“We need to get to a place where it's not just, ‘Are you managing search? Is your content okay? Are you watching ratings and reviews?’ The shopping experience has to be more profound.”— Rich Simpson, SVP of Customer Development, North America & International, Maesa
When it comes to standing out on the digital shelf — and the literal shelf — beauty brands have their work cut out for them. Beauty is an increasingly saturated space where giant legacy brands and small, trendy startups duke it out for consumers’ attention and investment.
And few know the secrets to winning that battle as well as Rich Simpson, senior vice president, customer development, North America & International, at beauty incubator Maesa.
Today, Rich works with a host of startup brands launched by creators like Drew Barrymore, Taraji P. Henson, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Before that, he spent more than 20 years at CPG behemoths Johnson & Johnson and General Mills. In other words, he knows a few things about taking brands to market.
“How you get to a hundred million dollars is not how you get to three, four, or five million,” Simpson says. “It's about creating efficiencies and scale — repeatable processes become easier.”
But how do you get to that first $100 million? And what does it take to make it beyond?
Simpson appeared on a recent episode of Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast, “Building Scalable, Sustainable Digital-First Omnichannel Brands,” to answer those questions and share the valuable insight he’s learned after transitioning from working with household-name consumer packaged goods (CPGs) to small, celebrity-founded startup brands. Here are a few key learnings.
What Large Brands Can Learn From Small Brands (and Vice Versa)
As anyone who has ever worked for both a massive organization and a small business can attest, the project pace at a small company is practically warp-speed by comparison. While larger companies are bogged down by red tape and hyper-vigilant executives, startups pounce from one benchmark to the next like overeager puppies.
But, as it turns out, there’s a method to the madness — and a lot that gigantic brands and small companies can learn from each other.
Pressure-Testing Can Be Good For Your Brand
“When you're at the top, there really is only one place to go,” Simpson says. “But we are the upstart. We are the challenger brand. And that’s forced a learning and behavior based on the speed in which you make decisions.”
He explains that, at Maesa, brands go from concept to shelf in less than a year while, for companies like Johnson & Johnson and General Mills, those experiences take a lot longer.
In his experience with large CPG brands, Simpson noted he was prone to overthinking — even though he likely had all the information he needed to make decisions and move quickly without creating much risk. Of course, he says big brands should be pressure-testing some things, like rebranding campaigns. And startups could benefit from doing the same.
“In the world of startups and challengers, you're aggressive in this effort to try and take share. You're trying to get exponential growth. So you have much less risk aversion.
But when you're sitting at a big CPG brand, and you're at 40 to 50 share of the category, you're going to be a whole lot more risk averse. The recipe and KPIs for what you need to be successful look very different.” — Rich Simpson, SVP of Customer Development, North America & International, Maesa
Moving Quickly Is a Must As a Small Brand
Startups don’t have to triple-check everything and are free to base decisions on intuition, whereas larger brands have a lot more to lose. For example, in his current role, Simpson and his team have a proposition in-market and realized they’re not thrilled with the packaging.
Instead of spending years developing and testing new packaging, they came up with a new iteration and improved the packaging on the fly. And that’s something you’d be hard-pressed to see a large brand accomplish.
But, as he points out, small brands don’t just move quickly because they can — it’s because they must.
“There’s a symptomatic idea within larger organizations where people get comfortable. We don't have that opportunity,” he says. “Because we need to keep the lights on, and that aggressiveness motivates people a lot.”
Differentiation in an Omnichannel Strategy
On the digital and physical shelf, differentiation is key to success. When you walk down the cosmetic aisles at Target, Walmart, or CVS, or peruse the digital shelf online, you’ll notice lots of commonalities.
At first glance, some brands are nearly indistinguishable. That’s because large CPGs are focused on cutting costs on things like packaging to drive growth. These are brands most consumers are already familiar with.
And then, there are the eye-catching newcomers — the brands hoping to steal consumers’ attention and captivate them with the promise of something different.
“We have custom packaging across all of our product portfolio that creates differentiation,” Simpson says. “So whether that be the TPH line by Taraji or the Kristin Ess line, you'll see differentiation … this modern aesthetic that looks appealing, this idea of shower art. It has a beautiful feel and texture.”
Part of this is about the soul of the brand, the authenticity of a creator who is hands-on with their products, and the desire to create holistic experiences for the consumer.
Creating Standout Shopping Experiences
“We need to get to a place where it's not just, ‘Are you managing search? Is your content okay? Are you watching ratings and reviews?’ The shopping experience has to be more profound,” Simpson says.
Like, for example, a creator engaging directly with consumers, posting questions about products, and getting immediate feedback — which is unique to the direct-to-consumer world. (And something you wouldn’t expect from CPG giants.) This way, you can get genuine insight into what consumers want and how they behave, and use this intel to fuel your omnichannel strategy.
In the end, though, the key to standing out and achieving sustainable growth as any size brand is remaining several steps ahead.
“It's not about your action, it's about the reaction to your action,” Simpson says. “Think through what you're looking for from the other party, from a plan, and it'll enable you to work your way back from the outcome you’re seeking. How do you influence to get there?”
In other words, start by identifying where you want to be, then trace your way back to where you are today. As simple as this might sound, it’s a strategic step many brands ignore.
Listen to the full podcast episode to hear additional insights from Rich Simpson on getting to market, staying in market, and how to plan the forward trajectory of your career.