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UK Beauty – A Brilliant Market But Not For The Faint-Hearted

This article was written by The Red Tree’s Founder and M.D. Stirling Murray.

Despite the political uncertainty caused by Brexit — although the UK economy seems to operate in its own world and is powering ahead — the UK is one of the world’s greatest beauty markets, and one that international beauty brands aspire to conquer. Simply because if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.

But its not easy to do so, despite the growth the business is showing. Annual British retail sales in 2015 topped the £4 billion mark for the first time ever, making the UK market larger than the French. The prestige, luxury beauty market accounted for £2.4 billion of the £4 billion total — a jump of £110 million over 2014 with strong performance in premium skincare, colour cosmetics and haircare. Like the rest of the world, only mass fragrance is showing a decline. Our professional sector is alive and well, with the spa sector enjoying growth of 7% driven by more consumer engagement in treatments.

We are also a brilliant launch pad for Europe. The UK market is now twice the size of the Italian and Spanish beauty markets, and only Germany is bigger in Europe.

So let’s look at the reasons why it’s tough to gain listings with UK beauty retailers and then, once listed, to gain sales traction.

1. The UK has the most structured beauty market in the world. We don’t have a perfumery or a vibrant independent pharmacy sector, Boots and Superdrug have over 70% of self-selection colour, SpaceNK is our solitary premium chain — we have no Sephora, no Ulta — and we have a mid-tier department store sector that is starting to look tired and lost.

2. Every category is saturated. Spend 5 minutes in a world-class store like Selfridges and the sheer number of brands fighting for attention is overwhelming. Brand blindness — the inability to distinguish one brand from another — sets in quickly.

3. Try and navigate the shelves at Boots. How many haircare sub categories can there be?

4. The UK consumer is promotionally literate, wants instant results, is celebrity obsessed, loves to browse, and is increasingly cynical about the results brands claim. She will shop for shower gel in Tesco, nail colour in Superdrug, lipsticks in Harvey Nichols, and Amazon for premium. There are no rules — except to be where your target market expects to find you. Example: If you are in the male grooming market, guys no longer shop where you expected them to. They buy online, at their barbers, or in specialist retailers, very rarely making their own purchase in-store.

5. Buyers see more than 5 new brands a week. They are, particularly so in bricks n’ mortar, becoming increasingly risk adverse. Less so for the major e-commerce sites, but even they are becoming fatigue-weary of new brands.

That’s the bad news; what’s the good news? Thankfully there is lots, and any brand entering the UK needs to be clever, honest with itself, and intimate with its target market. And of course it needs to be willing to invest. More on that last point later.

Despite the rigid structure of the market, there are more opportunities than ever for niche and new brands to secure routes to market. We all know about the amazing success of QVC. Online retailers like Not On The High Street and Groupon are now determined to grow a strong beauty business, as are T.K. Maxx and specialists like My Showcase and Beauty Mart. It’s not the way of the past, but those retailers are exactly where your target market might be shopping. And please do not think you cannot grow a strong business only online — you can. We work with one brand that has done exactly that!

To make a brand work in the UK means going back to basics, and fits into what we call “Face, Place, and Space” — the theme of our Spring 2017 Beauty Symposium.

Face. Any brand entering the UK has to be diamond-sharp in its personality and how that is expressed. It needs to have consistency in its tone of voice and visual assets. We recognise faces, and your target market needs to recognise yours. We like faces that are truthful and honest, that don’t exaggerate and tell it like it is.

Place. Know your target market — you will be astonished at how many new brands we see that are unable to answer that simple question. Know where your target resides both for information and the likely place of purchase, and plan to be there. As we often say to clients, “It’s not about your brand, it’s about your audience.”

Space. Build space around your brand so that it occupies a place that is unique. Critically question why your brand is different, how it genuinely benefits the consumer and why it is better than its competitive set. Be honest — if answering these questions is difficult and you cannot build space, then maybe do more work before attempting to enter the UK. Our consumers and buyers will see through anything that is a me-too brand or a brand that has no real reason for being.

And finally, investment. We have met brand principals with fabulous brands but an unwillingness to accept the pragmatic reality that you cannot build a brand in the UK without investment. The days of expecting a beauty distributor — if you can find one — to invest in your brand have long gone, as the ever-increasing margin demands of UK retailers make the business model almost impossible. You will be asked by any buyer how the brand will get on the radar and how it will cut through the huge noise on social media. They will expect you to have a UK-based partner who can maintain regular face-to-face contact, develop the relationship, implement marketing plans, and provide training. All of this requires investment and risk and if you are unwilling or unable to do this, then you cannot expect others to do so.

The UK market may seem challenging, confusing, and demanding, but come and join us — our consumers love newness, and you might just build something incredible.

The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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