In-depth: Merit gets ready to bring its minimalist, 'Millennial and up' make-up to the UK
Merit is bringing its minimalist make-up line to the UK next month, tapping into growing demand for pared back beauty products from the 'Millennial and up' market.
The US-based brand was launched during the pandemic in January 2021 by Katherine Power, a former editor turned investor and brand builder. Power is noted for her ability to spot white space in markets, and fill it with relevant consumer products (she is also the founder of Versed clean skincare and co-founder of Avaline clean, wines for instance).
While skincare for a more mature consumer has been a growing market, until recently, new make-up launches seemed dominated by brands targeting Gen Z, which left a generation of women under-served
Having received a wildly positive response to a five-minute make-up regime posted on social media, Power realised there was a pent-up demand for a brand that spoke to busy Millennial, Gen X 'and up' women at a time when the market was dominated by celebrity and make-up artist-led lines that required skill, time and tools to use and offered an almost overwhelming choice of product.
Power contacted Aila Morin – now senior VP and founding partner at Merit and formerly director of brand marketing and GTM (go to market) at luxury jewellery brand Mejeuri – to ask her to join her on the journey. Morin needed some convincing.
"I first talked to Katherine in mid-2019 and she had this idea for a beauty brand and initially I wasn't sure what one more could really contribute. At the time it felt like everyone was launching. 2019 was peak make-up artist brand, so [there was] a lot of really beautiful product but a lot of really highly pigmented products that required brushes and techniques that I didn't have. So when I originally talked to her I really liked the idea but I wasn't sure I really connected to it," Morin tells TheIndustry.beauty.
But a holiday shopping trip changed her mind. "I walked into a Sephora and I thought there was nothing for me, which is wild given how many incredible brands there are in there, but there was nothing I connected to or that felt like it was 'my' brand," she explains. "That was what initially got me on board."
Morin, who is based in Canada, signed her contract in early 2020, just before the pandemic. "Then Covid hit, the borders closed and everyone stopped wearing make-up!" she jokes. Although it was an"interesting" time, it was to prove to be a moment that was instrumental to the success of the brand.
"We delayed the launch until January 2021 and during 2020 we were worked quietly in the background, and the reality was that during 2020 the make-up and skincare industry changed overnight. Demand changed completely – I think make-up sales dropped by 40%. We stopped doing long routines.
"Products that were more difficult to use, such as full coverage foundation, liquid lipstick and eyeliners, all took massive drops in their sales but that time was so incredibly helpful as I was looking at my own behaviours. I went from having a make-up bag that I took to work with me that was probably larger than my lunch kit to concealer and lip gloss, so it was a total 180 for me," Morin explains.
This was a crystallising moment for the brand proposition. Merit was launched with just seven products and was designed to act as a 'core wardrobe' of make-up: "we're your white t-shirt, your favourite jeans, but if you're going to call it the 'core' it has to be excellent," Morin says.
The hero product in the range is 'The Minimalist' complexion stick, which is designed to act as both a foundation and a concealer (if bought in a darker shade it can also be used for contouring). This versatile approach is also central to all of the other products in the range, which include a brow pomade, a mascara, a glow serum, a highlighting balm, cheek colour, lipstick, lip oil and, the most recent addition, a bronzer.
Prices in US dollars range from $24 to $38 and items can be purchased individually or as part of sets designed around particular needs, such as The Five Minute Morning Set or The Skin Set.
One the first day of trading on its DTC website in January 2021, the brand sold almost a year's worth of inventory. Merit went on to land Sephora as a stockist in the US and Canada and secured $20 million in backing in a Series A funding round led by private equity house L Catterton's growth fund.
The core range has stayed the same since launch, by and large, but more colours have been added to line-up. However there is an "intentionality" to every product in the line and new products will not just be launched on a whim or in response to trends. That approach would not fit in with Merit's target consumer base or its 'clean' and sustainable ethos.
"There are always going to be maximalists who enjoy the products and we celebrate that too but we just didn't feel there was a brand that was speaking to Millennials and Gen X women and up, who wanted to have streamlined routines, who wanted to just use what they needed and not have have a ton of steps and wanted to be 'clean'," Morin explains.
Merit's approach to 'clean' is different from other brands, whose answer to producing clean products can often be dependent on using oils, which are not suitable for skins with a tendency to rosacea and acne. Merit's formulas are centred on a mantra of "safe for body, skin and planet". "Safe is the operative word," explains Morin, "clean is a very nebulous term, particularly in the UK."
For Merit clean means EU compliant and Clean at Sephora compliant (an accreditation only given to brands that free from a list of around 50 ingredients that are linked to human health problems) and it has also partnered with Hollywood facialist Biba de Sousa, who is famous for her 'no list' of another 73 ingredients that were removed, including things such as coconut oil which can trigger acne. The products are also vegan, Leaping Bunny accredited and packaging and transit packaging is also sustainable.
Also key to the sustainable approach is creating products that work and will be used until empty. "All of our products are incredibly versatile. Even before we launched products we would send them to editors to try and we'd get emails back saying 'my mom actually stole The Minimalist and Shade Slick [lip oil], would you mind sending me another?' That initial feedback was so exciting because to me if a product can be used by many generations, that's a product that is going to be around for 10 years, that's a product you should invest time in and that's become the background of our product development. Could a Millennial use it? Could a Gen X use it?
"We have an insane number of consumers who are in their 60s and 70s on our direct to consumer site. We are making products that are intuitive to use, that you still feel like you when you use them, and frankly we have more representation of that demographic in our content and across the brand."
In other words, this is the opposite of fast beauty. Like your favourite jeans and white t-shirt in your wardrobe, these products are made to sit in our beauty kits for years to come. "There are a lot of brands that do things quickly. You can build a trendy product and have it on the market in three months. You can use stock packaging, pre-made formula and just adjust the shades. That's a way to be fast and reactive.
"For us, we did the opposite. We don't really enagage with trends we focus on what are the classic products our customers will be using ten years from now. We take our time. We will work on them for years. Our bronzer is a great example. We launched it in August which is not when you launch a bronzer but we didn't launch it until it was perfect," Morin says.
Having enjoyed huge success in the US and Canada, Merit is now targeting the UK. A new DTC website is set to go live in mid February offering UK consumers the opportunity to purchase in local currency and with speedy shipping (and no unexpected customs charges). The reason for targeting the UK next was down to demand as evidenced by web traffic and social media engagement ("our DMs are comments [from the UK] are constantly asking for it").
That Merit uses women of all generations in its social media posts was a major factor in that engagement. Bobbi Brown's Jones Road (which recently launched at Liberty) is another example of a new generation of brand that does this, and now the major league players are catching up. L'Oréal, for instance, has just enlisted a raft of influencers aged 45-84, citing stats that Gen X-ers are the fastest growing demographic on Instagram.
"I was in London last year," Morin says, "And I was struck by the dissonance between what people were looking for and what's available on the market right now in the UK. And in my experience of launching [jewellery brand] Mejeuri in the UK, there is this strong demand for strong minimalist essentials. Even in the clean category, I think there's this really great space for skin health prioritisation that is only just starting to be addressed, and with the shift that we're seeing in the UK and more health awareness, it feels like the right time. And also we can provide a really great consumer experience.
"We've spent the time operationally to ensure that it's just as enjoyable for someone in the UK to receive a shipment as it is for someone in the US and Canada."
There are not yet plans to open a bricks & mortar presence in the UK (despite the fact that US stockist Sephora is finally bringing retail stores back to the UK) but, Morin says, "never say never, that's what I'll say about retail expansion in the UK". Merit is a brand that takes its times with decisions but if UK demand is as strong as has been anticipated then it's to be hoped that move might be made sooner rather than later.