“The Patagonia of the beauty industry”: Why Erika Geraerts left Frank Body to start beauty company Fluff

Fluff beauty

The Fluff team. Source: Andy Hatton.

Two years ago Erika Geraerts, the co-founder of $20 million skincare company Frank Body, decided to depart the wildly successful business she’d built with her four other co-founders to create an entirely new category in the beauty industry.

She wanted to fight back against the Instagram makeup trends of influencers with perfect skin touting products to change every aspect of someone’s appearance, telling SmartCompany the goal of her new company, Fluff, is to “pare back” and simplify beauty products and beauty routines.

“We call it casual cosmetics, and our product philosophy is to help women and girls pare back their beauty routines and still let them look like themselves,” Geraerts says.

“There’s already enough makeup in the world, and we don’t need more products, we need better products with better brand messages.”

This is a change of tack for the multi-time business founder, who previously sat at the head of a company with a philosophy running contrary to the concept of ‘casual cosmetics’. Frank Body well and truly rode the beauty influencer craze of the last five years, with the company reporting a revenue of over $20 million in 2017, and with over a million fans worldwide following the company’s posts across Facebook and Instagram.

This focus was one of the reasons Geraerts chose to leave the company in August of 2016. Another reason was the company was on the cusp of a significant investment from an American company, which came with the requirement that all five founders sign an agreement to stay on board another five years.

Erika Geraerts and Charl Laubscher. Source: Andy Hatton.

“It was one of the first times I had to look down the barrel of my future and what I wanted to be. I was already looking for more control over my day-to-day life, so I knew I couldn’t sign on for that long,” she says.

Geraerts also says she was beginning to find more resistance from her four other co-founders for new ideas and directions to take the business, and while she acknowledges as one of five Frank Body was far from ‘hers’, she says she felt more could be achieved by going out on her own.

“I was starting to see the rising rates in depression and anxiety linked to the huge amount of noise on social media from beauty brands, and while it was an incredible few years, I saw a huge opportunity to influence people positively in a way I don’t think I could have at Frank,” she says.

Letting the customers decide

Selling all of her shares in Frank Body, Geraerts got to task envisioning and designing her next venture. She knew that beauty brands were heavily skewed towards millennials, but the founder could see potential in the younger ‘Gen Z’ market who she says is “literally our future”.

“They’re so aware of what’s going on, and they engage and communicate with each other on a whole different level to us. I felt that if I didn’t work with this age group, they were just going to take my job pretty soon,” she laughs.

Fluff launched earlier this year, and in the two years since departing Frank Body, Geraerts says she spent the majority of her time speaking to members of Gen Z, finding out their troubles, their passions, and what they loved and hated about the current beauty industry.

“They don’t want to feel defined by the makeup on their face, and they think it shouldn’t be how they identify themselves. They want products to be more playful, and not the be-all and end-all,” she says.

“No brand was actually talking to them, and as far as I could see no brands knew how to. I went to a conference about ‘How to Understand Gen Z’ and everyone there was just guessing about how the age group worked instead of just going out there and asking them.”

So Geraerts handed over the microphone and let them decide what her new company would be. Eighteen months later, Fluff emerged with a brand unlike any other in the beauty scene: weird, in-your-face, honest, and almost incomprehensible for anyone over the age of 20.

A quick glance around the company’s social media presence will give you a sense of what that means. Instead of toned influencers promoting its products on Instagram, the company posts endless wholesome messages, abstract and moody memes, and images of everyday girls wearing the company’s products.

“We refuse to be another brand with millennial pink, flatlays of products, or how-tos on applying lip balm. It’s not hard to apply lip balm! You just put it on your lips,” Geraerts says.

“I think a lot of beauty brands are dumbing down their audiences, serving them content without giving them any credit for what they’re thinking. We want to be a brand that stands for something and has an opinion.”

Right now, Fluff produces one product: a ‘bronzing duet’ of a palm-oil free bronzing powder and accompanying brush. It also sells a magic 8-ball and combination lock, and Geraerts says more beauty and non-beauty products are on the way.

The company also has a strong focus on content, producing a semi-regular ‘zine’ (magazine) with articles written by Gen Z authors, focusing on topics such as “Why Do You Even Take a Selfie”, “Monday’s Moodboard”, and “Why Shia LaBeouf is my Style Icon”. Beyond these headlines are other pieces with a more philosophical view, with Geraerts saying the overall goal of Fluff’s content is to “make girls think”.

Source: Supplied.

“The Patagonia of the beauty industry”

The initial uptake of Fluff has been positive, but the founder acknowledges it’s a slow burn, though that is something she’s perfectly happy with.

“We’re in it for the longer run. We want to create a brand that’s around for 20-30 years, and while we could go for many quick wins now, that’s not what I’m interested in,” she says.

“Young people can spot bullshit from a mile away, so we’re never going to try and sell a quick strategy.”

Reflecting on the beauty industry as a whole, Geraerts says she thinks the industry is coming to a plateau, and it’s no longer possible to build a business off social media like it was back in 2012. She also views the influencer economy as “broken”, saying there’s minimal engagement and conversion from influencers anymore, with viewers knowing it’s not genuine.

“I really think about how baby boomers are laughing in their chairs at us now that we’re realising how hard it is to build a business,” she says.

Geraerts overall goal for Fluff is to be a brand for the next generation, and the company has a number of strict policies to ensure this. A number of products, such as contouring kits, are on a ‘blacklist’, along with ingredients such as palm oil, and all the company’s products will be vegan and cruelty-free.

“We want to be the Patagonia of the beauty industry, to be so much more than just our products,” she says.

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