Color wars

loose mineral pigmentsIn searching online for a particular brand of lipstick, I discovered that, a couple of years ago, the brand sparked a mini-controversy within the beauty-blogosphere. A blogger had written a review of the company’s loose mineral eyeshadows, claiming that the colors were not unique, nor were they created by or for that specific company, but rather were repackaged, wholesale cosmetics (i.e., “white-labeled” cosmetics). The company’s founder got a lawyer and launched a kind of clumsy (yet effective) counter attack, and the blogger posted a retraction.

Four years later, the indie cosmetics community is still up in arms over the notion that the creator of the brand in question may not have actually custom-formulated some of her products. They have gone so far as to form what they call the “Mineral Makeup Mutiny,” pledging to call brands out on the carpet for white labeling in support of indie cosmetic brands.

There seem to be two different sources of frustration at the heart of this controversy. Before I enumerate them, I need to make a disclaimer: I have a marketing background, so some people will think my view is skewed. But I would like to state firmly in this first post that I would think this way regardless of what I do for a living. I have always thought this way. It has nothing to do with marketing, and everything to do with common sense.

I LOVE makeup. I love to shop for it, buy it, and play with it. I always have. And one thing I really don’t care about is the name on the label. Here is what I do care about:

1. Color: Something unusual always catches my eye. If I don’t have it, I want it. More often, though, I’m looking for a specific shade of eyeshadow, lipstick, etc. When I find it, I grab it.

2. Quality of product: After I buy a cosmetic item, if I don’t like the texture, smell, coverage, the way it wears, etc., I don’t buy it again. And I go back on the hunt for an alternative.

3. Quality of packaging: This rarely matters. If I like the product, I don’t care if the lid breaks, or the cap won’t stay on. I may try to find a substitute if the issue is particularly annoying, but if I can’t locate a suitable replacement, I’ll keep buying the great product in the crappy packaging.

4. Brand: While I don’t care about the name on the label (I’ll buy Revlon just as quickly as Nars, and tend to shop drugstore brands before looking at the high-end lines), I care a lot about the cleanliness and freshness of the product I’m putting on my face. I won’t buy makeup (or any skincare, bath or body product) that was made by a lone person in their kitchen. My perception — right or wrong — is that such product is likely unsanitary, and I’m not willing to risk ingesting or bathing in cat hair (or worse). For this reason, I WILL ONLY BUY MASS PRODUCED COSMETICS.

cosmetics container production facilityAre all cosmetics production facilities pristine? Probably not. As with food production facilities, if I knew the truth, I’d probably wish I didn’t. But they have to meet minimum government standards, and that’s good enough for me. The only standard that people in their homes must meet is “my stuff hasn’t yet directly resulted in anyone’s death, as far as I know.” I’ll take the stuff that meets the government’s minimum standards.

Now, the first big gripe of the “Mineral Makeup Mutiny” people — the one that started it all — is about white-labeling, but I don’t see the problem. A white-label lipstick meets all of my criteria. The product is mass produced, and although Company A and Company B may both be buying the same product and putting their own logo on it, how does this affect me? If I like the product, I don’t care what company manufactured it, as long as I am able to get my hands on it. And the fact that two companies may be carrying something I like is actually a bonus for me.

Let’s look a little deeper: If Company A is a high-end line, and they are selling a lipstick for $28 that I can buy from Company B for $7.50, is that deceptive? No. Reason 1: If Company A can get $28 for their lipstick, that’s called doing business. If everyone finds out that they can get the same product for $7.50, and they quit buying the $28 version, Company A will either discontinue the product, or reduce their price.

Reason 2: If I buy the $28 lipstick, then discover that I can get the exact same lipstick — same color, same texture, same wearability — for $7.50, YAY! If other people don’t find out it’s available for $7.50, they are either brand loyalists who care about the label and packaging, and would probably NEVER buy a lipstick that costs $7.50, or they don’t want to look for a less expensive alternative. They’ve found what they like and are done  shopping.

So let’s address the mutineers’ second big gripe: People who set up shops on sites like Etsy to sell cosmetics they claim to have created, when all they have really done is to repackage mineral pigments that they purchased wholesale. While the true indie cosmetics businesses work hard to create unique, high-quality products, they have to compete against people who are doing basically nothing, and undercutting them on price.

I hear you. I had a jewelry business for roughly three years during which I fought against the same thing. I was working my rear off to create unique designs, using components and material combinations that no one else was using, and I would go to a bridal show and set up alongside booths where people had strung together a bunch of beads or Swarovski crystals and called it jewelry (can you say “Pandora”?). I had to fight the perception that I was a bead-stringer every time I called a boutique to try to set up a sales presentation. It is frustrating (and even more frustrating when you run out of money and have to shut down, and then five years later, everyone and their grandmother is now recreating your designs and making money). I still get frustrated when I see the so-called “jewelry designers” on Etsy who are doing nothing more than putting pre-fabricated components together.

There are two ways to fight this kind of competition: With marketing, and by producing a superior product.

Tell your story. Explain why your product costs more — how you have researched and sourced the best ingredients to create the best product. How it’s better for your skin, or more safe for use around your eyes. When a logical person who cares about what they are putting on their skin hears why your product costs more, they will buy from you. If they don’t, then there’s nothing you could ever say to win over that customer. Even if the indie “fakers” weren’t out there, that customer would have bought Maybelline and called it a day. That’s just who they are.

It’s all part of the wonderful reality of commerce.

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