Launching new products in a pandemic: Beauty brands innovate but tread sensitively

A Re:erth counter at Design Orchard. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RE:ERTH

SINGAPORE - Unknown to them, the founders of skincare brand Zyu, Mr Joshua Tan, 29, and Ms Zoen Tay, 23, were launching their label at the start of a pandemic.

The clean skincare line debuted in late December, when Covid-19 was just starting to surface and make headlines in China.

Their first product - a sleeping mask - launched "before worldwide logistical problems started", says Mr Tan, a full-time actor known for his role in the Ah Boys To Men films (2012 to 2017).

Since then, every move for the brand is made with the pandemic in mind.

New launches happened without much fanfare. It also grew increasingly tough to get foreign ingredients into Singapore, where Zyu's products are manufactured.

"The snowball effect was quite significant - packaging and processes (took longer). Even international delivery had to cease," Mr Tan tells The Straits Times in a teleconferencing interview.

At one point, they were out of stock for almost a month, having prepared a conservative number of products for Zyu's launch.

"It's a horrible feeling when people want to order, but we can't even provide for them. It feels like we're letting them down in a huge way," Mr Tan adds.

For beauty brands, a pandemic means no more glitzy product launches or pop-ups to draw curious new customers. Many have moved events online, though arguably the biggest challenge has been finding a way to replicate the excitement in digital forms.

Launching products is now a juggling act of being sensitive to the global situation, keeping customers intrigued and making savvy decisions for the business.

Bringing the personal touch online

After the early success of a pop-up at youth hangout *Scape in January, Zyu's founders, who are engaged, had planned to hold more pop-ups for subsequent launches this year. But these were scrapped with the increasing pandemic restrictions.

Joshua Tan and Zoen Tay (left) and Zyu Skincare Glow-It-Yourself Kit at $279 (right). PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZYU SKINCARE

They ended up doing a Facebook Live event earlier this month (July) to launch their latest product - a five-step facial treatment kit created for the pandemic, as an alternative to getting facials in salons.

"It was actually encouraged by my boss Jack Neo," jokes Mr Tan. The film-maker used Facebook Live regularly during the circuit breaker period and had urged them to try it as a marketing tool.

On Mr Tan's Facebook page, he and Ms Tay, a fourth-year medical student, demonstrated how to use the kit step-by-step.

It was a "disorienting" new experience, says Ms Tay, who toggled between English and Mandarin. Her fiance has a mainly Mandarin-speaking fan base.

The live stream reached 1,500 viewers at its peak and the video has now racked up around 95,000 views.

It also gained them a new customer base: Mr Tan's fans. Calls and queries flooded in, some of which translated into sales, says Ms Tay, who now fields queries daily on a Whatsapp business account.

Sulwhasoo botanical watercolour workshop captured on Zoom. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AMOREPACIFIC

South Korean beauty conglomerate Amorepacific, too, had to cancel many large-scale physical events planned for the first half of the year.

Product launches for its luxury labels Sulwhasoo and Hera were swiftly moved onto Facebook Live and video-conferencing platform Zoom. They launched e-lounges in March, to facilitate customer queries in place of personal service in stores.

The brands organised online lifestyle workshops such as floral arrangement and painting classes - some of which incorporated the new products into their activities.

One such product was Sulwhasoo's reformulated signature product, the 5th Generation First Care Activating Serum, a key global launch for the brand this year.

(From left) Sulwhasoo botanical watercolour workshop, Hera Sensual Spicy Nude Volume Matte. PHOTO: ARTANDWANDERS, COURTESY OF HERA

Last weekend, Sulwhasoo held an online botanical watercolour workshop for 40 participants over two sessions. For a fee, participants received watercolour tools and a mini skincare kit including the serum, before joining the workshop via video-conferencing. They were shown how to use the product and then learnt watercolour painting, taught by a vendor.

Balancing business and sensitivity

While the brands interviewed agree it is a sensitive time to launch products, for many, timelines are a tricky thing to negotiate.

From a business perspective, they explain, delaying a product launch - which is planned way in advance - indefinitely could bring problems for inventory and cash flow.

Then there is the matter of honouring timelines with partners. After months of uncertainty, home-grown skincare brand Re:erth is proceeding with its next milestone - opening a standalone counter in Tangs Orchard.

Designed more like a boutique, the counter is due to open in early August and marks the first by a local beauty brand in the department store.

Hoarding on the Re:erth boutique at Tangs, due to open in early August. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RE:ERTH

Chief operating officer Toh Ziling, 30, says: "We wanted to honour our deal with Tangs. They're also a local player, so we felt the affinity."

Re:erth had already weathered a cancelled pop-up at the store in April to launch their newest product, and an awkward brand debut in the United States, which took place in the week the Black Lives Matter protests started.

"We were very silent on social media and told the US media they don't have to post anything about us," says Ms Toh.

While that remains on pause, the Tangs counter is a long-term investment, she says. The success of previous pop-ups and the brand's physical presence at Design Orchard had shown that a permanent space helps reach out to new and old customers.

At Tangs, there will be a recycling corner, where customers can drop off empty product bottles for points that offset spending on Re:erth products. The brand works with local waste management company Environmental Solutions Asia, which pioneered a method to convert mixed plastic packaging into reusable non-fossil fuel.

Partnering Tangs has also opened Ms Toh's eyes to the potential of department stores.

Re:erth had launched in 2017 with the intention of being entirely e-commerce based, but she realised "there are many customers who are just looking to experience many brands at once", which department stores offer.

And the concept is timely now.

"Now, to go into individual stores, you have to do SafeEntry check-in each time, even if you already did so to get into the mall," she adds.

"But in a department store, you can scan in once and explore many different brand concepts in one space."

A spokesperson for Tangs confirmed an ongoing revamp of the Tangs Beauty Hall, which was planned since last year and is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of this year.

New additions include Gucci Beauty, Skinceuticals, La Prairie, and French label Chantecaille, which will have its own facial cabine.

Ms Toh adds: "We believe we can bring a new kind of energy into the beauty space. Tangs gave us a shot and we're really grateful.

"It also signals to our customers that 'hey, we're not going to disappear on you'."

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