How to Make Beauty Merch That Matters


What do dog toys, water bottles, lighters and phone cases have in common? Beauty brands are selling them.

Lately, beauty brands have been going viral for non-beauty products. Also known as merchandise or “merch,” these items allow users to flaunt their loyalty to a particular label beyond swiping on some lip gloss or moisturiser. On social media, users have flaunted special edition make-up bags from brands like Dior and cosmetics label Refy and the phone case from Hailey Bieber’s Rhode line, which was built to fit the brand’s peptide lip treatments on the back. There’s a secondary market for flip-phone-style Glossier key chains on Depop, Selena Gomez’s label Rare Beauty pale pink sweatshirts are a fixture on TikTok, while skincare line Tower28 sells hats and makeup seller Milk Makeup released a shoe in collaboration with Reebok in February.

The concept of beauty merch has existed for a long time. Ever since there was a beauty counter, brands were churning out logo-ed bags as a gift with purchase. But in the 2010s, Glossier ushered in a new era of the trend, including Millennial-pink stickers with each order that ended up tattooing shoppers’ Macbooks and Nalgene water bottles and selling a logo hoodie that went on to become a coveted fashion item, spotted on stars like Timothee Chalamet. Even the bubble wrap pouches its Cloud Paint and Boy Brow were packaged in were status symbols.

Merch’s rise is just another example of the way being a beauty brand today is about so much more than hero products. Consumers, especially young ones, don’t want to hide the brands they use away in their cabinets. They’re looking to buy into a whole world, and display their choices to others. Today’s brands are making merch early — sometimes, at launch — to help market new products or do storytelling around a brand’s vision and purpose.

But while merch represents a new way for brands to connect with their shoppers, it takes more than just slapping a logo on a tote to stand out now. Making merch that matters takes a sharp drop strategy and understanding of who a brand’s shopper is.

“You see strong consumer brands everywhere,” said Meagan Loyst, founder of the community Gen-Z VCs, which counts over 20,000 members, and a former investor at early stage fund Lerer Hippeau. “And it’s harder to be [everywhere] if you just have a product.”

Behind the Merch Madness

Making merch wasn’t on the agenda for Saie Beauty, a clean beauty brand founded in 2019. Until customers started asking for it, said founder and CEO Laney Crowell.

The merch craze is a reflection of the tastes of young shoppers, who tend to buy into the brands they love holistically, said Loyst.

“[Gen-Z] likes to show our hearts on our sleeves in terms of the things we support and where our affinities lie,” said Loyst. “I have an Aries tag on my Crocs because I like people to know I’m an Aries, it explains my behaviour. My laptop is covered in stickers.”

But it’s also a product of social media, where shoppers have become accustomed to seeing editors and influencers unpack intricate boxes of product. When minimalist makeup label Merit’s business plan was being drawn up prior to launch in 2021, chief marketing officer Aila Morin wanted to create a memorable “unboxing moment” that stood out for editors, but also was part of the experience for regular shoppers.

“You would see these intentional, beautiful shipments go to editors but consumers could never have them,” said Morin. The brand came up with a tieable and washable make-up pouch to be given away with each new order. Today, ads that feature Merit’s signature bag have “significantly higher click through rates” than ads that don’t, said Morin.

Similarly, the vintage-inspired travel case clean cosmetics brand Saie now sells for $35 on Sephora and its own site started off as part of an influencer gifting scheme, said Crowell. But shoppers didn’t just want the products influencers were touting, they wanted the bag, the brand found.

“People saw influencers using it and it sold out immediately, we couldn’t even keep posting about it,” said founder and CEO Laney Crowell. “It makes an influencer moment for everyone.”

Now, merch is part of Saie’s consideration for new product rollouts. For its latest launch, a bronzing drops product, Saie developed a raffia tote to be sold alongside it.

Merch can be helpful in attracting the right shoppers, or people that buy into the brand for the “philosophy and style,” said Violette Serrat, founder of the colour-centric makeup line Violette FR. In 2021, Saie released a vintage clothing collection featuring slip dresses in the brand’s signature purple and denim jackets with stitched-on logos, meant to drive home the brand’s eco-conscious values.

Plus, merch can lay the groundwork for a beauty brand to do more than just beauty, said Serrat.

“When you back up everything with very high quality products … it is a good recipe for a brand that can grow in quite a few categories and have more freedom,” said Serrat. Serrat’s first merch drop, a range of sweatshirts and tees was part of a collaboration with a streetwear brand she liked, Bisous Skateboards in 2021.

Making Good Merch

Ultimately, merch isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a margin-driver, it’s a marketing tool. And for it to be an effective one, it needs to resonate. Usually, when it does, the merch offers something of value, whether it’s function, like a well-designed bag, or just a way to show off affiliation with an already powerful brand.

In April, Violette FR launched a $68 gilded reflective object, or mirror, modelled after a painter’s palette, which will become part of a series of curated “object” drops meant to supplement products.

“My concept is I want you to become your own artist and your own muse,” said Serrat. “How can I inspire consumers to do that with their products not in a mechanical way but with ceremony?”

Other Violette FR merch references the brand’s assortment: a blue hoodie matches the brand’s signature eyeshadow shade, while a creme version mimics the colour of its face cream, for example.

Selling or doling out merch through streetwear-style limited drops, rather than having it readily available at any moment can also help fuel demand.

Merit’s merch drops, which have included lighter cases and a special faux leather bag collab with Proenza Schouler, are used to offer constant newness without having to switch up the product mix, said Morin. They also create an incentive to purchase beyond discount.

In a peak-merch beauty world, making something unique rather than just adding to the noise is important. Functionality and good design are crucial. Merit spends the same amount of time developing merch as it does products, said Morin. The bag went through multiple iterations and tried to address the problems encountered with other makeup bags — including product spillage and zipper malfunctions. Rhode’s viral phone case, meanwhile, offered a solution to the pain point of losing your lip gloss in your bag, said Loyst. Plus — all important on social media — it encouraged selfies and conversation.

“You have to be really thoughtful and creative to make it stand out in a way that people want to use it, especially as more brands do it,” said Loyst.

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