Indie beauty brands are, by their very nature, challengers, but some founders think bigger than others. Shai Eisenman, representing a new generation of independent beauty founders, is laser-focused on what she's building and crystal clear about what it will take. With a David and Goliath strategy, Bubble is going head-to-head with some of beauty's biggest brands.
"Even though young consumers are the most advanced generation that ever existed, when it comes to skincare they use the same old-school stuff that I used as a teen and my mom used as a teen," Eisenman shared. "80 percent of Gen Z consumers use Neutrogena, Cetaphil, CeraVe, Clean and Clear, and Clinique—the same old-school brands that have been used for generations."
As a performance marketer, Eisenman believes in the power of data and the context conversations with consumers provide. She spent two years looking for white space in beauty and landed on shaking up the teen segment: "It made no sense to us that teens were stuck with options that hadn't evolved in decades and that didn't deliver on what they really needed and wanted."
She immersed herself in understanding the Gen Z cohort, creating a community of 4,600 teens that were part of every decision in developing the brand. With the information uncovered, Eisenman set out to capture the opportunity by building an efficacious, affordable, value-based, and design-focused brand with large-enough distribution to shake up the category and be truly accessible.
When the brand launched DTC, they were shocked to learn 58% of Gen Z shop for skincare at big-box retailers, and only 20% of them shop for skincare online. This data, coupled with the increased cost of acquisition online, made the path forward clear. In under two years, the brand has rolled out to 9,000 retail doors, launching with a Walmart exclusive in 2021, followed by CVS this summer, and recently in 665 Ulta stores. This year, Bubble also moved from Walmart's Trending Now section, created for indie brand launches, to the main skincare aisle, and in Ulta, the brand is merchandised in the mass skincare section. These merchandising moves put Bubble right next to the big beauty brands they've set out to disrupt.
Upending the Beauty Retail Distribution Paradigm
The traditional distribution playbook has officially gone the way of the dodo. We recently saw Amazon-first brand Hero Cosmetics exit to Dwight & Church in a $630 million deal after defying industry norms, selling its products from Amazon to Neiman Marcus and Target to Ulta.
In today's hypercompetitive beauty landscape, consumer demand trumps current distribution relationships as retailers assess new brands to launch.
Bubble is following suit with a retail rollout that would have been considered backwards" a few years ago, yet each retail partnership was methodical and carefully considered. Eisenman shared the thinking behind the Bubble distribution strategy to date. "When we launched, we knew we needed to focus on accessibility. Trying to reinvent a shelf and a category that had so little innovation in the last 30 years, we really wanted to ensure we bring the products to every possible home in the US—and Walmart is the absolute perfect partner, leading the category with 20% of the total personal care purchase in the US and ~200 million weekly visitors."
CVS was the next stop. Eisenman said, "Launching our acne line, and our new OTC product, Super Clear, we were really excited to focus on the clinical side, partner with CVS (4,100 doors), and reinvent the shelf in the acne section in the best drugstore retailer in the country.
Recently Bubble partnered with specialty beauty retail destination Ulta Beauty. Eisenman shared, "42% of Gen Zers explore beauty products in Ulta, and it's the number-one beauty destination in the country for our consumer. The Ulta consumer is someone who is looking for new products, wants to try new things—a true beauty enthusiast. Ulta, as a brand, has so many synergies with Bubble, and we are excited to be partnering with them on this journey."
This tectonic shift in distribution reflects the shift to an omnichannel world where the consumer is at the center of all decisions. Success requires a brand to be present when and where the consumer wants to research, experiment, and purchase.
Fueling the Fast-Paced Growth
A VC-backed formula exists today that enables indie beauty brands to scale more quickly than ever before, but launching in big-box retail is not for the faint of heart—the scale is undoubtedly bigger, but the channel is also operationally and capital intense. Like many of today's buzziest brands, Bubble is venture backed, but unlike many founders, Eisenman doesn't market funding rounds or believe the amount of money raised correlates with a business's success.
"We don't disclose our funding amounts, but we work very closely with our advisors and our great investors to work very capital efficiently and focus on building a long-term sustainable brand that can survive the headwinds,” Eisenman shared. "The knowledge of our investors and advisory board, such as Jyothi Rao [formerly CEO of Intermix], Dor Sela [formerly at P&G], and Sandra Campos [former CEO of DVF] is immeasurable for continuing to grow our business sustainably long term."
Navigating the operational nuances of three of the largest beauty retailers in the US market requires capital, an experienced team, and an investment in operational infrastructure. As a beauty industry outsider, Eisenman has built a team of veterans with decades of experience who were well-versed in product development, operations, and retail marketing.
"We started as a very small team and have grown to 30 employees with a huge emphasis on our retail, creative, operation, and marketing teams. We have an amazing retail and operations team with extensive beauty experience, which was the absolute key to be able to grow from a DTC-exclusive brand to 9,000 doors in 22 months."
She continued, "The team is really the heart of everything we do here at Bubble, and I attribute our success to them wholeheartedly, and am very grateful to be learning from each of them every day."
Pushing the Envelope on Formulation
Beauty at the speed of TikTok has driven brands to become laser-focused on speed-to-market and rapid-fire product launches to fuel growth and remain competitive. The Bubble brand ticks all the Gen Z design boxes, but don't let the fun color-blocked packaging fool you—it's what's inside the bottle that is at the heart of the brand.
You'll know Bubble when you see it. The packaging screams Gen Z with modern component choices and bright decoration, creating a visual disruption to the acne section, which leverages "clinical" design cues for packaging. The brand plays with size to ensure every product is priced under $20 and friendly to a teen's beauty budget. Piper Sandler's 44th semiannual Taking Stock With Teens survey shows that beauty spending is up 20% year over year, totaling $264/year, with skincare having the highest priority of beauty spending at $103.
Bubble's easy-to-use assortment targets younger skincare concerns like breakouts and acne with vegan, cruelty-free, and nontoxic products grounded in a formulation philosophy of avoiding any controversial ingredients and using less ingredients by choosing the right ones. As the rest of the industry is looking for ways to truncate the development process, Bubble embraces a more traditional 24-month process to ensure every launch delivers the results they promise.
The brand's community of over 5,000 teens fuels product innovation by helping to surface unmet consumer needs, while a team of advising dermatologists, external chemists, and clinical herbalists review product briefs and all formula submissions. Next, formula samples are sent to 40-80 community members, and must receive positive feedback of over 90% before it is approved and sent out for required testing (stability, compatibility, micro-challenge, HRIPT, etc.). Once testing is complete, consumer perception testing is initiated, and finally, the product is sent to 300 community members before it is officially launched.
Eisenman shared a view of the future: "We have really exciting things in the pipeline, such as expanding our OTC offerings and entering a new category. We'll always remain in clinical skin care specifically, but we are excited about expanding our product line to ensure our consumers get everything they need to establish a healthy, clinical, great skincare routine."
Breaking Through the Noise
There have never been more independent beauty brands, each looking for its piece of the beauty pie. While social media and DTC have lowered the barrier to entry, the competition is stiff, and scaling a beauty brand has never been more costly or complex.
Out of the cacophony of beauty brands, some are led by visionary founders rising above the noise demanding the attention of the industry and consumers alike. Shai Eisenman is one of those founders, and Bubble is one of those brands. At first glance, Bubble may appear to be similar in many ways to other brands built to serve the Gen Z beauty consumer, but scratch below the surface, and there is an intuitive young founder playing the long game with a team of veterans in place capable of executing the vision. This brand should be on everyone's radar, not just the big beauty brands in Bubble's crosshairs.
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