Staying Original In A World Full Of Imitators

Birchbox dials back expansion

When Harvard Business School grads Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna first came up with the Birchbox concept, it was so ... well, out of the box that pitching it to investors was at first a series of cold emails dedicated to explaining their concept.

Neither of the firm’s founders considered themselves beauty experts, but nonetheless they persisted.

Because, it occurred to them, most of their clients weren’t beauty experts either. They wanted to look nice, but with hundreds and thousands of new products launching on the market annually, only the most interested and invested consumers would ever encounter most of them. Customers like experimenting with personal care products, but they don’t like to waste money. A cosmetic that already works is often going to edge out an interesting idea that may or may not pan out in real life.

“We saw a big opportunity for online beauty. We recognized that consumers were shifting their time and spending online, but beauty was a hard category for people to shop online because they want to try products before they buy them. We thought this was a big idea; it’s what every beauty company was trying to figure out,” Beauchamp noted in a 2014 interview about the firm’s early days.

And as it turned out, it was a really big idea: one with legs. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Birchbox is one of the most flattered firms in human history. In the wake of Birchbox’s success, subscription boxes for every conceivable good has popped up — pet treats, bacon, Mexican candy, etc.

The problem Birchbox has spent the last few years fighting is this: Being first to the starting line with an idea does not guarantee being first to the finish line with that idea. In the beauty box segment the company created, Birchbox rubbed elbows with two big competitors: Sephora and Ipsy.

Physical makeup powerhouse Sephora has its own subscription line, a legion of dedicated consumers and international brand recognition. Ipsy, another eCommerce-originated makeup subscription service, is even bigger, with 1.5 million subscribers to Birchbox’s million, and has a better organized social and content creation network built around its brand.

So, what is an innovator to do when new kids come to claim territory?

Keep trying new things.


Adding to the Line-Up 

Birchbox proved a year ago that it can still add a sell-out product to the line-up. In this case, a line of men’s subscriptions that ended up selling out its first run in three days, which made the company realize that its customer base was much bigger than it originally thought. Birchbox for men was initially conceived as something women might buy for their partners. Within 72 hours of its launch, however, the products were gone, and it became clear that men were purchasing the subscriptions for themselves.

“It immediately became clear that men were looking for a new, easy way to learn about and purchase high-quality grooming products,” Tess Hales, former VP of Birchbox Man, explained.

More recently, the brand has remapped how they connect with new customers — like bringing their entire influence marketing operation in-house. That move, Jenna Hilzenrath, director of public relations for Birchbox, came about as the company looked at its brand demographics and recognized something perhaps unexpected for a beauty brand: Their customers “aren’t that into” beauty.

Birchbox customers want to look nice, Hilzenrath said, but what really distinguishes them is how little they want to fuss with their look once it’s attained.

“Managing influencer marketing in-house allows us to be nimble and take a really hands-on, nuanced approach,” she explained on how bespoke influence marketing handled internally allows them to better push that message through their content.

The brand also recently signed on with Instagram as one of two brands leading the launch of “collection ads” on the social media platform, which allow consumers to buy directly from within the social site’s own ecosystem (parent company Facebook has already had collection ads up and running).


What’s Next

The big rumor surrounding Birchbox these days is that it’s Walmart’s next big digital acquisition target, though those rumors first flared in the late summer of 2017.

So far there’s been no new news on that front.

But Birchbox is worth keeping an eye on, because they were the concept that launched a thousand imitators.

The question they need to answer now is how to stay ahead of all those ideas they inspired.



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