Building a Cosmetics Brand from Scratch

An entrepreneur puts her heart and soul into every aspect of her new company, from the branding and packaging to choosing the right vendors

The Entrepreneur: Gabriela Hernandez, 42

Background: A successful art historian and graphic designer, Gabriela Hernandez co-founded the Alma Group, a design agency in Los Angeles, with her husband. Hernandez then left the Alma Group and poured $1 million of her own money into creating a cosmetics startup. She set the company apart by basing its products on the style and craftsmanship of cosmetics from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s (see, 10/3/06, "A Big Impression for a Tiny Lipstick").

The Company: Launched in 2004, Bésame Cosmetics were initially sold through the company's Web site but are now available at department stores including Henri Bendel in New York, Printemps in Paris, and Holt Renfrew in Vancouver, as well as a number of smaller retailers.

Sales: Bésame Cosmetics, based in Glendale, Calif., earned about $40,000 in sales in its first year and projects $1.2 million in 2007.

Her Story: I have been in the creative field for most of my life, so the thought of creating something—a painting, sculpture, photograph—was never intimidating to me. What I did not realize is that the endeavor of creating a living brand was going to entail using every skill I had learned in the past 20 years of my career. How do you go about building the equivalent of a person apart from yourself, a person with values and personality, who speaks to customers when you are not there?

The idea of making a cosmetic product came to me after working on several branding projects for other manufacturers in the industry. I owned many originals from my grandmother's time, and the thought of reinterpreting such lovely items was irresistible artistically. Of course, the market is saturated with makeup brands, but I never saw Bésame as a direct competitor to any specific brand in the market. I saw our market as a very well-defined niche, because our product was targeted and specific as well as being easily distinguishable.

Standing Out in a Crowd

I wanted to build a company with heart and a soul that people could feel from just touching one of our cases, and that could affect women in a positive way. The product had to have the power to bring a flood of memories to the wearer, positive associations that immediately made it endearing and familiar.

How did I make the brand stand out in a crowded marketplace? Creating a brand is like making a person entirely to your specifications. This person has a personality, a moral standing, a temperament, and a physical appearance. When I created Bésame, I infused the brand with a distinct personality that is carried to the customers with every detail in their interaction with the brand.

From the feel of the containers to the smell of the product to the consistent use of patterns and designs to the way our phones are answered, everything is part of a whole, and adds to a distinct experience. Customers know who we are, what we represent, and they even tell us what products they want us to make. Customers are happy to interact with me at events and tell me what they like or dislike about our products.

Brand Personality

A brand's personality is one of the main points of difference in the product landscape, and a memorable one is key to making the brand stick in the consumer's mind. A moral standing is another main component of a successful brand. Customers have to know where the company stands on issues that are important to them. They have to identify with it and share common values to want to display it as something they believe in and trust. Wearing our product really condones our activities in their minds, so [helping them] feel good about their choices is a great way to grow our customer base.

Good brands also have a temperament. They are level-headed, like your favorite financial institution, or hot-blooded like your favorite rock band. Great brands make a strong emotional connection with their customers, and a temper makes a brand more human, and easier to relate to. I chose to make Bésame feminine, romantic, elegant, and unique. Bésame has old-fashion values, is trustworthy and ethical. The brand is anchored in history and it has a heritage by association.

Consistency Is Key

To define how I wanted to communicate the uniqueness of our brand, I first looked at the landscape of consumer brands. I saw a sea of black plastic containers with different logos stamped on their surfaces. I decided to make Bésame unique by molding our own cases, and using more metals in our pieces. Our own molds and designs make our products very distinctive and instantly recognizable.

In the use of graphics, consistency is key. Colors, textures, and lettering all work together to create an image for the consumer to remember, and are the first point of entry into the image of the brand. Color is one of the most powerful features in the packaging. It can be instrumental in finding the brand on a crowded store shelf. I chose brick red and cool cream because red represents passion and a regal elegance, while cream balances the power of the red with a cool counterpart. Our flower motif is used in every product and communication we produce. It is our calling card, and it clearly identifies our brand in any retail environment.

My experience as a photographer, stylist, art director, and designer helped me maneuver the tough terrain of building a cohesive packaging system as well as a retail and Web presence. A new brand is as demanding of your time and energy as a newborn child. Just like your social decisions change when you have children, your decisions also change to serve the needs of the brand when you create it. My choices of advertising venues, brand alliances, and even product offerings had to be filtered through our vision for moving the brand forward.

Vendors as Partners

This is a very hard thing to do, especially when there are so many choices to make that are tied to financial repercussions. We decided early on to mold our components. This required longer lead times and resources, but it made sense for our brand, since the look and materials we use are an integral part of it. We do not follow trends, choosing to produce products that are seasonless, and useful to most women year-round. We do not want to follow the cycle of seasonal goods that are discontinued every three months.

Following our vision also entailed finding suppliers who could see why the brand was different and embrace the challenges of producing its products. These vendor-partners needed to respect our work, our designs and vision, and take the journey with us.

Many formulas that have been presented to us did not fit our vision for the brand. While some of these products were innovative, and would sell well in the right environment, we had to decline. Our customers feel they know the brand so well that the wrong product would seem deceitful or an obvious mistake to them. Just as they would not expect Ferrari to make an economy car, they do not expect Bésame to make the latest wrinkle cream.

Loving It 24/7

At the same time, it was difficult to turn away stores that wanted the brand but did not share our vision for it. The job of brand custodian is one of the most challenging hats I wear in the company. Also, by being a new brand in the luxury market, and occupying a space that was once reserved for beauty's giants, it has been challenging to communicate our position to retailers, who are used to independents that service the junior market or larger brands that have their own boutiques.

People ask me if I take vacations or stop thinking about work, and I have to say no on both counts. But I truly enjoy my work, and it has become part of who I am—I can't just turn it off, nor do I want to. It is the curse of being an entrepreneur, always reaching for the next accomplishment and never satisfied with the norm. Running a company and building a brand is not easy, but for me, it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

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