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Why Some Beauty Devices Fail by Emma Sandler, Beauty & Wellness Editor at Glossy

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This week I explore the device market, including why some devices fail to capture and retain market share. Click here to access the online story and Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics. - Emma Sandler, beauty & wellness editor

Opte, the “precision skin-care” device launched out of P&G Ventures during the height of Covid- 19, sought to combine skin care and makeup into an inkjet-like technology device. It quietly dissolved in January, as was first reported by Bloomberg early this month. It was three years old.

Opte is survived by dozens of skin-care devices and joins Clarisonic in a final resting place at the bottom of beauty junkies' drawers.

Opte’s demise was confirmed by Erica Noble, spokesperson for P&G, who said there were no layoffs associated with this decision. Opte is not fulfilling new product or refill orders but does continue to offer technical and warranty support through a helpline.

“Opte was run out of P&G Ventures, which is intended to operate on a fast-learning cycle, much like a startup,” Noble said. “Ventures regularly makes choices about where it can make the biggest impact to solve unmet consumer needs. Current in-market brands like [pest-control brand] Zevo and [skin-care brand] Bodewell are [its current] focus.”

When Opte first launched in 2020, it had 20,000 people on its waitlist to purchase the $599 device. It promised to conceal and fade discoloration areas simultaneously, allowing users to forgo complexion makeup. Serum refills lasted 90 days and cost $129. But aside from stories around its launch, a few product-review-focused stories in 2021, and a prototype appearance at CES in 2019, the device failed to capture attention or fanfare. A glance at its social media accounts shows that Opte stopped posting to its 3,000 Facebook followers and 30,000 Instagram followers in Jan. 2022, a full year before actually shuttering. Akin to the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Opte’s end was a long plodding whimper.

Meanwhile, when Clarisonic (R.I.P) was shuttered by L’Oréal in 2020, it was with much more bang. Publications including The New York Times, New York Magazine and CNN covered the news and traced the impact that the then 19-year-old brand had on late aughts beauty. Meanwhile, devotees scrambled to purchase remaining brush heads from the fire sale. But its downfall was foreshadowed, despite the shock to the industry at the time. In 2016, L’Oréal took an approximately $263 million impairment on Clarisonic and laid off 120 members of its team, indicating that sales had not met expectations. It was a quick downfall after surpassing $100 million in sales in 2010 before L’Oréal acquired it in 2011. Clarisonic remains the only standalone facial device brand that has been acquired by a major beauty conglomerate. And together with Opte, it serves as a cautionary tale about beauty devices and why some succeed and others don’t.

Putting the 'fun' in fundamentals

“The No. 1 [barrier to purchase] will always be price and the No. 2 is always: 'Do I need this, and will I use it?'” said Jessica Hanson, CEO of NuFace. “That compliance hurdle is different [for

devices] than for a lot of other beauty products because, while price may be a barrier for [all] luxury goods, whether someone will use a beauty product is not even a question; they will. [Providing that certainty] is one of the fundamental challenges any device company has, no matter what.”

Hanson said NuFace has a 30% market share on premium beauty devices and tools, citing data from Circana (the company formed by Information Resources, Inc. and The NPD Group). She added that NuFace has sold over 5 million devices to date. NuFace surpassed $150 million in annual retail sales in 2021, according to Glossy’s previous reporting. Its wholesale retail sales grew by 8% in 2022, while its DTC e-commerce grew by “double digits,” said Hanson. She attributed the ongoing growth of the company to three things: becoming a brand that transcends devices, maintaining credibility and efficacy, and constantly evolving the brand strategy across all aspects of the business.

Meanwhile, Dr. Robb Akridge, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Opulus Beauty Labs and co-founder of Clarisonic, has identified across his decades-long career the key traits devices must have to be successful. For example, a device has to fit seamlessly into a person’s existing habits. You can't create something that causes them to do six new steps, he said. It also has to be simple, and cannot inundate and confuse users with too much science or technology. Yet, it also has to be high-tech in appearance, in the sense that it feels like a value-add. In addition, it has to be fun and addictive, in order to get people to use it frequently. A 2020 New York Times article covering the decline of Clarisonic begins with a 2009 Glamour review on how addictive the device was to use. And lastly, it has to work, and consumers have to be ready to accept a new innovation.

“The right [consumer] mindset has been influenced by things that are totally different than even 10 years ago,” said Dr. Akridge. “[In past decades] we had print ads to inform the consumer, beauty editors for free promotion, and celebrities talking about products. ... But now, we also have [ephemeral] digital magazine ads, digital beauty mentions, and bloggers, digital advertisers and influencers. The whole communication chain has become fragmented.”

Dr. Akridge has attempted to integrate the key traits he defined into his second prestige beauty device, Opulus, launched in 2020. Opulus is an appliance that applies the “Nespresso and Keurig business model to beauty via single-use pods,” per Glossy’s previous reporting. The Opulus melts and blends solid “opoules” into single-dose creams that are meant to be immediately applied to the face. The appliance serves as a container for the blended product. Opulus is sold DTC on the company's e-commerce site, as well as at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. The device,

which comes with a month’s supply of the brand’s retinol, retails for $395. Opulus's other skin products include an overnight mask, at $165 for a one-month supply, and three “glow” products, at $105 each for a seven-day supply. Opulus is exploring the additional opportunity of selling through spas, where it has distribution in 20 locations. In addition, it debuted on QVC in April. Dr. Akridge declined to share revenue figures, but said the brand doubled its sales between 2021 and 2022.

"To truly innovate, you have to take risks,” he said. “Large companies don't like to risk anything, because if they fail, it will affect their stock. And whatever you're working on needs to be extreme; you can't just change the color of something. And it has to be addictive. Without that, if people don't fall in love with it, they aren't going to use it."

Building a resilient business

Opulus is a vertically integrated business, with manufacturing taking place in Washington state. Dr. Akridge leads a team of seven full-time people, many of whom he worked with in the past at Clarisonic or Sonicare oral care. Prior to the L’Oréal acquisition of Clarisonic in 2011, the devices were also made locally, by 600 assemblers. Later, manufacturing and assembly were moved offshore. Given the proprietary nature of Opulus — there really isn’t anything else like it on the market — maintaining intellectual property control is a strong benefit of its vertical integration. IP theft on the manufacturer level is a rampant issue, and beauty devices are a prime target for counterfeiters. But dupes are also common, even without companies filching IP. Prior to the demise of Clarisonic, one could find sonic face brush devices from Olay and Clinique for a fraction of Clarisonic’s original $195 price tag. Clinique no longer appears to sell its device but does sell brush head refills, while Olay’s version is available on its website for $12.99, a steep discount from its original $27.49.

Despite these products perhaps quickening the demise of Clarisonic, when it sold to L’Oréal for an undisclosed amount, it was because of the uniqueness of the device and its 40-plus patents both in design and technology, according to Dr. Akridge. Opulus currently has three patents. In the U.S., NuFace appears to have 23, while fellow microcurrent device ZIIP has four, according to the Justia patents website. Cleansing device Foreo displays over 30 patents on its website, but they're mostly for design patents rather than invention or utility.

"[Large] companies are not buying up device brands because those devices aren't really unique, in the sense that they have protected intellectual property," he said. "When they buy them, they're taking a risk because someone could come out with another version that looks better."

Hanson joined NuFace in 2022 and previously worked at Clarisonic under L’Oréal’s ownership. From her vantage point, some devices fail to overcome the basic premise of a device company and transcend into a well-rounded brand.

Since the inception of NuFace in 2003, it has offered skin-care products for sale, but only since 2019 has the company focused on skin care as a core offering. Skin care now accounts for 20% of brand sales. NuFace underwent a bit of its own facelift in 2022, as the company sought to solidify its beauty positioning beyond devices. That includes updating its packaging and creative advertising, and remaking its skin care products with proprietary formulations. NuFace also debuted an interactive, Bluetooth-enabled app. App-exclusive treatments enable different depths of microcurrent, which the company had not offered before. NuFace's latest device, called Trinity+, also comes with a “boost” button to deliver 25% more microcurrent. But perhaps NuFace’s most effective strategy is demonstrating its immediate results by asking a person — whether they be an infuencer on social media or a customer shopping in a department store to use the device on one side of their face and comparing the lifted results to their typical appearance.

Maintaining buzz

In order to grow, companies need to evolve.

When Dr. Akridge continued to work with Clarisonic under L'Oréal for six years he had the chance to see how big companies operate. And he's putting that knowledge into the Opulus business to keep the consumer engaged with new product launches, and spur sales. At L'Oréal, the product annual launch schedule relied on two to three big launches, like products, per year. They also included three minor launches, which could be special kits or different sizes of existing products. Replicating that in the device world, with new versions of a device, is virtually impossible. But Opulus plans to come out with new opoules skin products, plus reconfigured versions of existing products. It is currently ramping up to a L'Oréal-style cadence.

"[This cadence] keeps the PR buzz going. But there's no way you can come out with a new device twice a year," he said.

Meanwhile, NuFace is currently building an aesthetician-focused ambassador program, to promote the efficacy side of the device and show that it plays well with other beauty treatments and products. Over 1,200 spas carry NuFace devices, and Hanson expects the ambassador program will include 500 aestheticians by end of the year. Aside from this, NuFace partnered with brands for New York Fashion Week in Sept. 2022 to offer microcurrent lifting sessions to models and brand guests backstage. NuFace will continue this marketing activation in 2023.

But Hanson sees opportunities to take the device category further, by deepening the level of treatment a person could receive. One such example she is entertaining is a Hydrafacial partnership, where the cleansing and exfoliating spa service could be a complimentary addition to a lifting treatment with NuFace.

“My goal is not just to take NuFace to another level, but it is also to act like the category leader. It's not just a market-share-stealing game, but it's about growing the [overall] pie,” she said.

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