The UK beauty market is often considered the gateway to distribution in the EU. According to an Oxford Economics report for the British Beauty Council, UK consumers spent nearly £20 billion on beauty products. While we may share a common language, the US and UK beauty markets are different, and understanding the nuances could be the difference between success and failure.
Getting market-ready: For now, in order to launch in the UK market a brand much comply with the European Union’s cosmetics regulations, which are stricter in the UK. All packing and formulations must comply with EU standards and each product must be certified. Additionally, companies must establish a responsible person within the EU prior to launching in the market. Brexit could change everything, but only time will tell.
When to launch: Brand awareness, social velocity, and success in the US will lay the foundation for a UK launch. A good indicator is when you have consumer interest on social media from the market.
Where to sell: One significant difference is there is no dominant multi-brand beauty retailer like Sephora or Ulta in the UK. The market consists of department stores, online retailers, small chains, drugstores, and potentially, the professional channel. Success requires knowledge of who your UK consumer is and where she shops and a distribution strategy that consists of the right launch partner along with a retailer mix cadence for expansion.
How to sell: Many have tried, but managing the UK market from the US is a recipe for disaster. Success in the market requires relationships and feet on the street to manage the day-to-day running of the business and support selling through at retail. Be prepared to make an investment. The market will not built itself.
Have a PR strategy: Influencers matter but, unlike the US, in the UK editors and print still matter. Just having an influencer strategy won’t cut it—you will need to hire a local PR agency to represent the brand. Traditional PR needs to be a part of your marketing mix.
What the experts say:
“No one spots a bullshitting American quicker than a British customer,” said Caroline Hirons, a consultant who has helped American brands like Sunday Riley and Herbivore Botanicals navigate the UK market. “We are at best sceptical and at our worst very cynical.”
Millie Kendall, CEO at the British Beauty Council, says that placement at department stores like Selfridges, Harrods, and Liberty can “create excitement.” Retailers like Boots can help move volume, and e-commerce retailers like Cult Beauty and Beauty Bay are helpful for brand storytelling.
“An American brand still incites a feeling of efficacy and if it’s from the US [people think] it’s going to be really fantastic,” said Krishna Montgomery, founder of London-based Monty PR.
“We took our time to listen, walk the streets, meet with retailers and talk not just to people in the beauty industry but DJs and people who own bars and clubs,” said Milk co-founder Mazdack Rassi, who founded the brand with wife Zanna Roberts Rassi, a former beauty editor in the UK, along with Georgie Greville and Dianna Ruth. “We’d walk up to people and ask, ‘Have you heard of Milk Makeup?’ That really gave us confidence.”
“We changed our shippers to slimmer padded mailers to ensure they can get through the post boxes,” said Gemma Bellman, Glossier’s director of Europe. “It can be small things like that [that] really make a difference.”
“What we’re really looking for is how it’s trending in its local market and that a brand can demonstrate some customer traction in order to bring it into the UK,” said Margaret Mitchell, Space NK’s chief merchandising officer.
“Sampling is critical. It’s ultimately about, ‘How are we going to drive awareness in the UK?’ Sampling has worked massively well for us,” Joanna Rogers, Boots’ commercial director and VP of Beauty, said. Depending on the brand’s size, Boots has sampled anywhere from 1,000 to 40,000 units at a time.
“My biggest advice is don’t be rigid in your view, come with an open mind. Where we’ve found the most success is when we’ve been able to be flexible,” said Rogers.
“We look at our offline retail experience as the pinnacle of that customer engagement with the brand. It allows us to get under the hood and to get to know our customers in our community,” said Bellman.
“What’s really important is working to maintain whatever the strategy is and you don’t just enter the market with a bang and then nothing happens for a year,” said Montgomery, who has worked with clients like US-based Hourglass Cosmetics for seven years.
Space NK’s Mitchell says brands usually want to celebrate when they land in a retailer. “But don’t think that that’s the end of your journey. That’s when the hard work begins.”
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