When Morphe Beauty hit a rough patch early in the pandemic, as masked-up consumers turned from eyeshadow palettes to niacinamide serum, it looked to some of the culture’s biggest stars for help.
YouTube sensation Emma Chamberlain signed on as creative director of Bad Habit, a skin care label that launched at the end of 2020. TikTok mega-influencer Charli D’Amelio was tapped to release a fragrance, plus a skin care line developed with the help of famed dermatologist Dendy Engelman. A Demi Lovato beauty line was put in motion.
But the “silver bullet” was meant to be R.E.M. Beauty, according to several former executives. Forma Brands, the “brand incubator” formed in 2019 to manage Morphe and a growing portfolio of sister lines negotiated the license to release beauty and skin care products for the pop star Ariana Grande in early 2021, and rushed a line of space-themed makeup into production.
Today, Forma Brands has little to show for its efforts. Chamberlain quietly left Bad Habit when her one-year contract expired; the brand reported just $3.4 million in sales last year, less than half Forma’s projections. D’Amelio released her fragrance, Born Dreamer, in June, but the skin care line has been shelved, as has Lovato’s beauty brand. R.E.M. Beauty’s release was overshadowed by other blockbuster celebrity launches, including Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty and Hailey Bieber’s Rhode Skin Care; it is seen by many inside Forma as an expensive disappointment, according to several people with knowledge on the matter.
R.E.M. Beauty was a last-ditch attempt to make the celebrity-centric strategy work, several former Forma executives told BoF.
The company hoped Grande and R.E.M. would replicate the success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, which kicked off the celebrity makeup craze in 2017, or Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty, which exploded onto the market in 2020, quickly becoming a top seller at Sephora.
“We needed this brand to launch,” a second former Forma executive said. “The thinking was, ‘Ariana will launch and probably save the company’ because none of the brands were doing well.”
Forma spent millions of dollars on R.E.M.’s marketing campaigns, according to multiple sources, including two former executives with knowledge of the matter.
“We stopped spending — marketing money, people — on pretty much everyone but R.E.M. It was all on hold,” said a third former Forma Brands executive. “Investors would not approve any budgets until they saw how R.E.M. played out.”
Forma had a megastar name in Grande, top-tier production values for its marketing and strategically timed teaser posts on the singer’s social media accounts leading up to launch. But the brand failed to articulate what made it stand out amid an increasingly crowded field of celebrity lines: Gomez has a uniquely tight bond with her fans, and the products weren’t addressing an untapped need in the market, as Fenty’s 40 shades of foundation did.
“There were discussions around, ‘Is she super involved? Is she the face of the brand?’ or ‘Is she not the face of the brand, but one of many faces?’” Wang said. “It seemed they went neither here nor there. There wasn’t nearly enough involvement from Ariana to really push it and really sell her as the face of it, and there wasn’t nearly enough of a broader community push to bring in a roster of friends of the house. It felt like she popped in for some photo shoots and major launches.”
“Ariana Grande has been highly engaged and collaborative since the beginning of the relationship,” a Forma spokesperson said.
Whatever the reality behind the scenes, both Fenty and Rare can attribute much of their success to customers’ perception that the brands feel like part of their star founders’ identities. R.E.M. Beauty has struggled to build that same bond; according to Forma documents reviewed by BoF, the brand’s sales last year were 16 percent below internal forecasts.