Part I: CEO/Founders speak on importance of brand identity, social issues, and building a community to connect with Gen Z
During the 2023 In-Cosmetics Global convention in Barcelona, CosmeticsDesign attended an educational seminar on the intersection of Gen Z and the new purpose-driven era of beauty which was led by futurist Luci Green of Light Years consultancy. Following the lecture, we wanted to learn more about the many unique ways cosmetics and personal care companies are branding themselves to speak directly to this consumer demographic.
For further insight, we spoke to three founders and CEOs of Gen Z cosmetics and personal care product brands for their experience in earning the trust of their target audience. These women are:
Olamide Olowe, Founder and CEO of skin care product brand Topicals. Last year, Olowe was acknowledged by Forbes as the youngest black women to ever raise $10 million in funding, and to date has raised $12.6 million in funding for the brand. Since launching in 2020, Topicals has donated $100K to mental health organizations.
Fiona Co Chan, Founder and CEO of cosmetics brand Youthforia. Launched in 2021, Dartmouth grad Chan has taken her brand viral on Tik Tok, successfully pitched her brand on Shark Tank, and most recently secured an undisclosed amount of seed funding led by True Beauty Ventures, with participation from Willow Growth Partners and Mark Cuban, the businessman, investor and “Shark Tank” star.
Stephanie Lee, Founder and CEO of beauty brand selfmade. A staff member to former First Lady Michelle Obama with years of experience at MAC Cosmetics’ Global Product Innovation and Development, Lee founded selfmade in 2020 with a focus on the relationship between beauty and mental wellness. With over $1 million dollars in pre-seed funding, the brand reach has grown exponentially based on its dedication to fostering a community based on mental health awareness.
We would like to acknowledge and thank each of the contributors to this discussion.
CDU: How has your brand distinguished itself as a brand that Gen Z consumers identify with?
Olamide Olowe, Topicals (OO): Topicals has distinguished itself as a brand that Gen Z consumers identify with by focusing on creating products that not only address common skin concerns but also promotes taking the focus off the destination of clear skin. The brand has built a strong following by leveraging social media platforms to showcase its products and connect with its target audience.
One way that Topicals has connected with Gen Z consumers is through its branding and messaging. The brand uses bright colors, playful packaging, and relatable language in its marketing materials. Topicals has also differentiated itself by prioritizing sustainability and social responsibility.
The brand uses eco-friendly packaging and sources ingredients from ethical suppliers. Additionally, Topicals donates a portion of its profits to organizations that support mental health and skincare education.
Fiona Chan, Youthforia (FC): I think it really comes down to our authenticity. I think with some older/heritage brands it's always been about achieving a specific aesthetic and this sense of perfection, whereas with Youthfoira our tagline is literally "life's messy but your makeup isn't," which we really lean into.
This just means that we try to embrace some of the messiness and chaos that is real life, so we're able to be really fun with it and not take ourselves too seriously. It's all about self-expression for us rather than trying to have this perfect image.
Stephanie Lee, selfmade (SL): From inception, selfmade's commitment to mental health led to a focus on Gen Z. Gen Z remains depressed, anxious and stressed from pretty large existential issues from climate change, school shootings, pandemic, on top of the conventional “coming of age” bs of bullying, hormones of puberty, and understanding identity, etc. But one thing that remains universally true and is not mutually exclusive is the need to understand and care for one’s emotional world.
selfmade develops products with two Black mental health experts and a Black and Asian (CEO) product developer. Internally, 70% of staff are BIPOC and we are the majority female brand where 50% are Gen Z and Zennials. We are funded by angel investors who are not only diverse but are our stakeholder themselves (50% Millennial and Gen Z).
Our commitment to inclusivity and social justice is intersectional and a foundational part of the core of our business. Lastly, we have built this brand with Gen Z since before launching. Our most successful program is the Junior Advisory Board where we have a yearlong cohort of mental health activists who advise on the business and are the voice of our target stakeholder. selfmade is a community-powered brand inside and out.
CDU: In what ways does your brand work to promote areas of great importance to Gen Z consumers like inclusivity, diversity, mental health awareness, and social issues?
OO: Topicals works to promote inclusivity, diversity, mental health awareness, and social issues in several ways:
Inclusivity and diversity: Topicals recognizes that everyone's skin is unique and therefore strives to create products that work for a wide range of skin types and tones. The brand also features models with diverse backgrounds and skin types in its marketing materials to promote inclusivity and representation.
In addition, Topicals has taken steps to ensure that its products are accessible to people with disabilities by designing packaging that is easy to open and use.
Mental health awareness: Since launching in 2020, Topicals has donated $100K to mental health organizations. Each year, Topicals is committed to donating at least 1% of its profits to high-impact mental health movements, particularly those who are in primary support of under-resourced communities.
Launched in 2023, the Topicals Mental Health Fund awarded five women-founded organizations with funding that support mental health within BIPOC communities. Together, Topicals will partner with each of the five organizations to create programming that encourages well-being and builds safe spaces that foster community building, combat loneliness, and establish genuine relationships.
Social issues: Topicals is committed to using its platform to promote social justice and equality. The brand has donated to organizations that support racial justice and has launched campaigns to raise awareness about issues such as voter suppression and police brutality. Topicals has also used its social media platforms to promote education and discussion around social issues and encourages its followers to use their voices to advocate for change.
Overall, Topicals recognizes that Gen Z consumers care deeply about these issues and has made a concerted effort to promote inclusivity, diversity, mental health awareness, and social justice through its products, marketing, and partnerships.
FC: We do this in several ways—for starters, we try to be really inclusive at the formulation level. We created the world's first color-changing blush oil because I personally wanted to create a blush that would be universally flattering and suit all skin tones across the board, as well as ages and different skin types.
I'm always thinking about how we can be more inclusive with the products that we create. We make sure to be really intentional when formulating—everything from ingredients to undertones in colors is considered and well thought out. When it comes to diversity, we always feature real people with real skin—for instance, I feature my mom a lot, which our community loves and appreciates.
Then in terms of mental health awareness, I've really made a point to share and be open about my own story and struggles with mental health, especially since starting my own company. It's a work in progress and I share a lot of that journey with our followers.
SL: Developed with two Black mental health practitioners, we built the brand on a social justice blueprint that helps to bridge the siloes of mental and physical care.
By January 30, 2020, our foundational social impact plan was formalized and validated by our advisors Dr. Jeshana Johnson, PhD, Dr. Byron Young, MD, and Elodie Lavery. In April 2020, we validated our blueprint with our Gen Z Junior Advisory Board.
While we set these change drivers prior to the brand’s launch, we recognize that in setting these ambitious goals that our performance wasn’t and will not be linear. SELFMADE, its employees, advisors, Junior Advisory Board and consultants/contractors remain committed to meaningful action, ability to adapt and continual learning and unlearning in the pursuit of social and racial justice.
From inception, selfmade's commitment to mental health led to a focus on BIPOC and Gen Z. Communities of color remain to be largely under-resourced in mental health tools and conversations. From actual access or lack of representation in practitioners as 83% of psychologists in the US are white.
Gen Z remains depressed, anxious, and stressed from pretty large existential issues from climate change, school shootings, pandemic, on top of the conventional “coming of age” bs of bullying, hormones of puberty, and understanding identity, etc. But one thing that remains universally true and is not mutually exclusive is the need to understand and care for one’s emotional world.
Through our work of self-worth and beauty, we are in the middle of updating our social impact and equity report inclusive of data for a 2022 - 2023 report.
CDU: How does your brand establish a community-oriented mindset for its brand followers to become active participants?
OO: Topicals has established a community-oriented mindset by creating a space where its brand followers can connect, share their experiences, and support one another. Topicals is active on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, where it regularly engages with its followers through posts, stories, and live streams.
The brand also features user-generated content on its platforms, which helps to create a sense of community and encourages customers to share their experiences with Topicals products. Topicals has a brand ambassador program that allows customers to become advocates for the brand and share their love for Topicals products with their own followers.
The program provides ambassadors with exclusive perks, such as early access to new products and discounts, which helps to build a sense of community and loyalty among Topicals fans. Overall, Topicals' community-oriented mindset is built on a foundation of transparency, inclusivity, and customer engagement.
By creating a space where its customers can connect and support one another, Topicals has built a loyal following and established itself as a brand that truly cares about its customers' needs and experiences.
FC: I think that just kind of happened for us. I love sharing the journey of our brand as we're growing and our community has been such amazing supporters every step of the way, especially when we've hit exciting milestones like our second birthday and getting into Ulta.
I'm endlessly grateful and always encourage our community to share their experiences with us. We often re-post people's reviews, tutorials, etc., and I'm always in people's comments rooting them on.
SL: Through our Junior Advisory Board applications as well as joining community programming of mental health deep dives and events. We will have an upcoming JAB run grassroots movement so that all can join in building this brand to champion emotional wellbeing for all.
They've joined investor and fundraising pitches, live panels on a global stage with partners, facilitated events and programming like book clubs, become interns, etc. We’ve had three years of yearlong programs, spanning from eight, to twenty-two, to thirty-five board members. This is an intimate relationship with our direct target audience where they advise me and the team on how to build a brand for them and with them. Building a board is based in social justice practices to convene the community and break down silos.
We wanted to work with the people who are buying our products – we wanted to hear their voices, see their ideas, and give them a space where they can grow. selfmade is a brand that is for everyone, and it only made sense that we included a diverse group of up-and-coming folks who have bright ideas and a passion for skincare and mental health in our brand.
We wanted to launch something that inspired young professionals and college students, as well as the selfmade brand alike. We brainstorm, create, and experience life together. In short, we wanted to create an opportunity to learn and to provide valuable experiences.
Our JAB inspires us to improve – to be the best and greatest version of ourselves. They offer us genuine unfiltered critiques and praises. They help us grow as a brand because they’re all passionate about selfmade – they don’t just promote our products, but what we stand for. They promote understanding, kindness, and loving yourself through all the bumps in the road.