Why Clarisonic Failed | The Business of Beauty, BoF Professional

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NEW YORK, United States — The Clarisonic cleansing brush launched in 2004, went viral in 2007 after a nod from Oprah, hit $100 million in annual sales in 2010 and was acquired by L’Oréal in 2011. In 2020 it was discontinued.

What happened in the once-iconic gadget’s final decade is a cautionary tale for other brands riding the high of having invented the device of the moment. Facial devices are a boom-and-bust market, where today’s hot applicator, brush or massager could be gathering dust in a beauty store bargain bin tomorrow. Clarisonic isn’t the only device to fall on hard times; sales in the category have been falling for years, including a 20 percent drop for facial devices in 2019.

Still, brands keep finding new ways to sell consumers on the idea of spending hundreds of dollars for strange-looking tools — Beautybio GloPro, Foreo’s cleansing and skin-care devices, and NuFace’s microcurrent tools are a few recent examples.

Some even see early signs of a beauty device renaissance, as consumers who can’t visit the spa during the pandemic grow increasingly desperate for at-home treatments. In the first six months of 2020, facial device sales were up 8 percent, according to the NPD Group. But even brands that strike a chord during lockdown may find maintaining that momentum difficult. To continue to attract new consumers and get those who already spent $200 on your product to spend more requires frequent innovation, ease of use, efficacy and a value proposition. It’s not an easy cocktail.

Unless you continually innovate, that’s going to shorten and shorten as the tools category gets more attention.

From that perspective, the Clarisonic’s 15-year run was “pretty good,” said Alexia Inge, the co-founder of Cult Beauty.

“The life cycle of everything is speeding up,” she said. “Unless you continually innovate, that’s going to shorten and shorten as the tools category gets more attention.”

What Went Wrong at Clarisonic

Clarisonic’s founders included some of the creators of the Sonicare toothbrush, another premium device that’s still going strong. It was Oprah’s rave review that propelled the brush into the mainstream, however. She raved about its cleansing and pore tightening properties before gifting one to her TV studio audience for the 2007 holiday “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode. The then-$195 device was a hit.

Then came the competition. After Clarisonic became popular, skin-care brands like Clinique and Olay released less-expensive brushes, as did countless copycats on Amazon. By the time of the L’Oreal acquisition, the novelty had worn off, and consumers were less and less willing to pay a premium price to wash their faces with Clarisonic.

L’Oréal launched a Clarisonic-branded line of cleansers as well as a less expensive brush and multiple attachments, including one to apply foundation. But sales continued to dip. The brand did rounds of lay-offs, and in mid-July L’Oréal announced Clarisonic would shutter completely in September.

Well, I’ve already tried one of those things from name-a-brand so why would I want to spend that much money on a Clarisonic?

“[Cheaper competitors] caused a barrier to entry to Clarisonic because [consumers thought], ‘Well, I’ve already tried one of those things from name-a-brand so why would I want to spend that much money on a Clarisonic? That was the thing we always came up against,” said Dr Robb Akridge, the charismatic co-founder of Clarisonic who stayed on at L’Oréal until 2016. He is now working on a skin-care and beauty tech brand called Opulus slated to launch in the fall.

Consumers didn’t purchase $30 specialty brush head attachments for foundation application, for example, because manual brushes are cheaper, more precise and easier to use. Shannon Romanowski, a director at market research firm Mintel, also credits breakthroughs in topical skincare, like exfoliation products that get the job done more gently, as contributors to Clarisonic’s decline.

“Marketing is a key thing with L’Oréal. They’re really good at it. And Clarisonic was good, when we had it, about creating products that really worked,” said Akridge.

Clarisonic and L’Oréal did not respond to a request for comment.

The Meaning of Innovation

Many devices, including Clarisonic, struggle most with finding repeat customers.

“You don’t replenish a device very often, so how do you keep momentum going in that category?” said Beth Santos, vice president of merchandising at Dermstore, which has seen strong demand for devices. “That’s been a challenge for us. We’ll have big years and then it will be really hard to comp it the next year because there’s not something new.”

Retailers point to Foreo as doing a good job of frequently introducing iterations and innovations on its products. The Swedish company, which sells a vibrating, nubby flat silicone cleansing device, is largely credited with supplanting Clarisonic in the cleansing category. The brand’s sales topped $1 billion in 2019, according to a company spokesperson. It ramped up production to 250,000 units per week starting in June, which the company calls a “sizable” increase.

You don’t replenish a device very often, so how do you keep momentum going in that category?

Foreo has launched an AI-connected version of its Luna cleansing device, as well as an acne-treating light device. Not all are straightforward to use. A gadget called the UFO that comes with specialty sheet masks and claims to help ingredients absorb better, also provides heat, cryotherapy, and LED light options. (There is such a thing as too much innovation; Santos said the UFO is a little confusing to understand and doesn’t sell as well at Dermstore.) Foreo also just launched its new microcurrent Bear device.

That puts the company in direct competition with NuFace, which launched in 2005 and dominates the microcurrent category. Microcurrent devices claim to lift and tone skin via an electric current delivered at varying intensities to the skin and underlying muscles. Its sales tend to spike at new highs and then level whenever the brand launches new devices or extensions, which it has done at least yearly since 2011. Its devices range from $149 to $325. Consumers can get specialty attachments that provide LED therapy or target areas like the eyes and lips. Its less expensive Fix device is meant to target fine lines.

The brand has seen triple-digit growth in sales since Covid struck, according to Co-founder and Chief Executive Tera Peterson.

Peterson compares the potential of microcurrent technology to an egg.

“You can add different things to the egg and it can become a cake or an omelet,” she said.

Skin care, or “liquid microcurrent,” as Peterson calls it, is on the horizon. The brand already offers pre-treatment prep pads and various gels that have to be used with the device to promote a smooth glide, but more therapeutic options will be forthcoming.

Achieving success in both skin care and devices is tricky, as Clarisonic demonstrated, but Beautybio has done it as well. The company launched in 2011 with skincare, but got widespread recognition in 2016 when it released its GloPro microneedling device ($199), a roller spiked with hundreds of tiny needles and LED light. It claims to increase collagen production and help skincare products absorb better, a proposition that is especially attractive to consumers. It’s savvy to sell skincare alongside a device claiming to help that skincare work better. Now, the GloPro is its best-selling product, followed by a topical retinol product.

Last year, Kainos, a Dallas-based private equity firm, took a minority stake in the company. WWD reported that sales were projected to reach $100 million.

Beautybio founder Jamie O’Banion says the key to device success is to watch what the pros are doing in the spa and aesthetic spaces. Microneedling was offered in-office for a decade before GloPro launched, albeit with longer needles. “If you look at a tool that people are willing to pay money for in a professional environment, that has sustaining power,” she said. Inge at Cult Beauty says she has seen a 500 percent increase in sales of the brand year on year.

Beautybio has riffed on its original premise by adding specialized attachments for the body and lips. The brand has also launched lower-tech devices like quartz rollers and a stainless steel cooling “cryotherapy” roller, based on the trend of in-office cryotherapy treatments. It’s releasing a new innovation, code-named “Project Blush,” this fall. The brand also tries to launch a new product or extension at least yearly, often more frequently.

Who Buys Devices

Cult Beauty’s Inge calls skincare the “gateway drug to tools.” With so many consumers passionately interested in skin care, it’s getting easier to convince them that tools can potentially amp up their results, either directly as with micro-needling or as an adjunct treatment.

Ease of use is key. Inge says electronic LED masks like Dr Dennis Gross’ $435 version have been selling well because it treats the entire face in only three minutes. The retailer started stocking the celeb-favourite $1,900 Déesse mask in February and has been selling two to four a day. (Neutrogena tried to enter this category with less expensive versions, but took its drugstore version of the mask off the market in 2019 over concerns it could potentially cause eye damage.) NuFace offers an app that connects via bluetooth and tells users directly where and how long to leave the device in place.

Historically, older consumers purchased high tech anti-aging gadgets like these to prolong and enhance the effects gained from in-office injectable treatments, but that is changing. Dermstore’s Santos has seen increasingly younger customers purchasing NuFace and other anti-aging devices. She postulates that they are trying to see what they can get out of these types of treatments before committing to fillers and Botox. NuFace’s temporary lifting capabilities can even show users what they might look like with fillers.

It’s an intimidating proposition to say we’re going to stick tiny needles in your skin.

The biggest challenge for device makers and retailers is education.

“I don’t have to explain to anybody why eye cream is important. But it’s an intimidating proposition to say we’re going to stick tiny needles in your skin,” says Beautybio’s O’Banion.

While lockdowns and suspension of beauty services will continue for the foreseeable future in the US, eventually things will open again. In the meantime, Covid has driven more consumers to all of these devices, including sleeper products like at-home hair removal gadgets. But making the momentum in the category last will be trickier, said Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry advisor for the NPD Group.

“Is it fulfilling a need that’s going to be ongoing?” she said. “There’s the element of consumer need, which can change quickly, as we saw with the pandemic.”


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