Interview by Victoria Kirby of CEW Inc
You’ve just had a baby and…it’s a serum! Now, time to place this gem where lots of people can buy it, right? Not (quite) so fast. Listen in as a veteran cosmetic chemist turned entrepreneur shares the steps to prepping for, then scoring, then keeping a big deal with a big retailer.
You’ve got a great product, but your last name isn’t Aniston or Lopez. Your concept is strong, but you don’t have millions of social acolytes yet. As a small beauty company, capturing the attention of a major retailer among a sea of celebrity and influencer brands can feel a bit like Where’s Waldo, yearning to be discovered in the crowd.
But unlike Waldo, you don’t have to wait around in the hopes that your product eventually catches the eye of prominent beauty buyers. Just ask Ron Robinson, one of the industry’s top cosmetic chemists and the founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics. In 2019, Ron launched his BeautyStat skin-care line, and a mere three years later, you can find it at Ulta, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Dermstore, and Violet Grey, to name (ahem) a few.
During his 30-year career as a cosmetic chemist, Ron developed products for such powerhouse brands as Clinique, La Mer, Revlon, and Lancôme — and while you might assume this gave him the right connections from the very start, Ron will assure you it did not. In fact, he says, he didn’t know a soul in retail when he first launched his brand. Like any other indie founder, he had to figure out how to create a compelling pitch, network effectively, convince buyers of his brand’s unique POV, and navigate all the retailer requirements.
So how did he do it — and how can you, too? In his own words, Ron shares his best advice for getting your small brand into a big retailer, from knockout pitch to a long (and healthy) shelf life.
Drafting an effective deck
A good presentation deck is about more than just business data — you need to create a compelling story around your brand that shows how it’s growing and how you plan to evolve the story to create longevity.
Articulate your brand’s unique proposition. This is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to getting into a major retailer: being able to show that your brand has a distinct point of difference. It’s tough to find uniqueness and novelty right now because there are so many great brands launching and the bar is raised. But if you can outline specifically what makes your brand special within its category, this will help you break through with a retailer. Your key differentiator, however, shouldn’t be price and how your brand is the more affordable version of X existing brand or technology — that’s the easiest play and it doesn’t impress buyers. You want to emphasize a unique product proposition that fills a gap in their current portfolio of brands. For BeautyStat, I had the clinical data to show that our Universal C Skin Refiner was arguably the best vitamin C serum in the marketplace. But in my retail pitches — which I always tweak for each retailer to speak specifically to their type of customer — I put equal emphasis on outlining the future of the brand, which is that we’re led by a cosmetic chemist with a mission to solve the biggest skin-care needs of their consumer with technologies and ingredients that are first of their kind, patented, and exclusive with science-backed clinical testing.
Show how your sales are increasing. One of the best ways to prove your potential and relevance to a large retailer is by showing that sales at your current points of distribution are growing, even if that’s just at a local mom-and-pop store. Modest sales figures at a small retailer are still impressive when you can show a steady increase there, which signals that people want your product and you’re developing buzz. It indicates to buyers that your brand has the legs to expand into a bigger retail presence.
Track your social media growth. As with sales, you want to show that the audience in your social media channels is expanding, whether you have 1,000 followers or 10,000 followers. Articulate the momentum, that you’re gaining an average of X-hundred or X-thousand followers per month or per quarter. Your social could be at any size, but if you launch your Instagram or TikTok with 100 followers and by the next month you have 500 followers, then at month two you have 1,000 followers, a buyer sees that as consistent growth. You also want to cover engagement and how your community is loving your content and commenting and sharing it. If any of your posts have gone viral, of course share that, too, but remember that there’s no formula for creating viral moments. The only way to increase your chances is by cranking out a lot of content, playing with different ideas, and seeing what your audience responds to.
Call out press placements. Contrary to what you may think, it’s not just about social media. Retailers love to see both online and print media coverage. This highlights that your product is gaining mainstream attention.
Talk about the future. Retailers want to understand what’s coming down the pipeline over the next year or so and how you plan to grow your business with that retailer.
Getting connected to retailers
Once you have your pitch, how do you get the right eyes on it? One thing I definitely do not recommend is cold-emailing a buyer. These buyers get hundreds of emails a day, so if you want to cut through their inbox clutter, you need a thoughtful, strategic approach.
Build a network of contacts. Since I didn’t know anyone on the retail side when I launched BeautyStat Cosmetics, I reached out to a few people in beauty who I felt would be great mentors while I was developing my brand and who directly or indirectly had connections to retailers. My advisors believed in my concept, so when the time came to start pitching retailers, they introduced me to a few buyers, and BeautyStat ended up getting into some of those retailers. This should be your goal: a warm introduction through a common connection who can vouch for you. Whatever your background, you need to leverage your network and find those connections who can lead you to folks in beauty, ideally at some kind of senior level. It doesn’t have to be a mentor who’s been advising your brand since day one — it could be someone you’ve spoken with only a couple of times who really likes your brand. It’s so important when you launch a beauty brand to prioritize developing relationships with people in the beauty industry who will be able to introduce you to retailer contacts when the time comes.
Look into retailers’ incubator programs. In the last few years, some retailers have introduced annual incubator programs — like Sephora Accelerate and Ulta Beauty’s MUSE Accelerator Program — where beauty founders can be mentored on many aspects of growing a small brand, including how to get it into a large retailer. These are a great way to learn and also make connections.
Keep your email pitch short and sweet. Once you get introduced to a buyer, your initial email to the person should be quick and impactful with your key differentiating points. Do not send your deck — save that for if you actually get a meeting with the retailer. But if you want to include an image of your star product or of the full range, that’s fine. Your pitch email should have a short introduction that’s a couple of sentences, then bullet points to get across what makes your brand interesting: things like your star product and its unique features and benefits, any growing sales in your current distribution points, what’s going on with your social media, any traditional PR placements, and your repeat purchase rate to show that people keep coming back to your products. Then close out your email by asking to schedule a quick call with the person to share more. Whatever you do, be truthful in your pitch and don’t exaggerate. A buyer can find out in two seconds if you’re embellishing any of the information you’re sharing, so stick to the facts.
Follow up when you have news — with an impactful subject line. If you don’t get a reply to your pitch email, send a follow-up email to the buyer once a month at most, and only when you have new news to share. If your first outreach is met with radio silence, you need to assume that your brand is not the right fit for them right now, so why keep sending them the same pitch? You want to follow up when you have something different and impressive to tell the buyer. A few years back, there was a buyer I’d followed up with twice, each time with no response. On my third try, I had a great new press placement, so the subject heading of my email was, “News: BeautyStat named one of the best vitamin C serums by Allure magazine.” And I got a response from that buyer within a day or so asking to set up a call. Remember, these buyers receive zillions of emails, so you’ve got to grab their attention to get them to open your message.
Fostering the retailer relationship
If your brand gets picked up by a major beauty retailer, that doesn’t mean your work is over, and it’s on them to sell your products. Retailers expect more support from founders and their teams than ever before because they’re carrying so many more brands, and they don’t have the resources to promote them all. So if your brand gets into a retailer, they’ll want to hear your plan for supporting sales in their distribution channels.
Be prepared to dedicate (at least) 10 to 20 percent of a purchase order to marketing. In other words, if you’re selling $100,000 worth of your products in a distribution channel, you’ll need $10,000 to $20,000 to market and support that retailer. The retailer may lay out what they need from you in order to succeed with them. This might include spending money on PR and driving your followers to their store on your social accounts via paid or organic posts and through your email marketing. You may be asked to do product sampling programs at the retailer on your dime. Another big expense that’s becoming more common if your brand goes into a retailer’s brick-and-mortar stores: they may expect you to pay for a sales team to be on the ground in certain doors to drive sales. So you could very well end up spending even more than the usual 10 to 20 percent of the purchase order amount on retailer marketing.
Continually highlight your plans for support. Hopefully, you covered some of this in your deck presentation to the retailer, but once they bring your brand on board, continue impressing upon them why this is a strong ongoing partnership. Send a quick bullet-point recap once a month of how you’re currently supporting the retailer and what’s in the pipeline to continue supporting them in the future. Talk about your next launches and where your brand is going. Some retailers love exclusives, so if it’s feasible to introduce a product only with them, it’ll show your dedication to that retailer. Share which influencers and content creators you’re working with who will push traffic to the retailer. Remember, you’re not simply selling a beauty product — you’re selling the story of your brand and how that story will continually evolve. This is what makes your brand relevant to a retailer when they can foresee a long and fruitful partnership together.