The Ordinary: Clinical formulations with integrity
and how their extraordinary mission to bring transparency into the beauty industry changed the status quo forever
The Ordinary: Know exactly what you’re putting on your skin
The latest entry into the Indian skincare industry is a company that sheds the ‘brand-first’ approach.
The ‘skin-first’ approach to beauty and skincare in the US, can be credited to the growth of K-Beauty in the market. Practices such as the 10-step cleansing and moisturizing routines and double-cleansing were introduced at a time when the US millennial audience was leaning towards a more holistic approach to skincare. The emphasis laid on the education about the ingredients and the importance of good skin care practices at the time set the stage perfectly for the launch of The Ordinary.
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The Ordinary was the 7th skincare brand founded by its owner, Brandon Truaxe
Born Ali Roshan in Iran, Brandon Truaxe moved to Canada in the 1990s. A trained computer science engineer, he interned at a cosmetics company in New York in 1999 which changed his outlook on the industry. His role, which involved analyzing the company’s formulas for regulatory and compliance issues, helped him discover that a $1000 product cost the company about $2 to make.
Bothered by the lack of transparency, he left to launch a luxury range of beauty products, Euoko, that charged north of $500 for some products, in 2006. Post the failure of that launch, he co-founded a company called Indeed Labs which offered a more affordable range of skincare. This ended in a private fallout amongst the founders and led to the creation of Deciem, which he co-founded with Nicola Kilner. On June 15, 2017, Estée Lauder became a minority shareholder with a 28% stake in the brand.
Truaxe wanted Deciem to stand for everything ‘anti-establishment’ in the beauty industry and to create products that evaded the inflated markups and false hype.
“We refused to hire anyone with a beauty background for our lab,” he says. “It’s all biochemists and material chemists because beauty chemists are trained to be marketing people. We want our medicines to work.”
In an industry where research and development take years, Truaxe employed an unusual tactic of launching multiple contemporary brands simultaneously. This was achieved by having one Toronto-based office that develops and tracks all aspects of the brand. "We do the lab work, manufacturing, and marketing in-house," Truaxe says. "The fastest we've moved [to a product] has been about four months, and the average time is 12 months." Within Deciem (originated from the Latin word decima, which translates to ‘tenth in a series’), he launched multiple brands called Inhibitif, the Chemistry Brand, Fountain, Grow Gorgeous, and NIOD which offered everything from hand creams to skincare to products that minimize hair regrowth.
In August 2016, he launched The Ordinary.
It was an online launch with 27 products with the hope that the word would gradually spread. Truaxe did not, however, foresee the orders that flooded in at a pace faster than his Canadian lab could meet, and long waitlists were accumulated. In less than a year more than 75,000 orders were on the waitlist before their production could meet the consumer demand. By December 2017, The Ordinary launched in Sephora. So what did they do right?
The Ordinary understood the market perfectly and created a range of products that ticked a lot of boxes for their consumers
At the time of their launch, the beauty and skincare industry either came with flowery market descriptions with their ingredients hidden behind proprietary blends, or drugstore brands like Neutrogena and L’Oreal were on the cheaper side; both of which had price tags north of $20. These brands marketed their products by promising hydrating, nourishing, and acne-clearing benefits, but for the newer crop of “skintelligent” consumers, this wasn’t enough.
The discourse on online forums such as Reddit, which enjoy massive followings (Reddit’s r/SkincareAddiction and r/AsianBeauty have almost 2 million followers combined) was also booming with these communities researching ingredient claims and experimenting with routines. The Ordinary shone a spotlight on the ingredients used in each of their formulations by displaying the ingredient and its percentage right on the front so that the consumer is aware of exactly what goes on their skin. Mindful of maximizing the benefits derived from each ingredient, they refrained from using essential oils or fragrances.
The lure of The Ordinary lies in its ability to make customers feel like they’re reaping the benefits of their skincare products without getting sucked into an industrial, profit-oriented maze. They make the consumer feel smart about being able to decode the ingredients mentioned on the bottle and organically create a community of skincare enthusiasts.
Understanding the evolution of consumer thoughts and preferences has aided their rise in popularity as well. By attaching themselves to a larger movement of the beauty industry to a more gender-inclusive narrative, The Ordinary has managed to win over a consumer base that was historically sidelined by this industry. “Since its conception, [the Ordinary] was never intended to target a specific gender identity in any capacity,” says Nicola Kilner, cofounder, and chief executive officer of Deciem. “The packaging of the line, much like the formulations, was always about being straight to the point and educational.”
In a world of high markups, The Ordinary manages to sell its products at unbelievably low price points
A champion of transparency in an industry that makes you believe that expensive products are better, The Ordinary has priced a majority of its products under $10. In a 2019 study of more than 13,000 retailers, the average gross profit margin was 53.33% generally in retail sales. In specific industries, it was found to be higher, with cosmetics at 58.14%.
“Luxury brands are still there and have a legacy, but they’re slightly threatened by the fact that the consumer is more sophisticated and really wants to understand the reason why they need to pay a premium,” says Charles Rosier, co-founder, and CEO of Augustinus Bader Skincare. “You can no longer build a long-term, sustainable business and require a premium from the consumer if there is not a clear reason.”
It is no secret that the beauty industry enjoys notoriously high markups. In contrast, Deciem manages to control its price points by vertically integrating all its functions in its own factory. By cutting off the middlemen, they are able to have complete control over their formulas, churn out products more quickly, and offer products at drastically low prices. Additionally, they keep their products fragrance-free, their ingredients list concise, and their packaging minimal while also maintaining a minimum marketing budget. A combination of all these factors is what allows them the luxury of selling formulations packed in recyclable glass bottles at such a low price point.
While brands are shelling out millions of dollars for marketing, The Ordinary believes in keeping it simple, but significant.
The Ordinary’s marketing strategy is to merely explain what their products do. Shunning traditional ads and PR, they focus on their social media engagements. Social media is used as a medium to cultivate authentic connections with consumers that drive sales and customer loyalty. The language used on their social media pages, especially Instagram is conversational, to cultivate intimacy with their followers, which is further strengthened by their strategy of responding to almost every comment and mention.
“The early adopters become our evangelists and many future customers then come into the brand via product recommendations,” says Brandon Truaxe.
The brand interacts with their numerous unofficial fan groups like Deciem Enthusiasts and The Ordinary Chat Room, through means of collaboration, product feedback, Q&A sessions with the founder as well as events like TikTok Q&A’s where fans get to ask the team questions with 10 fans winning a product of their choice. ‘Skinfluencers’ on YouTube and TikTok are also a large reason for their growth because a large portion of their sales is credited to their review videos. This kind of viral user-generated content also helps them minimize marketing costs.
“One of the biggest marketing drivers is word of mouth and this can only be achieved by creating formulations that are loved,” said Nicola Kilner. “We want our consumers to have a better understanding of which ingredients they may be overpaying for and to empower them to make educated skin care choices. Although the price may have been the most attractive element to disrupt initially, it has been the power of word of mouth sharing [about how well the products work] that brought the real disruption.”
For a brand that’s moving full steam ahead, controversy is never far behind.
Brandon Truaxe is described as a ‘charismatic’ and ‘complicated’ character in Cheryl Wischhover’s article for the Vox. His erratic behavior on social media and reported friction with employees, however, often overshadows his company’s narrative. His troubles began in 2018 with him being called out by Redditors for seemingly picking a fight with skincare company Drunk Elephant over marula oil prices. This was followed by a parting of ways with Sephora and a series of absurd behavior on the company’s Instagram handle which ranged from posting photos of litter during his vacation to Italy to conducting business with other brands publicly on the platform. This led to a piece penned by David Yi, for the website Very Good Light titled, "Is The Ordinary the Donald Trump of beauty?"
In February of 2018, his co-founder Nicola Kilner was suddenly let go but was asked to return by June 2018. The final blow in the coffin for Truaxe was him posting a series of screenshots from an email sent by Estée Lauder Companies lawyer Mark Gelowitz which he believed violated the terms of the shareholder agreement. This resulted in legal action and Truaxe’s removal from the board and his position as CEO. He passed away in January 2019 due to a fall from a Toronto condominium.
Following a few months of uncertainty for the company, in December 2018, the company’s CEO Nicola Kilner, announced a relaunch of Deciem in Sephora stores, as well as new stores to be launched in America and Europe. By 2021 Estée Lauder increased its stake to 76% to officially own the majority of Deciem.
Not to be left behind, The Ordinary reached the Indian market in 2022
Six years after bursting into the scene, The Ordinary launched in India through a partnership with Nykaa and Estée Lauder on June 10, 2022. Priced north of Rs. 500, the products are being sold at slightly higher prices than in the United States and Canada as all the products are being manufactured at their factory in Canada due to lesser logistical costs.
Through social listening, the brand has identified niche skincare products that could generate high demand in an Indian climate. “The Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution and the Salicylic Acid 2% Solution are also two products we see work well within the Indian market [they target dullness and blemishes respectively],” says Kilner, who also sees the hero acids including AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution doing well here.
Changing the status quo in a multi-billion dollar industry in 6 short years is no ordinary feat. The emphasis they placed on transparent processes and the ingredients of products, has inspired a whole new generation of beauty brands. Chemical skin care is resurfacing in a newer, more sustainable avatar, and The Ordinary has been one of the flagbearers of the cause.
In the future, it will be exciting to see how they navigate new markets and customize their product mix as they continue to expand.
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