Expert's Opinion

The Indie Beauty Brand Playbook

Startups and young brands must follow these six points to launch, survive and thrive in the competitive cosmetics category.


By: Karen Young

The Indie Beauty Brand Playbook

Indie brands now make up between 20% and 30% (depending on whose numbers you believe) of the total beauty business and they continue to grow, outpacing the established brands. Indie beauty brands are changing the way the industry functions. We know that for every one that survives, there are many that don’t. McKinsey puts the success rate at 20%. Not great…

It’s a long, expensive journey with many obstacles scattered along the way. I tell brands it will cost twice what they imagine and require twice the time they think. Yet brands continue to try. Our industry always makes room for an innovative, fresh approach from a focused, smart brand that ticks all the boxes.

These upstart brands are changing the model. They are usually closer to the consumer than legacy brands and willing to listen to their customers. They are nimble and flexible. They can move and change course quickly. Their focus on transparency, sustainability, inclusivity, “natural,” and going where the consumer is puts them in a different playing field compared to established brands for whom most of these requirements are a foreign language.

Indie brand genesis is often the search for a solution: problematic skin conditions, allergic reactions, messed up tattoos, a more user-friendly approach for people with disabilities, customized formulas, challenging hair textures, previously neglected body parts (pubic hair!)… the list is long.

Creating and maintaining a unique selling proposition (USP) requires discipline. Sorting out distribution (and distributors)—DTC, bricks and mortar, Amazon, social selling—all of this is nothing short of a nightmare. There’s no playbook to use as a frame of reference. These platforms change and reinvent themselves frequently. It’s tough to stay focused.

Innovative marketing is critical, and often the unexpected and unplanned are the default (a TikTok viral video is never on the calendar). Young brands need a vision, a plan and a strategy, and they must be willing to pivot and course correct when the plan isn’t working.

For beauty industry outsiders, navigating formula creation, selecting a contract manufacturer, choosing the right packaging, vetting a creative agency, determining a realistic budget and sorting out the right distribution channels are all daunting; and daunting for many industry insiders as well, I might add.

After many years of working with small brands, some who survived and some who didn’t, I have a list of must-do’s. They shift and change from time to time, based on the consumer and the market place, but here’s my latest collection of what startups and young brands must do to launch, survive and thrive.

The Young Group’s 6 Points for Indie Beauty Success

1. Fresh and new, but not unfamiliar

Innovation can happen in marketing, community building, product format, dispensing systems, AI, distribution and many other places. There is a fine line between new and compelling and requiring an entire re-education for the consumer. Never a good thing! Consumers want to feel smart about their purchase. Intimidating them with something so foreign, with a strong learning curve, is rarely a good thing. This is beauty, not coding.

While we are an industry of discovery, of new, bright, shiny temptations, consumers want to find products they will repurchase.

However, please note, the industry does not need another white cream in a jar.

2. Holistic and wholistic

Your earth, your body, your soul. They all need care and maintenance. Table stakes, no news here. Consumers expect a focus on efficacious ingredients, manufacturing and package sustainability. They expect brands to think about beauty inside and out. They expect brands to have a healthy, thoughtful, conscientious approach with their marketing. This spills over into the way brands deal with their consumers, as well as how they deal with their employees. Bad press from mistreated employees sends a dangerous signal about the brand’s authentic point of view. A little care and kindness goes a long way in setting the brand’s culture and creating a positive relationship with consumers.


Science not mythology. Proof not hyperbole. Transparency and traceability. No smoke and mirrors. Those days are over. Consumers are savvy, smart and well-informed. Ninety percent of shopping is done with the right side of our brains, but the left side wants reality and facts. Published, peer-reviewed clinical trials are increasingly important. Science-based companies received two-and-a-half times more funding in 2022 than their non-science counterparts. Exaggerated claims, in an effort to rise about the clutter, will come back to haunt a brand. Once discredited, recovery is hard won.

4. The changing face of beauty

It’s here to stay. There are no more rules. Do it your way. Complete freedom of expression is the consumer mindset. There are no more stereotypes and archetypes, no right or wrong. Everyone plays. Everyone has a seat at the table. Brands must listen to consumers and more important, solicit their feedback. The comments may not always be positive and it can be challenging not be become defensive. Welcome to the new, empowered, all-knowing consumer!

5. Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Consistent and disciplined messaging, communication and visuals. Find that USP and stick with it. Take it slowly. Be thoughtful. Sounds so simple, but it never is. Target one consumer, not an entire demographic or cohort. If the brand can’t identify and define its target audience, how will the consumer recognize him/her self in that message? As brands struggle to build their community and their brand awareness, the temptation is to go broad, spread a wider net, be all things to all people. What’s required is exactly the opposite: laser focus! No one has any attention span today—four seconds is the average—and we’re all bombarded with messages from countless sources. Stick to your knitting (as Leonard Lauder often said), focus on what is unique to your brand. Don’t get sidetracked.

Not without their own controversies and growing pains (even at this stage of the brands’ lives), I love using Apple and Starbucks as case studies. Not only did both founders completely understand a USP, they practically created the concept and found their own “white space” to boot. Apple convinced us tech devices could be works of art. Starbucks made a customized, $7 cup of coffee the new normal. That’s focus and solid brand definition.

6. Brand culture is critical

Politics and socio-economic factors are unavoidable. Consumers expect brands to take a stand, like it or not. The days of brands aiming for neutrality or staying under the political radar are over. Be prepared; be frank; be transparent and be proud. This stance may make a brand vulnerable to criticism and controversy, but avoiding issues completely is a very bad choice. Consumers have many purchase options. Community building happens when consumers follow brands with similar values and ethics. Brands must make theirs clear.

Adding on here:  brands need a “cause”— a give-back strategy. It’s another consumer expectation and should help to further define and support a brand’s DNA and ethics.

This is only the beginning of the go-to-market journey. There are plenty of balls to juggle and mistakes to be made along the way—make those mistakes fast and get back on track. Above all, the founder must love the process (the journey), find energy in every door that is slammed in his/her face and believe in the quest, while maintaining a grip on reality.

A good team is vital. It can’t all be done alone, nor should it. Sometimes founders have a tough time with that concept. You may not be able to afford a complete GPS, but a small roadmap will be a great comfort and allow you a brief night’s sleep from time to time. And don’t forget ChatGPT…

A side bar before closing. I guess this officially takes my must-do list to No. 7, an odd number, unfortunately….

I love what brands (young and established) are doing with creative collaborations. They’re hooking up with toys, fashion, food, candy, athletes, cars, museums, hotels: Did you know Nest New York Fragrance (neither young nor indie) teamed up with New York City’s Fifth Avenue Association to scent the Avenue during the holidays??!!!  Brilliant!

The majority of the small brands I’ve worked with will testify that the journey is worth the effort: blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights and, of course, significant financial investment. We’re lucky to be part of an industry that remains robust, relevant and full of creative and generous people.

Bring on the indie brands…they’re changing the industry!

They push us all to challenge the status quo, to move faster but not recklessly, to unload the stereotypes and broaden our definition of beauty, to act responsibly and with care, to be transparent, as well as passionate.

Keep up the good work!

Want to read some Indie Beauty success stories? Click here!

About the Author

Karen Young is CEO of The Young Group. Before opening The Young Group in 1999, Young was vice president of marketing, advertising and product development for Lancôme, the prestige division of L'Oréal. Before joining Lancôme, she spent 17 years at Estée Lauder, where she held a variety of executive positions, including executive director of color cosmetics. 

Karen Young
Young is an active board member of Fashion Group International. She is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist. She divides her time between New York and Paris, where The Young Group also has an office.

Since opening The Young Group, Young has worked extensively in all categories of the cosmetic industry.  She has developed concepts and products for Dove, Bath and Body Works, Neutrogena, Vichy and Canyon Ranch. She has worked on numerous established brands in the beauty category, including Christian Dior Beauté, Shiseido, Chanel, Parfums Givenchy, Avon and 3M Products.

Young is an adjunct professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, teaching the graduate course in product development.

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