Memo: A Hero’s Acquisition

Direct-to-consumer and growth, growth, growth. That was the narrative that overwhelmed modern retail over the previous decade-plus. Today the narrative is rewriting itself right in front of our eyes. Forget pure-play “DTC”, Amazon-hesitancy, and tech-like valuations. The mega brands (or at least, the brands behind the mega deals) of the next 10 years will be built using a playbook that emphasizes EBITDA margin, profitability, and a more holistic distribution strategy.

Hero Cosmetics is the latest example of how to win in this new environment, with its recently announced acquisition. It confirmed that the days of growth-alone have ceded to the retail principles that defined the previous century before it.

On Tuesday in an exclusive, WWD announced that Hero Cosmetics, which is most well-known for its acne treatment products, was acquired by consumer goods company Church & Dwight (C&D) after a year that has seen 40% growth over the previous year’s revenue totals. The product (Hero) / market (C&D) fit couldn’t be better. Founded in 1847, the conglomerate now boasts 10 divisions, each of which should be familiar: Orajel, Arm & Hammer, Nair, First Response, OxiClean, Toppik, Water Pik, and Pepsodent. The New Jersey-based company’s introduction to cosmetics is Hero; in the trailing 12 months, C&D earned $5.2 billion and Hero is likely to become a key player in the conglomerate’s goal to exceed $6 billion in annual sales.

A Glossy report from February 2022 cited the brand’s launch in Ulta after earning a $100 million run rate. Just seven months later, the brand reported that it was on track to reach $140 million in sales in 2022, up from $100 million last year. This was good enough for a $630 million deal. Hero earned the upper end of the acquisition valuation matrix, in my opinion: 14x multiple on its $45 million EBITDA over the trailing 12 months. CEO Ju Rhyu told Forbes:

We expect that we’ll accelerate some of our growth plans, like continued US expansion and growing our international footprint, while tapping into some of Church & Dwight’s infrastructure and back office capabilities. This acquisition with Church & Dwight marks a huge milestone in our company’s history and I am so excited to unlock more growth with them.

In addition to its best-selling patches, Hero currently sells acne serums and creams as well as a body care line. The company’s capital raised to date included a 2021 minority investment from Aria Growth Partners for an undisclosed sum. This was after a 2020 that saw 300% growth.

Early on, Hero Cosmetics embraced Amazon to grow its business, bucking the belief of so many modern companies that Amazon is a brand-killer.

It first sold on Amazon starting in 2017, then it became available in retailers including Target, CVS, Neiman Marcus, Ulta and Urban Outfitters – now in 8,000 total doors in the US – then, a year later it launched its own direct-to-consumer site, a well-built Shopify Plus site featuring 79 technologies. But the company’s biggest draw is one of its fewer than 40 SKUs. The Mighty Patch has become the number one beauty product on Amazon, according to Marketplace Pulse. Rhyu, who will stay on following the acquisition, said that Amazon was the perfect launch platform because it was a fast, easy and cheap place to test product-market fit. Only once tested was Rhyu comfortable expanding Hero’s distribution through brick-and-mortar and owned channels.

Is the pure-play DTC era conceding to omnichannel nirvana? Other brands have followed a similar path, according to Marketplace Pulse filings, including: Anker, Zesty Paws and SmartyPants (the latter two were also acquired for exits in the excess of $500 million). Peloton recently said it would start selling on Amazon, where its bikes are often searched for. A sea change is starting. As 2PM wrote at the time of the Peloton news:

Amazon is the number one search engine for products, so eventually, every brand will seek out its marketplace reach. It only makes sense that a brand desperate for a resurgence of its own has taken a shot and proving Amazon’s reach and effectiveness.

In a recent report on DTC brands’ migration to online marketplaces, we explained that: “The marketplace model will become more relevant for digitally-native brands as eCommerce continues to evolve and lines blur. The most capable retailers will reach customers where they are.”

In retail’s battle of Davids versus Goliaths, it may seem that upstart brands recognizing they need the Amazon machine in order to succeed is a sign of defeat. It’s more so a reality check, and the best brands will still rise above the noise of Amazon to grow outside of it, rather than get washed away in Amazon’s tides. There are still valid concerns over how Amazon uses and abuses the data it garners from brands that sell on its site, but the best brands’ products will always outshine Amazon knockoffs. It’s the difference between standing out in a crowded room and isolating yourself to your own corner. DTC pure-plays have always had to fight it out for attention as evidenced by the industry’s reliance on marketing via Facebook, Instagram, and Google. The flaws in that model have become clear.

What can other brands learn from this acquisition? Here is a recap of what we have said in previous reports. There are factors to consider including: product category, price range, perishable / non-perishable, and consumer positioning (mid-market, luxury, etc). No brand should remain a pure-play, direct-to-consumer brand unless they maintain the profits and operations to support that decision. Selling direct is extremely expensive and more rare than any new-age marketer would like to believe. In contrast, going where customers are is a traditionally profitable proposition. A loss-making DTC brand is not nobler than a profitable wholesale brand.

Soon, DTC-as-strategy will become a relic of a past era of retail that was riding high on venture dollars and Facebook arbitrage. The brands are returning home to retailers, while using tools at their disposable to drive up their brand equity so when people see their product on a Target or Nordstrom shelf, or in Amazon’s sea of products, they choose it.

Report by Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

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