How ColourPop Became the Most Popular (and Most Mysterious) Beauty Brand on the Internet

There's even a conspiracy theory involving Kylie Jenner.
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There's even a conspiracy theory involving Kylie Jenner.
ColourPop's best selling products. Photo: makeupaddictsrejoice Instagram

ColourPop's best selling products. Photo: makeupaddictsrejoice Instagram

Established beauty brands like Urban Decay and Anastasia Beverly Hills have found popularity on social media among beauty vloggers and Instagrammers, and subsequently the millions of people who follow their every move. But now, so-called Insta-famous beauty brands are really starting to take over the space. One in particular, the almost two-year-old, Los Angeles-based brand ColourPop, burst onto Instagram in all of its colorful glory and captured the hearts — and lips — of seemingly everyone. While beauty influencers raved almost unanimously about the inexpensive products, an undercurrent of suspicion and conspiracy theories popped up surrounding ColourPop. So what is the deal with this brand anyway?

The founders, siblings Laura and John Nelson, made a conscious decision to market ColourPop specifically via social media to a primarily millennial audience. Vloggers like Coffee Break With Dani and Kathleen Lights were early adopters who talked about the brand on their channels. It worked. ColourPop now boasts 1.6 million followers on its Instagram account and gets daily mentions by vloggers and makeup enthusiasts.

But when you use social media as your main form of communication, you also have to deal with the downsides that come with that — plus, a brand launching solely via social media is still a very new phenomenon. The medium notoriously makes users think they're really getting to know the person or entity they're following, but it's really just a tightly controlled image and façade. Intellectually everyone knows this, but it's hard to remember when you're admiring a colorfully (and carefully) curated account. ColourPop suddenly appeared in everyone's feeds as a disembodied social media account full of perky millennial-isms and pretty makeup pictures. The problem (at least this is my working theory) is that there was no origin story associated with it, which was disconcerting to some. On Reddit's popular makeup subreddits, users started questioning the brand, calling it "shady."

People love a compelling origin story. Think about Linda Rodin mixing up oil in her kitchen with supermodels in the '90s before she launched her cult-favorite, now Estée Lauder-owned, product line. That kind of narrative personalizes a brand. With ColourPop, it’s almost like the Wizard of Oz – there’s a man behind the curtain who no one can quite figure out. The Nelsons first launched Seed Beauty, the parent company of ColourPop, with the stated mission on their website of "chang[ing] the business of beauty forever. Unlike any other cosmetics company, we combine under one roof: venture capital, brand design, brand incubation and complete vertical integration — from brand design through R&D and manufacturing. The goal is to bring a rapidly accelerated brand to market as quickly as possible to get 'real' customer feedback. The feedback is then used to accelerate, pivot or adjust the brand as needed." Three more brands, ColourStyle, Jupe and Fluid Beauty are named as brands that are coming soon, as well as two "confidential" acquisitions. While this is a perfectly legitimate business model, beauty junkies are pretty passionate about well, everything, and seem to want their companies to have a soul. What Seed Beauty is doing is capitalism at its finest. As Laura Nelson said via email to me, "It's all about applying the fast fashion model to beauty." And you can't get much more soulless than that.

ColourPop website imagery. Photo: ColourPop

ColourPop website imagery. Photo: ColourPop

The owners don't really help themselves much in this regard. It's clear they do not want to be a mouthpiece for the brand. They want the products — and their social media manager — to do the talking. The Nelsons spoke to WWD about beauty incubators last summer, but otherwise no big, meaty interviews. I reached out to the brand before the holidays, and was told vaguely several times, after repeated follow-up emails, that the founders were busy, they were traveling, they couldn't talk to me. I finally got some rather general email responses to several questions. In the world of mainstream beauty, I can't think of a single time I've ever reached out to a startup to feature them and been gently rebuffed in that way. But that's ColourPop's model. The founders are not gathering up beauty editors to disseminate their message, especially ones like me who only have 650 Instagram followers and suck at doing a cat eye; they want the social media mavens who live and breathe makeup to do it. "Our influencers genuinely love our products and aren't afraid to take risks when it comes to trying different styles of makeup," says Nelson. New world order and all that, right? This lack of traditional transparency, though, has people asking questions.

At the beginning of last year, denizens of one makeup subreddit started asking about ColourPop's background in a thread headed "Who owns ColourPop, the illuminati?" A few budding investigative reporters there dug into some public legal and real estate records, and found both Seed Beauty and a nearby facility called SpatzLabs, also run by the Nelsons. Since ColourPop manufactures everything in California, one could assume that all of ColourPop's products are manufactured at Spatz. One would be wrong. I was told by ColourPop's marketing representative that they are not. "ColourPop manufactures all of its own product in-house. SpatzLabs and ColourPop are sister companies under Seed Beauty. Spatz is a cosmetic manufacturer but does not make ColourPop products," the rep said in an email.

Here's where the Kylie Jenner rumors come in. Once again the sleuths at Reddit, via an eventually deleted tweet by a beauty blogger, got wind of some gossip/speculation stating that Kylie's Lip Kit was actually repackaged ColourPop products. This completely unconfirmed rumor made its way through the online beauty community, as Seventeen reported back in December. Kylie finally took to Instagram to post a picture of herself with momager Kris and the owners of ColourPop, with the following caption:

What is more likely happening here — and again, this is pure speculation — is that SpatzLabs developed and/or is producing Kylie's Lip Kits. Or perhaps she was just visiting for inspiration. Both are totally fine and legitimate. Multiple beauty brands often use the same company or production facility. Recently I was at a beauty event for a skin care brand and was told that the products were made at the same lab as [redacted fancy skin care company], but that I couldn't say it officially in any story. So, if this is true, good for Seed Beauty or the illuminati or whoever for snagging the Kylie Jenner product line. I'm sure they'll make zillions of dollars from it and thrill all their investors. (UPDATE: Here is a video of Kylie making her new Lip Kit color. The blonde woman in the back looks a lot like the "owner" of ColourPop as seen above, no?) 

Which brings us full circle back to ColourPop. It's definitely a legitimate brand, Internet drama aside. In December of last year, WWD gave the brand its "Mass Launch of the Year" award. Well-respected beauty review site Temptalia just awarded it multiple 2016 Editors' Choice awards. Makeup artists, as in the ones that didn't become famous on Instagram, use it on clients. Taraji P. Henson's makeup artist Ashunta Sheriff has used ColourPop to create colorful looks on Cookie Lyon in "Empire." The brand has done collaborations with vlogger Kathleen Lights, "Hunger Games" actress Isabelle Fuhrman and many others. A collection with Karrueche Tran launches soon. 

There are also dozens of glowing YouTube and Instagram reviews of the brand, which has made the Internet peanut gallery question the motives of the beauty gurus, which is a time-honored tradition. Were they doing it so their free product wouldn't dry up? Was ColourPop paying them? Or are the products really that great?  "My readers started to ask me to review ColourPop products, because they had heard a lot about the brand but weren't sure whether to buy into the hype or not; they trusted that I would provide them with genuine, honest reviews that would focus on quality — not just if it was 'good for the price,' but whether the products were good, period," Christine Mielke, the founder of Temptalia, says. "They have maintained quality product lines despite a heavy expansion in the last 12 months, and I think that ultimately, quality is what makes easy to shop ColourPop."   

I can add to the growing canon of positive ColourPop reviews. The appeal is obvious, and the price is unbeatable. Beauty blogger Katy, who has 1.3 million YouTube subscribers and Instagram followers and is better known as LustreLux, says, "I think the main thing people love about the brand is the price. Most cosmetic brands that are popular due to social media have a high end or luxury price point. ColourPop has kept a low price point, even lower than drugstore brands, with a quality product. Makeup lovers love to buy things in quantity, like buying 12 different colored liquid lipsticks at once. Being able to do that without breaking the bank makes it very attractive." 

My ColourPop haul, worth $96 retail. Photo: Cheryl Wischhover's iPhone

My ColourPop haul, worth $96 retail. Photo: Cheryl Wischhover's iPhone

The brand was kind enough to send me a box of comped products, but according to the invoice, the total price for a whopping 17 pieces was only $96. The most expensive thing, a blush, rang in at $8. Nelson says the brand keeps costs low because everything is manufactured in-house. The packaging is cute and fun, featuring holographic lettering and bright, colorful accents on white tubes. The product names can be a bit divisive, though: "Lippie Stix" seems to make people want to either gouge their eyeballs out or giggle with pleasure. 

The Super Shock shadows are what put the brand on the map, and what originally impressed LustreLux. There are over 100 shades in various textures like metallic, pearlized, matte and pressed pigment, all for $5 each. The texture reminds me of Maybelline's Dream Bouncy Blush. It looks powdery in the container but has a satisfying creamy, spongey feeling that you can apply with your fingers. The colors I tried were too glittery for me, but they applied easily and the pigmentation was impressive. (I want to try the matte versions.) Ditto for the blush and highlighter, which had nice color and shimmer respectively, but which I wish had better slip. Use a primer before you use these, because they didn't go on as smoothly as my usual cream blush and highlighter

The brand's best sellers, according to Nelson, are the Ultra Matte liquid lipsticks. (Credible duplicates here for Kylie's Lip Kit include "Clueless," "Beeper" and "Limbo," if you're into that.) They are highly pigmented and dry down fast, so you better be good at wielding a doe foot applicator. I had to wipe off a few attempts until I got used to this specific applicator, and I had some flaking after a few hours, but nothing tragic. (LustreLux notes, "I think they can improve on the formula of their liquid lipsticks. They can be drying and some colors separate in the tube over time.") The aforementioned Lippie Stix are traditional matte lipsticks in a more narrow applicator and contain less product than regular lipstick bullets, which is why they only cost $5. The matte formula was drying but not horribly so, and I really liked the smaller diameter of the stick, which made it easier to apply neatly. 

More product categories are coming. Nelson says, "We get a lot of requests for lip glosses and brows, and a lot of our launches are driven purely by popular demand. We have some super-exciting launches coming down the pipeline."

In the future, check your Instagram feed for more breaking news from ColourPop.