What It's Really Like to Create a Cult-Fave Beauty Brand
When she was mixing up her own face oil at home a few years ago, could Linda Rodin have possibly predicted that her handcrafted formula would be among the most coveted beauty items today? Did Garren, Thom Priano, and Howard McLaren know that R+Co's cheekily packaged formulas would become staple items for salon owners and discerning customers alike? How about Amanda Chantal Bacon—when she first opened the doors of Moon Juice's Venice Beach storefront, could she have imagined that her celestial approach to wellness would earn her a rabid global fanbase?
Every entrepreneur dreams of success, but then there are those blockbuster hits that exceed one's wildest imaginations—the kind of success that we call cultdom. It's the holy grail of the beauty world, and these days, it typically involves a combination of factors, like sleek, Instagram-worthy packaging, big-name fans… and, most importantly, a product so good that you simultaneously want to sing its praises from the rooftops and keep it a secret, all to yourself.
As fun as it is to chart the rise of a killer product from an editor's POV, we've wondered lately: What about when you're in the thick of it? What happens when something you created suddenly blows up as the Next Big Thing? To find out, we went straight to the source—the talented folks behind the brands and products that we now can't live without.
From the hit-makers at Oribe, Rodin, S.W. Basics, and more, see how great ideas come to fruition and what mega-success looks like from the inside out. Take notes!
Thom Priano, co-founder: "Garren and I always spoke about starting a line, and when we were introduced to Howard [McLaren], the three of us started talking about it. We thought it would work, especially since we all have a niche in the hair business. My background is men’s styling, so since I specialize in grooming, I became the men’s expert of the collective. Howard is a great hairdresser educator, and Garren is a superstar. We knew we had a dream team, and we believe that R+Co is unstoppable."
Howard McLaren, co-founder: "I feel the packaging and branding photography really created the buzz. It’s how we grew organically, along with the help and power of bloggers, which blew me away."
Garren, co-founder: "It all happened so quickly. At our first regional event in NYC, which was going on in the middle of a blizzard, people showed up in large crowds, and the brand was so well-received. That's when I knew that what we created was very special.
"Thom, Howard, and I have each had our own followings for over three decades, and we brought that into this. For the first time, you have three established artists coming together to create a product line. It's never been done. People are excited to hear us and to see how each of us thinks and approaches hairdressing. Also, our packaging, designed by Amanda Wall, is one of the big differences that set us apart. It's young and fresh."
Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder:
"I started Moon Juice in 2012. I was a chef and had worked with Alice Waters and Suzanne Goin and was poised to open a restaurant in L.A. Through divine inspiration, I took a brief pause to really open myself up to what was truly needed in the world and how to use my voice to change it. I wanted to bridge the gap between the healing world with the foodie world as I had done for myself. I opened Moon Juice in Venice with an 11-week-old baby boy strapped to my chest, a second location in Silver Lake a year later, and then began a brand partnership with the Ace Hotel and opened up in their spot in downtown L.A.
"[In the beginning,] I was in the shop every day, day and night, dusk till dawn, so I had a very intimate experience with our earliest Moon family. They were really outspoken and cultish with their love, and it spread! Since then, I've been stopped on the streets of Paris and New York and places outside of American metropolises by teenage girls so sweetly asking for a picture together. That was so cool I cried.
"Now, it's all still very organic and real. I'm just a girl with an iPhone, and I'm crazy about reaching and helping as many people as I can. I write every word of content, snap every photo, and deeply enjoy every opportunity to connect with Moon family members in all of my waking moments. This is truly a case of some cosmic force beaming down and connecting us all. I love it!"
April Gargiulo, founder: "My background isn’t in beauty. It is in fine winemaking, of all things. I was running my family’s small winery, Gargiulo Vineyards, in Napa Valley. The winery and my family are very committed to the health of our vineyards, our Earth, and our bodies, and we live accordingly—organic, wild-crafted, local, sustainable, etc. But for some reason, I had my head in the sand about my skincare and would use anything and everything. (I cringe now thinking of some of the stuff I used.) When I became pregnant, I realized how diluted with toxins and fillers my skincare was and went in search of alternatives. I couldn’t find anything that effectively addressed my particular concerns—namely inflammation, hormonal acne, discoloration, and wrinkle prevention—in a serious, multi-correctional way. That was where my journey started, and after two years of research, we launched the Active Botanical Serum.
"The beauty world seemed so daunting at first, especially coming from a winemaking background, but I have found it to be incredibly generous and inclusive. We are still very young; just over a year old. We are building our client base the old-fashioned way—word of mouth (thank you, Instagram). We don’t have the budget to advertise or buy celebrity endorsements, so our success rests entirely on the strength of our product and friends telling friends. Thankfully there are lots of very happy customers!
"Our success rests entirely on the strength of our product. We had no strategy to become a cult product. It is not a word that ever comes up. We just wanted to make the very best face oil possible. If I had to distill it down to one idea, I would say passion is what allows the magic to happen. Active Botanical Serum was designed to be your desert island product, the one thing you couldn’t live without. Passion is what drove the creation and now what drives the business."
Daniel Kaner, co-founder and president: "My first foray into the beauty business came by way of my wife, Sonia Kashuk, who was consulting with Aveda Corporation in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when we met. She introduced me to Aveda’s founder, Horst Rechelbacher, and we hit it off. He invited me to sit in the steering committee in an advisory capacity, and that was the beginning of my career in the beauty industry. Sonia and I eventually married and moved to New York, and I continued working with Aveda in Manhattan. From there, I was invited to join Bumble and Bumble as a partner and to work on the marketing of a young company. There I met Tevya Finger, my co-president at Oribe Hair Care.
"After Tev and I left Bumble and Bumble, we saw an opportunity in the hair segment for a new category. Up until that point, almost all beauty categories had good, better, and best—but we felt haircare was lacking the 'best' level. At that time, however, there wasn’t a concentration of haircare at the specialty level, so that was our entry point. We created something that was luxury, quality, and boutique, and gave birth to it in the professional segment where we would also have a place in specialty stores—such as Neiman Marcus, Barney's, Bergdorf, Bigelow, and SpaceNK. We saw a great opportunity, and the three of us—Tev, Oribe Canales, and myself—took the leap and formed Oribe Hair Care.
"Then there was the financial crisis: I call it the Great Depression of 2008. We were launching a luxury company right when the bottom fell out, and that was the biggest surprise we could’ve had. That said, we were so passionate about the project, the quality, and the point of difference that we were determined to make it work. We got out on the road ourselves and introduced it to all of our relationships in the business.
"We had built this beautiful, custom-made packaging that was unheard of in haircare—we even won an international design award. One of the components of this packaging was called a tottle: something in between a tube and a bottle. I remember hearing some complaints that the wall was a bit thick and therefore not dispensing all of the product. I personally responded to every complaint by calling these customers. And what struck me was that not one of them said they would stop using the product, regardless of whatever issue they had with the packaging, because they felt the quality of the product was just that good. This was my aha moment. The people who called me to complain were still raving about the product, which is something I hadn’t experienced before in my decades in the industry.
"In my experience, influencers play a vital role in the forming of a cult following. They act as connectors. They share when they find a truly superior product, and their opinion speaks volumes to consumers. We soon realized that when quality is your priority, endorsements from influencers come naturally."
Linda Rodin, founder: "I was in the fashion business for my entire life, and I was privy to so many products. About nine years ago, I realized nothing made me as happy as a facial product. I decided to make my own—an oil. Everyone loved it. It was the first facial oil out there.
"It was an organic process; word of mouth. I would give my oil to friends and colleagues, and everyone loved it and spread the word. Very grassroots. Then I couldn't make enough of it to keep everyone supplied. I realized at that moment I needed help!
"I think my authenticity was the key for me and my brand. I am not a young flawless woman. I started at 60, and I've never tried to hide who I am. I am thrilled by the support I've gotten. I would never, however, make products by trying to guess what people want. I always make what I want and need. For me, that's the only way to move forward."
Kevin Murphy, founder: "I was in the back room of my salon mixing body lotions with hair gels, because I was unsatisfied with the performance of the products that were available at the time. I found I was getting better results on the shoots from using skincare products on the hair, so I started making my own hybrid versions of hair and skin products. I had very sensitive skin, and having to use very unnatural products had taken its toll on my hands over time. I was introduced to essential oils by a client of mine who was a midwife, and I began to look at fruit extracts and naturally derived ingredients as a way to help my skin from reacting to the hair products that were available at the time. I found the natural ingredients were far superior and gave a weightless and faster-absorbing result on the hair. I figured I might be onto something, as there might be lots of people like me who had become sensitized to personal care products.
"I thought just by simply providing or making a product, everyone would 'get it' and love it straight away. I didn't understand people had to be educated on why, how, and what it was. For example, when I got my first product editorial in Bazaar, I was in NYC, and I bought the magazine to show my friend who worked in PR. She flicked to the page and then flicked over to the next page within seconds; I realized then that not every person is going to be stop in their tracks, drop everything they are doing, and rush to the store to buy my product. What seemed like a major moment in my life was just a flick of a page to the rest of the world, and I was going to really have to spread the word.
"Back when I started, social media wasn’t what it is today. When I first started, I didn’t really know that you had to grow your fan base. But as the company grew, so did the popularity of the brand, and social media became more important in marketing. We became aware of people talking about how much they used the word 'love' when talking about our products; they didn't just like them, they loved them. I got really excited by that, and the word 'love' became a part of my goal; my aim became to put love into everything we do and say.
"There are so many channels available for us to connect with each other on a much more personal level. I really enjoy asking questions and interacting with our customers. How we market the brand changes all the time. We grow and evolve because of our customers."
Adina Grigore, founder: "Different things surprise me at different points of the business’s growth. You really can’t anticipate what it will be like to start something in your kitchen and then see it grow and evolve into a brand that is sold in Target. It’s pretty crazy! With that said, perhaps the biggest challenge for me is to accept and love the company in each different stage it is in. Right now, this means beginning to step back from managing and overseeing the micro, day-to-day stuff and beginning to embrace macro, big-picture ideas and decisions that will influence the company in years to come.
"[Growing our fan base] wasn’t very calculated; we never said, 'We want this type of person and this type of person only.' But we did always have a clear, authentic voice, and I think that attracted an audience that was—and continues to be—very likeminded. Our fans appreciate our candor (and sometimes off-color humor), and they also appreciate the fact that they’re not being 'sold' a phony perspective and a phony product. We like to think ourselves as the real deal—from the product to the personality.
"I think launching in Target was—and continues to be—a big aha moment for us. We see the opportunity to reach a mass audience in a way that (truly) natural brands haven’t been able to do thus far. It’s an opportunity to change the beauty industry at large. We’re really, really excited about it.
"I think cult brands fill a gap in the market in a way that no other competitor can. In our case, I like to think that we’re not only offering up some of the gentlest, highest-quality natural products out there, but we’re speaking to men and women in a way that’s innovative. We don’t see beauty as perfection; we see beauty as something that’s messy, totally individual, and utterly authentic. Many brands have been afraid to take that position—they’re all about smoke and mirrors—so we’ve been able to step in and challenge them. People dig that, thankfully!"
Sunday Riley, founder: "Skincare is an emotions industry. Many people have emotional ties to their products, their routines, their appearances, and especially their skin. If you can create products that can provide what a client needs and respect how important those needs are to them, then the cult following will come.
"We’ve always focused a lot on client feedback. Listening to the client (whether through social media, customer service emails or in-store at the point of sale) is essential to building our brand. Our client’s opinion matters most. If you market smart skincare that works, customers will trust your products and that is how successful brands are built.
"When our products truly caught on, we experienced a huge rush in sales, which is amazing! This being said, we really had to work quickly to produce product, packaging, etc. within a fast time frame to keep all of our retailers and customers happy. However, I am happy to say this crunch time paid off and it’s been fairly smooth sailing since!"
What's your favorite story or piece of advice from these movers and shakers? Tell us what you think in the comments below.