“Big brands often lack the understanding of what consumers really want,” says Farah Naz. “They aren’t agile enough to respond to customer demands- and being so risk averse they lag on innovation.”
It’s that lack of responsiveness that can so often allows entrepreneurial to stride boldly into mature market and carve out a niche among hitherto poorly served consumers. EX1 has set out to just that. Founded by Farah Naz – formerly a biochemist at Imperial College, London – the company came to the market in 2013 with a of line foundation cream products aimed at women with olive skin tones.
A Response To Frustration
As Naz explains, the inspiration for the company was the simple fact that she herself was experiencing difficulty in buying appropriate foundation products. “I was frustrated by the lack of foundations that matched my skin tone, and realized friends shared the same problem,” she says. “I read market reports which confirmed the burgeoning market gap for affordably priced makeup for women with olive skin tones and I saw this as an opportunity to innovate.”
The gap in the market was – to say the least surprising. According to Naz there are around 5 million women in the UK alone fitting the company’s primary demographics. That represents a substantial community of underserved consumers. Naz acknowledges that foundation products were available, but as the market was seen as specialist rather than mainstream they were priced at a premium. Thus, the goal of EX1 was to produce “affordable” products.
The Appliance of Science
The first step was to get the formula right and according to Naz this meant rethinking standard industry practices. As she explains, vast majority of foundations are based on orange or pink pigments. “We shunned the standard available pigments used by brands and started from scratch, focusing on yellow/golden pigments that micro matched olive skin tones,” she says.
Initially funded from personal resources, the R&D process took about two years, during which time Naz worked with scientists in Italy to source the materials, formulate the products and develop a manufacturing process. Initially the EX1 line was launched on the Lookfantastic.com website. Today it is also marketed via ASOS and Harrods.
Building A Profile
But the real challenge was to make an impact in a sector where multi-national companies spend billions of dollars on marketing and market leaders, such as L’Oreal and Estee Lauder, are a constant presence in magazines and on TV.
Since launching its products has succeeded in capturing the attention of the media and target consumers. In 2016, Glamour magazine named an EX1 product the top foundation and the Daily Telegraph newspaper bestowed a similar accolade. Sales have been rising rapidly – up 300% this year from a the same time a year earlier – and the company has to date secured around £5m in VC funding.
So how has this been achieved?
The focus on an under-served marketplace has undoubtedly helped but EX1’s profile has also been boosted by the power of celebrity.
As Naz acknowledges, the first year of trading was relatively quiet. EX1 sent products out to bloggers and journalists but it was working in a crowded marketplace where lots of products were vying for attention. But then something changed.
“Things picked up in 2015 and we really began to see growth,” says Naz. “A-list celebrities and pop stars were seen wearing the products at key events, resulting in massive press coverage internationally. At the same time, NBC’s Today Show featured us as being a sensation.”
Power Of Association
EX1 products have been used by the likes Adele, Rita Ora, Nicola Scherzinger and even Kate Winslett and the company has been quick to take advantage of the power of association.
This is where the particular commercial realities of fashion and cosmetics begin to kick in. Artists and their stylists are constantly looking for products that will establish their look. Consumers meanwhile want to know how they do it. And somewhere in between, journalists are on hand to reveal the necessary secrets.
Thus, when a celebrity uses an EX1 product – and this may well be something that is made public through tweets, Instagram pictures or videos – the company benefits from the enhanced interest.
It’s not perhaps a growth hack that’s available to every entrepreneur working in every industry, but it’s an approach that demonstrates the power of influential customers to raise awareness, even if larger rivals can spend much more heavily on advertising.
Equally important, the company has its own social media following, and according to Naz, listening to the opinions of consumers plays an important role in developing the product line.
“We listen, observe and act. For example, our expansion of the range to include very pale shades was a direct result of customer feedback.,” says Naz.
With VC funding secured. EX1 is set to roll out its products in stores – intitially 100 – across the UK. Meanwhile, the target consumer group has expanded. In addition to olive skin, there are products for those who self tan and anyone with underlying yellow skin tones, regardless of ethnicity.
With the store roll out just about to begin. EX1 has a long way to go, but the traction gained to date provides an example of how a small business can compete with incumbents by directly addressing frustrated consumers while using PR and marketing to raise awareness.
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