Why Estée Lauder Is Betting Big on Cult Beauty Company Deciem

Founder Brandon Truaxe isn’t afraid to try—and master—ten things at once

Products from The Ordinary. Facebook/Deciem

Soon after launching his multi-brand beauty company Deciem in 2013, founder Brandon Truaxe gained a reputation as the most hands-on CEO in the industry. Adhering to Deciem’s tagline (“The Abnormal Beauty Company”), Truaxe immediately outed himself as an abnormal CEO. Whereas most chief executives delegate all PR and social media to a mix of agencies and in-house teams, Truaxe loves wading into blog comments himself. He responds to criticisms thoughtfully and without being defensive, answers reader questions, and takes feedback on what consumers really want from products. 

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More surprisingly, Truaxe seems to be giving all this input substantial consideration, applying it in the creation of several skincare brands to serve specific consumer segments and concerns. Perhaps Deciem’s most stunning success to date has been The Ordinary, a range of shockingly affordable skincare full of legitimately beneficial ingredients. Once they got over the “too good to be true” suspicions of the sub-$10 price tags, consumers around the world became evangelists for the brand. Simultaneously, Deciem offers more expensive ingredients (with a lower profit for the company) in its NIOD range, which costs more than The Ordinary but is still accessibly-priced. As well as The Ordinary and NIOD, Deciem’s Hylamide brand focuses on treating multiple layers of skin with very low-viscosity products. 

Confused? You’re not the only one. Even skincare guru Caroline Hirons admitted she was flummoxed by some of Deciem’s multiplicity of products. True to form, Truaxe broke it down for Hirons and her readers in no-nonsense language. Hirons, for one, trusts him—even though she thinks the products could be more self-explanatory. “I know Brandon and know that he would never put something to market that didn’t work. It would go against his DNA,” she says.

Just as one should always be wary of a restaurant whose menu is more than three pages, it’s hard not to be suspicious of one small, independent beauty company with so many brands. “We knew we wanted to change all things in the world of beauty,” says Truaxe of Deciem’s launch. “Everyone’s guidance was that you can’t do 10 things at once. And so we did what was the right thing to do. We decided to do 10 things at once and called our craziness Deciem, coming from decima, the Latin word for 10 in a sequence.”

In a data-driven world where new companies obsess over delivering a minimum viable product and iterating based on consumer-driven metrics and feedback, this is a highly unconventional approach. So, too, is Truaxe’s MO of being refreshingly transparent about Deciem’s margins for their brands, even revealing what percentage of the cost is spent on ingredients, testing, compounding and marketing. 

Truaxe seems to thrive on distinguishing Deciem—and himself—from the competition. “THE FOUNDER IS SCREWED UP!” screams the headline on the CEO’s official corporate web page. But don’t let his high-octane personality fool you: Truaxe is a shrewd entrepreneur whose unusual approach is paying off. Last year, Deciem sold one of its haircare brands, Grow Gorgeous, to UK-based online retail company The Hut Group. This acquisition came on the heels of 700 percent year-over-year growth for Grow Gorgeous, and The Hut Group asked Truaxe and his team to remain as innovation drivers for the brand. Truaxe says Deciem invested the proceeds of the sale in expanding their offline retail footprint.

It’s hard to see where Truaxe finds the time for all this, with Deciem now boasting a dozen beauty brands. And he’s about to get even busier.

Last week, The Estée Lauder Companies announced its investment in Deciem. Fabrizio Feda, CEO of Lauder, calls the company “a powerful engine of innovation and growth,” and Lauder Executive Chairman William P. Lauder sees similarities between Truaxe and Estée Lauder herself. “Brandon is the quintessential founder and entrepreneur who, as Estée Lauder exemplified, is willing to take risks, push the boundaries of beauty, and fearlessly pursue a bold vision,” he says.

Lauder has only taken a minority stake in Deciem, according to Truaxe, but that doesn’t mean the investment is negligible. The conglomerate paid $200 million for makeup brand Becca and $1.45 billion for competitor Too Faced, demonstrating that indie brands have become serious players in the industry.

The multinational company also has a history of working patiently with visionary founders. With a penchant for trying new things, Lauder avoids the mistake other beauty monoliths do post-acquisition: Rather than running brands into the ground by eliminating the X-factor that makes them special, Lauder uses its resources to amplify brands’ unique selling points.

“It’s nearly unthinkable for a conglomerate to embrace a disruptive mindset like that of Deciem,” says Truaxe. “And yet we have felt like family from the very first day we met the loving team at The Estée Lauder Companies.” In an Instagram post announcing the investment, the Deciem team described themselves as “really emotional” and added that Lauder “may seem like a big conglomerate, but please believe us when we say that it has a big soul and a team of truly loving people.” Deciem also promised not to raise prices, to continue refraining from animal testing, and to ramp up its retail presence and innovation with its new investor’s help.

So why would a legacy multinational like Lauder plunge its resources into a misfit like Truaxe and his multiplicity of brands? It’s not all about reaching a younger, digitally connected demographic.

While their namesake brand is a classic, one-stop offering, consumer habits have moved away from that. Other brands owned by Lauder, like Clinique, have also suffered from this shift. As it’s become cheaper to launch beauty brands and women have shifted from department store purchasing to a more curated, online pick-and-mix approach, independent brands have been yanking market share from established multinational corporations like The Estée Lauder Companies.

Over the years, Lauder has plugged the gaps in its portfolio by buying a variety of brands, including MAC, Bobbi Brown, Aveda, Smashbox, Glamglow and Too Faced. But it has struggled to find its footing in skincare and failed completely at appealing to an emerging global market of Millennial skincare geeks. These are educated consumers who could also be described, without stretching the truth, as part-time researchers. They spend hours reading peer-reviewed scientific studies and comparing notes with fellow beauty nerds, sharing tutorials on YouTube, and writing detailed critiques of products. Many of them turn their bathrooms into mini laboratories, even buying their own clinical test strips to measure the pH levels of their products. These consumers know their ingredients, are always analyzing new formulations, and are willing to import them from Asia in order to create custom blends to suit their own faces. 

Thanks to the internet, this cohort of amateur experts is booming. They experience beauty as much more than a twice-daily routine to get through. For the Deciem-aware consumer, skincare is a hobby that they unashamedly describe as an “obsession” and “addiction.” They can’t get enough, and Deciem is one of many brands that exists to serve them. Now, if Brandon Truaxe and The Estée Lauder Companies get their way, today’s skincare geeks will soon become tomorrow’s mainstream beauty consumers. 

Five of the Best: Deciem’s Greatest Hits

The Ordinary Buffet ($14.90): For those looking to fight aging with as many beneficial ingredients in a single formula as possible, this serum fits the bill. At less than $15, it’s no wonder this is The Ordinary’s biggest seller.

The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% ($9.80): Vitamin A is one of the few clinically proven topical solutions that address a wide range of skin concerns from acne to aging. Retinol itself can be extremely irritating, throwing skin out of balance and causing unnecessary inflammation. To avoid taking one step forward and two steps back, Advanced Retinoid 2% is formulated to deliver results without making skin angry. 

Hylamide SubQ Anti-Age ($38): With five kinds of hyaluronic compounds and next-generation peptides, this highly active serum delivers maximum hydration and plump, glowing skin. Nothing else on the market at this price point can come close to SubQ Anti-Age.

NIOD Copper Amino Isolate Serum 1% ($60): Deciem says you can expect to see results in as little as five days from this concentrated serum. But its legion of fans report evidence of skin transformation in as few as two days. Look for visibly reduced pores, improved skin texture, reduction in dark circles, rapid healing of blemishes, more even skin tone, and accelerated disappearance of scars and discoloration.

NIOD Hydration Vaccine ($55): It’s safe to bet that a majority of people reading this have dehydrated skin. Often mistaken for dryness (which is a lack of oil in the skin), dehydration is a paucity of water that saps any glow, leaving skin dull and more prone to breakouts and redness. NIOD’s solution is a hydration seal to help skin retain its own natural moisturizing factors. If you have skin, you need this. 

Jackie Danicki created one of the first and most popular beauty blogs in 2004, and has consulted some of the world’s most iconic brands on digital content strategy and innovation. Jackie blogs at http://burnedoutbeauty.com, and you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat as @burnedoutbeauty.

Why Estée Lauder Is Betting Big on Cult Beauty Company Deciem