Janell Stephens never intended to build a multimillion-dollar premium beauty brand. The inspiration to launch Camille Rose in 2011 stemmed from a personal hobby, one that she developed after attempting to research and develop solutions for her children’s chronic eczema. The Louisiana native, mother of five, and dedicated vegan began creating handmade creations for her family that included food-grade ingredients and gourmet blends that didn’t include harsh chemicals and substances that were harmful for the body. As it became evident that others could also benefit from the healing nature of the products she made for her children, Stephens decided to invest in building a business and expanding her reach. “I had no idea Camille Rose would grow as big as it has,” says Stephens. “It was a hobby that turned into a business.”
Camille Rose, which originally started in Stephens’ kitchen, is now sold online and nationwide across major US retailers such as Target, Walmart, Sally’s Beauty, CVS, Walgreens, and Whole Foods. Over the past ten years, Stephens has cemented a space for herself as a leader and innovator within the world of the Black/ethnic natural hair and body products space. Ready to Beauty spoke to Stephens about her personal recipe for continued success and expansion—as well as her thoughts for other beauty founders looking to maintain consumer relevance while navigating strategic business endeavors. Read on for her exclusive tips:
The Right Manufacturing Partners Matter
Finding the right manufacturing partner is a critical step for most beauty product brands. Stephens realized just how much she had to learn about working with a manufacturer early on. “I didn’t know anything about formulating products and the cost of doing so outside of my home. It was a whole new language that I had to learn,” explains Stephens. However, taking the time to research and understand the manufacturing process proved fruitful for Stephens, especially because she prioritized finding a partner that “believed in the same things” as her and promised to maintain her commitment to using all natural food-grade ingredients. Being able to scale and still provide customers with quality products that were the equivalent to her handmade batches helped set Camille Rose up for success.
Pushing retail expansion can seem like the right path for emerging brands, but Stephens also cautions to think smartly before reacting prematurely—especially if systems and processes are not set up to support growth. When recounting Camille Rose’s initial year in retail, Stephens recalls, “I was still making products in my house. I was shipping retail orders from my house. It was madness. I was in Target for 1.5 years before I was able to find a manufacturer that believed in the same things that I believed in. That was one of the reasons why I initially only took on 105 doors at Target…it was so I could still ship to retailers. I didn’t want a laboratory to change my products or convince me to use different ingredients. I did it on my own until I found someone that believed in what I believed in and the brand story.
Grow at Your Own Pace
Access to capital and managing said capital is another critical component to beauty success. Stephens’ approach to leveraging funding has always been to go against the grain and build at her own pace. “I also initially only took 105 doors at Target because I knew I didn’t want to go to a bank for funding. I wanted to run and enjoy Camille Rose without being stressed that I owed someone money. I grew organically and was okay with that,” says Stephens. However, she admitted part of her ability to “grow at her own pace” was because she wasn’t solely relying on Camille Rose revenue to fund her living expenses. “I was initially running Camille Rose as a hobby. It was a second business. I’m a licensed therapist and owned a home health agency.” Having other revenue streams allowed Stephens the ability to “have fun” with growing the business and focus on opportunities that truly made sense for the brand. “I said ‘no’ to expansion opportunities at times. When I was ready to say yes—when I could afford to—and when I had the bandwidth to say yes, I did. That was a huge stress reliever,” she notes.
Embrace the Power of Retail
Securing retail distribution can be a major milestone for beauty brands looking to grow. “Big-box retailers put me on the map,” says Stephens. “It allowed Camille Rose to be seen by more eyes. It also introduced Camille Rose to people who were not comfortable with ordering online or who were browsing and shopping around the store. Being in retail allowed those type of consumers to see the product, read the label, touch it, smell it, and experience it. From that experience, they eventually purchase.” Stephens notes that if a retail relationship can be secured and leveraged strategically, it can be another pathway to growth and new-customer acquisition. However, it is still important to educate oneself on retail relationship terms and how the relationship can work and what it can do for one’s brand. “There are brands that came in at the same time that I came in and totally killed their business. It can work both ways,” admits Stephens.
Stephens also believes that investing in the e-commerce experience is just as important for beauty brands looking to succeed. “I tell everyone that e-commerce is your big-box retailer. Take it seriously because you own that 100% and are able to control it 100%. Don’t think that if you don’t go into a big-box retailer, your brand won’t grow. That is not true. There are amazing companies that are succeeding solely on e-commerce.” Figuring out your brand’s unique commerce strategy is a necessary step to brand longevity.
Embrace the Pivot
Like many beauty brand leaders, Stephens embraced the unforeseen business growth seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 boosted our business—especially our e-commerce business because we were reaching new customers,” states Stephens. “We’ve had people who are now focused on touching and doing their own hair. Self-care was such a big thing. We had to pivot. We threw our marketing plan out the door and honed in on social media and e-commerce.” With consumers wearing less makeup, paying more attention to skin, and trying out products like facials and body scrubs at home, Stephens was able to reach consumers looking for products that complemented their burgeoning natural skincare routines. Instead of seeing their changing customer behavior as a problem, Stephens and her team were effectively able to change internal gears and promote products that reflected the changing needs of their customers. Stephens hopes that other beauty brands continue to embrace unexpected business pivots in business as they come.
Think Long Term – Invest in Lifestyle
Being able to compete in multiple categories—across hair, face, bath, body, and home—is one of Stephens’ strategies for long-term business success, and is what continues to inform her decisions for the future of the brand. “We’re more than a hairstyle. We are a lifestyle. We are a beauty brand as a whole,” she states. Though Camille Rose is renowned for their high-quality hair products, Stephens says that the brand’s core values center around seeking out an overall “holistic natural lifestyle.” For Stephens, Camille Rose is her “whole life,” so she and the team are constantly developing and investing in the lifestyle categories that will ensure this is accurately reflected in the brand’s product offerings. “We want to hone in on Camille Rose beauty. We’ve brought on master marketers to grow Camille Rose Face,” explains Stephens. Though expansion is top of mind for the brand, Stephens is letting the lifestyle category grow organically. “We’re not trying to force these products into a retail store. e-commerce is the home of face, body creams and candles.” For Stephens, this is yet another example of the importance of slow growth—allowing the brand the room to truly solidify market placement and customer traction before making more permanent, large-scale expensive changes and decisions.
Practice What You Preach
Product and value integrity will continue to be paramount for Stephens and her team. Stephens admits that being able to remain a premium beauty brand that is still “hand-crafted with love” is not easy, and costly. Yet, the Camille Rose brand integrity is what continues to drive sales and sustain brand loyalty. “My customers know I was making products for myself and family, so I’m going to give them the best as well,” she says. “My brand is a premium brand for a reason. You get what you pay for. When our customers use our products, they are getting results that the label says they are going to get.” This brand trust is something that cannot be bought and that will forever be the foundation to the Camille Rose marketing strategy.
As for what’s next for Camille Rose, Stephens mentions that it’s “all about growth” this season. The brand just launched a new Honey Collection and will continue to focus on retail expansion and establishing new partnerships, including in the overseas market. “Our brand has so much more room to grow,” says Stephens. “We’re interested in eventually having our body products and other products sit in both the natural and multicultural space.”
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