There is one good thing that came out of 2020: Many of us were inspired to simplify our lives, using lockdowns to declutter our homes and pare down our wardrobes to our favorite basics. Shouldn’t we do the same with our makeup bags?
That’s the vision behind Merit, a new brand from Katherine Power, the entrepreneur whose empire includes the Who What Wear fashion blog and clothing brand, affordable skincare line Versed, and clean wine startup Avaline, which she launched with cofounder Cameron Diaz in July. “After months at home, we’re used to seeing ourselves without makeup or nail polish,” she says. “Merit is designed to give you a polished look for your Zoom calls in under five minutes. It’s made to make you look like yourself, only better.”
Now available online and at Sephora, Merit offers a minimalist take on beauty. While the makeup industry is an overcrowded place, with new products flooding the market each week, Power and her team spent two years developing a product line with just seven multitasking items. The products include a tinted lip oil ($24), a complexion stick ($38) that is both a concealer and a foundation (and comes in 20 shades), a highlighter ($30), a cream tint for cheeks ($28), and a Brow 1980 eyebrow pomade ($24) that really does deliver a Brooke Shields look. Each is formulated with an eye toward sustainability and safety, values that matter strongly to the millennial consumers Merit targets. The clean products only include ingredients that pass EU safety standards, which are stricter than those in the U.S. All orders placed on the website ship with a durable cotton makeup bag, while future orders will come in simple recyclable packaging.
Over the past several years, Power has established herself as something of a millennial-brand whisperer: She has a knack for creating online communities, then developing product lines tailored to them. In 2012, she cofounded Clique Brands, which started with the fashion blog Who What Wear but quickly expanded to include beauty blog Byrdie and home-design site MyDomaine. (The latter two were acquired by media conglomerate Dotdash in 2019.) Power analyzed what her more than 16 million readers cared about, then began spinning out brands and products for them, including the Who What Wear collection and the activewear line Joylab, both of which launched with Target.
In 2019, she moved into beauty by creating the affordable skincare line Versed, which is free of more than 1,300 known toxins. It launched at Target as well as on its own direct-to-consumer website and is now outselling brands such as Burt’s Bees and Bliss. To develop the Versed products, Power gathers insights from Who What Wear readers, through website data as well as from private Facebook groups, which served as focus groups.
“Katherine spends all her time thinking about the millennial and Gen Z woman,” says Dana Settle, founding partner at Greycroft, which provided seed capital to Merit (and has also funded Clique Brands, Bumble, and Bird). “When I see the beauty industry, I see an extremely crowded market. But she’s so deep in this community that she can see white spaces and trends.”
With Merit, Power believes she is filling another big gap. This time, it’s for high-end makeup that solves problems for busy women like herself. She came up with the concept of Merit years ago, when she was working in New York and found herself so pressed for time that she had to apply makeup in the back of a taxi on the way to meetings. “I had a sense that there were many women like me, who want beautiful, high-quality products that make us look good but that don’t require a lot of work,” Power says.
She relied on more than just instinct to develop the line. For two years, the Merit team interviewed more than 4,000 people from the Who What Wear community, conducting focus groups and surveys, and shopping alongside them. The research yielded interesting insights: The majority of people—86%—want to look like themselves, but better; 70% said they wanted products that do more; and 66% said they wished their makeup routine was cleaner. All of this led directly to the seven products that are part of Merit’s initial lineup.
Power distinguishes herself from other millennial-focused brands, which tend to launch as direct-to-consumer brands and then slowly move into physical spaces, by embracing omnichannel retail from the start. She has always believed that one of the best ways to build brand awareness is through foot traffic, and large retailers can lend essential muscle to a nascent brand. She’s partnered closely with Target on previous brands. This time, she’s working with Sephora, which will be the only retailer to sell the product in stores and on its website. “It’s hard, and expensive, for startups to acquire new customers online, and meanwhile, retailers are experts at finding customers and introducing them to new products,” says Settle. “And once the customer discovers us, they can refill their products on our website.”
Sephora’s director of makeup merchandizing, Averyl Andrews, believes that Merit is the right brand for the moment we’re in. “We love Merit’s take on the ‘five-minute face,'” says Andrews. “Katherine Power’s entrepreneurial instincts and sense for what the world needs in beauty is spot on.”