Unilever Acquires REN

I have always been rather mystified by the appeal of REN.  I haven’t sampled the whole range, but the ones I have tried have been distinctly not particularly good examples of their class.  I have also never quite worked out the philosophy behind what they approve of in the way of ingredients and what they don’t.  But a lot of people like them and they have got good distribution and sales. Indeed, they have done well enough to be an enticing enough morsel for the giant conglomerate Unilever to add them to their wide portfolio.

My first thought when I read this was to think back about 5 years ago to an online discussion in which I was accused of being a big company shill for suggesting that most big cosmetic companies’ products were perfectly safe.  The accuser it turned out only trusted genuine companies like, well, like REN.

I suppose I shouldn’t say I told you so.

The reality is that if you want to make some money one very good way to do it is to create a brand, build up the sales and then sell it to one of the big boys.  There is nothing wrong with this – business is business.  Big companies aren’t very good at spotting opportunities so there is a role there for entrepreneurs to identify a gap in the market and do the spade work of establishing it.  This isn’t a game for the faint hearted.  Establishing a brand takes a lot of hard work and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the founder of REN saw very little in the way of profit when he first started.  Indeed until selling up he might well have seen very little in the way of return on his effort.   So good luck to the go getters who follow this strategy and commiserations to the ones who don’t quite make it.

The thing is, one very appealing angle to take is exactly the one that REN and many other so called natural companies have taken.  Projecting an image that you are somehow superior to others simply by dint of being natural is a bit of a naff approach.  It doesn’t really bring very much to the table.  If you are looking at a new brand it is worth pondering exactly what their strategy really is.  They might be genuinely out to save the planet, in which case good luck to them.  But their interest in green issues may well be distinctly skin deep.


14 thoughts on “Unilever Acquires REN”

  1. The Ren sale has been on the cards for so long, that it was almost an anti-climax when it was announced.

    This isn’t really about Ren being a natural brand or not – almost everyone has positioned themselves as natural at some point to some degree – your alma mater Simple used to position itself as natural for instance while being decidedly not!

    The interesting thing about Ren is how it inspired such devotion among its customers and stunning sales growth (their last accounts show £10m, but the FT is saying £40m last year) without the usual pre-requisites of charismatic & highly visible founder, large marketing spend, really unique and exciting products or first mover advantage.

    Their founders were a couple of marketing guys that I think most of their female customers would find it hard to identify with. Although they started early, Hauschka, Liz Earle and a host of other brands were there before them.

    What I think marks Ren out was that they really got the basics right. Sounds obvious and unexciting? Well, if you don’t work in the industry, maybe. But nailing the basics is way harder than it sounds.

    Basics include: Formulating and launching decent products that their customers want; getting the trade marketing done; getting gift sets ready for Christmas; building a sales team and opening the right accounts; managing those accounts; training store staff; shipping orders; making a margin and managing finances.

    There are individual companies with better products than Ren, companies that do better training, companies that are more focused on sales and companies that have nailed logistics – but hardly any amongst their immediate competitors who did all those things consistently and to a good standard year after year after year.

    No-one thinks Duncan Bannatyne, the ex-Dragon, was really passionate about helping the elderly, but we still celebrate his accomplishment in selling his nursing home group for £400m.

    I don’t think Robert or Antony were out to save the planet or even particularly passionate about ethical / natural beauty, but it doesn’t stop me saying bloody well done for an incredible business achievement.

    I remember Robert Calcraft’s rather hillarious turn on Secret Millionaire (back in 2008 I think) – he’d make rather a good dragon actually, and there’s a couple of vacancies!

    1. Thanks for all that Ed. You obviously read the business pages more than I do. It would be interesting to have someone from the beauty industry on Dragon’s Den. I might even it watch it.

  2. I remember when the founder (Anthony I think his name was) appeared on QVC (UK) and what appealed to me was the packaging and the collapsible bag and the idea of “clean” ingredients (apparently “ren” means clean in swedish). I have had mixed results with Ren as a brand, it was great at the beginning but nowadays there are far more interesting and innovative brands with interesting and innovative ingredients….so many products and only one face, le sigh! Thanks Colin for an interesting post as always.

    1. It was the so-called clean thing that got my back up. A lot of brands play on it in some way or other, but REN’s take on it seemed especially cynical. They never had a story, they just asserted that they were superior without any attempt to back it up. Avoiding random ingredients might be clever marketing but when you think about it is an absolute guarantee that the products won’t perform very well. It is like a cook who avoids any ingredient beginning with P. Obviously his recipes won’t always be poor, but a lot of them will be.

  3. Simple, Sanex, Clinique and everyone else – they all do this “don’t contain X but going to keep very quiet about Y and Z”!

    Yes, it is cynical and exploitative, but then so is most anti-ageing marketing, playing on people’s fears or guilting them into expensive purchases.

    I don’t think Ren does it any worse than anyone else and I’d disagree that this type of marketing always means products are going to be worse.

    A lot of the ingredients they’re avoiding are pretty out of favour in the rest of the industry anyway, regardless of natural positioning. Clinique markets itself as fragrance free, no-one uses parabens in new products, there are alternatives to propylene glycol and personally I don’t rate petrolatum in skin care products anyway.

    I’m in danger of sounding like a broken record on your blog, but whether a product is good or bad is usually down to the formulator rather then the marketing claims.

    It is the scrambled eggs vs souffle analogy – give good basic ingredients to a talented formulator and you’ll get a great product. OK, so they’re restricted a bit – a great formulator will overcome the challenge and may even turn it to their advantage.

  4. Ed
    I never said REN were the only ones to do it, just that they are particularly egregious in the way they go about it. I think you are being a bit romantic about the process of formulating. It is usually a case of coming up with the best you can against a whole set of constraints, and being prevented from using perfectly good raw materials is going to be a major handicap. Overcoming that kind of thing takes the skills of Gandalf the wizard.

    In any case, even if it is the case that decent products can sometimes be contrived following the whimsies of the natural crowd, it is manifestly the case that the REN products I have looked at have been distinctly not up to what I would expect from their categories. Their genius at marketing doesn’t extend to the products being any good.

  5. Haha – maybe I am a romantic at heart!

    The formulators we’ve recruited from French universities all wanted to work with natural ingredients rather than the more traditional synthetic raw materials – they felt restricted by not being able to experiment with naturals – so we’ve got a selection bias / approaching this from a different angle.

    I do get while you feel the opposite!

    Ren’s formulator is no real fan of organic specifically, or naturals in general. We regularly meet brands who went to her wanting a certified organic range and came away with a semi-natural one after being told “you can’t get performance from organic” or “what happens if there is a bad harvest, you won’t be able to buy your organic ingredients!”

    I suspect – partly because I saw an article in WSJ circa 1999 that talked about Ren aiming to get Soil Association certification – that the marketing whizz’s at Ren originally planned to go far more natural, even organic, but got talked out of it by a formulator that didn’t believe in it.

    Perhaps you underestimate just how influential formulators can be in deciding the positioning of a brand – particularly when the client doesn’t have any in-house formulation expertise?

    1. Hi Ed,

      I have nothing against natural ingredients. I like a lot of them. The beauty business predates synthetic ingredients and many natural ingredients have never been excelled by synthetics. Beeswax and lanolin for example. I don’t know what goes on in France, but I have never heard of anyone being restricted in their ability to use natural ingredients if they are the ones that do the job best. In fact, the question of whether or not something is natural or synthetic doesn’t really cross my mind when I am in the lab.

      I think I know who you mean in your allusion to a formulation scientist. I’ve also had customers stipulating that something should be equal to some brand leading product in performance but that it should be 100% organic. I’d like to think I was tactful in my response.

      Your last sentence encapsulates my problem with cheque book brands like REN entirely. If you believe in what you are saying you don’t get pushed off course by a couple of nay sayers. Going back to Simple, I never worked for them. I worked for their contract manufacturer. In fact in those days Simple was pretty much a single guy. His concept was not taken seriously by the business in general, which was why a really junior scientist – I was just a few weeks out of university – ended up formulating their products. He believed in what he was doing. They were selling soap for a long time at a pretty low profit margin to raise the money for TV adverts and to launch the rest of the range. That is what I think of as real brand building and real integrity. It is a far cry from outsourcing all the three dimensional stuff while you concentrate on sexy Youtube videos and poring over market research data.

  6. Cheque Book Brands is rather good! We call them virtual or laptop brands.

    “Laptop brand” because everything is run from someone’s laptop at home, with formulation, manufacturing, branding, design, logistics, warehouse, marketing & PR, sales and distribution all outsourced to different service providers.

    Since it is frequently the same contractors and agencies involved, you get lots of identikit product ranges with little to distinguish them apart from a contrived USP and marketing claims.

    Ren’s slightly different in that the formulator has a 5% shareholding, so is perhaps more involved with a longer term perspective. You’re right though – how can a company innovate if it doesn’t have develop any expertise or knowledge itself?

    You get a lot more out of a PR agency if you have someone managing them who has worked in an agency before. You get a lot more out of a formulator if you have formulation knowledge – you don’t automatically accept “can’t be done” when the expert tells you.

  7. Charlotte Gwilliam

    As a beauty therapist, I was very interested to read a cosmetic scientist’s assessment of REN skincare. Although I have not used REN products myself, they have a good reputation among therapists and I was always impressed by their use of 1% retinol in their anti-ageing range – one of the highest I could find in an over-the-counter product (I use prescription strength myself). Unfortunately beauty therapy training barely covers cosmetic science, so discovering your website could be a godsend. I will no longer recommend REN!

    1. Thanks for your kind words Charlotte. 1% retinol products aren’t common , but Skinceuticals do one and I am sure there are others too.

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