How Cult Beauty used humility and data to disrupt the beauty industry

Welcome to the latest episode of the fourth season of our Piper podcast, How I Grew My Brand. In this episode, Mary Nightingale spoke to Jessica DeLuca, co-founder of Cult Beauty, which was sold to The Hut Group for £275m in 2021.

Jessica starts by talking about how the idea for Cult Beauty stemmed from ‘building something I wanted’ and a desire for better information about the products she was being sold. ‘I really didn’t like how the beauty industry was selling to women,’ she said. It was also about cutting through the fear: ‘If you are not beautiful enough, nobody is going to love you. If you are too old, nobody is going to love you. You are going to lose your worth. I thought there was a much kinder and more respectful way to sell beauty products. Tell the truth. What’s in them, how does it work, what’s it going to do for you?’

There was always a strong ethos at the heart of the brand: ‘Cult Beauty’s purpose is to be a trusted source for people to get real information about which products really work… to take the anxiety, fear, stress, out of the beauty buying experience,’ said Jessica, returning to this theme throughout the podcast. ‘We only sell the very best of the best beauty products, the ones that actually do what they say they’re going to do.’ For her, it wasn’t about over-selling: ‘We’re not promising to turn you into a Victoria’s Secret model, we’re saying that if you have this particular problem, this particular ingredient might help.’

While it was a great idea and despite her background in finance and data, Jessica hadn’t run a business before, so she went in search of expertise wherever she could find it. ‘I bought [the book] Starting a Business for Dummies’. It was this quest that led her to Cult Beauty co-founder, Alexa Inge. ‘I had met a woman that was doing PR through a mutual friend… I took her through it and I remember she just looked at me, leaned across the table and went “It’s brilliant, I’m in.”’

Very quickly the idea caught on. ‘We grew 300% year-on-year for the first three or four years… because we treated our customers like intelligent women who deserve to understand what they were buying.’

Though they had a great start, it wasn’t always easy. eCommerce was a whole new form of retail and beauty wasn’t rushing to go online. Said Jessica: ‘A lot of the more established brands had been doing business a certain way for a very long time and online just wasn’t big enough to be of interest to them… I remember approaching one French brand who said “Um thank you but we don’t want to be on eBay.”’

But it was this digital first model that set them apart in terms of marketing, and a lesson in always paying attention to new trends. ‘The glossy magazines weren’t really interested in writing about us, but bloggers were… they were being ignored by so many brands at the time because it just wasn’t considered as prestigious. But the value of search engine optimisation for the links that the bloggers would send to our website, we’re still reaping the benefits and dividends.’

The bloggers were also a natural fit for Cult Beauty’s tone of voice that focuses on people recommending the products. ‘I wanted it to be like sitting down with your best girlfriend, someone who always made you laugh, but also just happened to be Jennifer Aniston’s dermatologist and make-up artist,’ said Jessica. She is also proud of how Cult Beauty has tackled social media which can often present serious challenges for brands. ‘I think that Cult Beauty does a very good job of using social media in the way that it should be… in the way that it can add value to the world… providing information and support and advice, rather than fomo.’

On selling Cult Beauty she said ‘It’s bittersweet… It’s emotional and also thrilling because, as an entrepreneur, that’s what I set out to do. I set out to change an industry, and I did… I can’t believe that my idea that I put down on a business plan ended up making such an impact into such a big industry.’ This is especially impressive given the difficulties the brand experienced in raising money from investors who didn’t understand beauty: ‘Only 2.2% of VC money raised went to women.’

Being out of the business, Jessica is able to review her journey with Cult Beauty and see a different perspective from founders still in the midst of it. Listen to the full interview to hear more insights around fundraising, growing internationally and marketing on a shoestring. Enjoy.