they buy is cruelty-free and additives-free. Indie brands are particularly good at appealing to customers’ ethos. Compared to many big brands such as L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Maybelline and the Sephora brand that still test on animals, many indie brands don’t. There’s even a brand called Beauty without Cruelty!

Let’s take an example that highlights the importance of appealing to a customer’s ethos. Urban Decay was acquired by L’Oreal in 2012. Urban Decay, until the acquisition, had marketed itself as a cruelty-free company. L’Oreal however does test on animals, and usually requires all its subsidiaries to. When the acquisition was announced, a social media storm ensued. I still remember the long Facebook posts from customers criticizing Urban Decay for “exchanging morals for money” and announcing that they would not support the brand moving forward. Urban Decay, to address the concerns, eventually agreed to remain cruelty-free.

3. What is unique about the marketing tactics of indie brands?

Heavy and almost exclusive use of social media

Social media is many indie brands’ sole marketing channel. This is in part because indie brands have small budgets — running social media accounts is a cost-efficient way to reach potential customers. How have indie brands spread so quickly then they have only one marketing channel? They have leveraged social media to build extremely personal relationships with their millennial customers.

Let’s take a look at how indie companies collaborate with make up influencers and bloggers. Make up bloggers like Nikkie de Jager enjoy a large and loyal social media following (7.9M on Instagram as of July 8 2017 — that’s more than Angelina Jolie with 7.1M!). Most of their posted content on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube consists of make up tutorials, product reviews and even vlogs. Many of them, who now earn as much as $500,000 a year from commissions and sponsorships, started their career through modest YouTube videos filmed in their bedrooms.

Put yourself in the shoes of a follower who has been watching a make up blogger like Michelle Phan since she started her first YouTube video in 2007. You have watched first attempts at sharing her make up knowledge through the grainy lens of her camera and echo-y voice over. You have seen her get one of her bigger breakthroughs in shape of a sponsorship with Lancome. She’s introduced her boyfriend to you (virtually, that is) and her own make up brand. Long story short — you have practically grown up with her for the past 10 years, and you feel a personal connection to her.

Make up bloggers are so appealing to millennials is because tuning into their channel feels like listening and getting advice from a friend. If the blogger raves about a product that, unbeknownst to you, they were paid for by the company, you are more likely to perceive it as genuine advice than an advertisement. (Watch this video by Vox on why social media personalities are so great at marketing themselves.)

Indie companies understand this dynamic and have used it to their advantage. Below are some recent endorsements of some well-known make up bloggers (pulled on June 26 from their Instagram accounts):

  • Nikkie de Jager (from @Nikkietutorials): Jouer Cosmetics, Morphe Brushes, Ofra Cosmetics
  • Manny Gutierrez (from @MannyMua733): Morphe Brushes, Dr. Jart
  • Jaclyn Hill (from @Jaclynhill): Morphe Brushes, Becca Cosmetics
  • Laura Lee (from @Larlarlee): Morphe Brushes

All indie make up brands!

4. What can big business learn from this?

Empower your audience

Millennials don’t just want a good product. They want to feel that the product enhances their lifestyle, and that they are better people by using the product. If you are a company selling stationaries for example, don’t stop at just showing your customers that these products are designed to make them more efficient and productive. Show them how these products help them be more efficient and in turn become better and smarter professionals. Run a blog that provides tips on how to ace a job interview or how to organize yourself in the work place. Show them that by buying these products, they are doing something good for themselves and should be celebrated for doing so. Make them feel like they get to be the best version of yourself.

Make marketing personal and authentic

Millennials are constantly bombarded by advertisements. If you want your message to stick, engage them in the conversation. Encourage them to tag friends in your Instagram post. Tell them about yourself and your company’s mission. Share with them what motivated you to create product X to address problem Y, point out how struggling with these issues makes you and your audience not so different. Allow your customers to open up to you and ask them to share a story about these struggles. Engage their peers and influencers to spread your personal stories.

Lastly, note that I have focused this article on what indie companies are doing. This doesn’t mean that bigger companies aren’t doing anything of the above. In fact, brands like Maybelline, Too Faced and Tarte have done a brilliant job at catering to millennials through a combination of the previously mentioned aspects. The point of this article is to show that indie companies, who have limited resources, have found a way to leverage the above and set a new standard for what a good customer experience should look like. Note also that I have also focused the article on millennials, mostly because I’m making an assumption that millennials are the key target audience for the indie companies. Some of the conclusions here can, of course, be applied other customer segments.

I hope you enjoyed this read! Let me know what you think.


Written by


Northwestern Kellogg MBA | brand enthusiast | consumer products & beauty aficionado |

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