We're living in a time when every brand seems to be striving for the exact same aesthetic: minimalist, millennial pink, with a starkly modern logo and an Instagram feed full of optically pleasing (if not necessarily unique or inventive) imagery. It's all part of being a fashion, beauty or wellness startup in the year 2017. It's a given that a fledgling brand must optimize itself for peak Instagram shareability if it wants to reach millennial and Gen-Z customers. And yet, Feel, a direct-to-consumer skin- and hair-care company that launched out of Vancouver in 2016, seems to have fallen into some of these marketing elements unintentionally. There's not too much millennial pink to be found in its packing or on its website, but the simplistic photography, the black-and-white lettering and the brand's own cohesive, carefully curated Instagram page display all the trappings of an of-the-moment beauty startup.
"That wasn't really our primary consideration," says Mark Zabel, the company's founder, when I ask if Instagrammability was a factor in conceptualizing what I see as a millennial-bait look for the brand. "We just wanted something that, [if you saw it] on your vanity or in your bathroom, you'd look at it twice. It wouldn't just be another typical bottle of product. It was individualistic and it did remind you of the fact that this is a different brand." He pauses. "But we would love for people to share," he adds a beat later.
Feel, he explains, is about evoking the feeling of beauty, rather than just the appearance of it. According to the brand's website, which preaches the importance of self-care, Feel is focused on the notion that, "beauty is a feeling just like happy or confident... if you can think of that for five minutes when you use a Feel product, then we have succeeded."
On the phone from Vancouver in what he tells me is his first interview for the company, Zabel comes off as earnest and genuine, if not a bit naive about the beauty space he's dipping his toe into for the first time. "My background was never in beauty, I've kind of done a whole bunch of different things. I worked in finance for a while, I worked in mining, in venture capital. I actually lived in Peru for about six months or so." Then, he gets to it: "Really, my passion is for entrepreneurship and angel investing, getting into small companies."
Zabel, a 33-year-old dude who doesn't use much more than bar soap when it comes to his own personal grooming, was first made aware of the expansive beauty market through a previous relationship. "I was living with an ex of mine at the time, and I got a glimpse into the world of beauty products. The bathroom was full of [them], so I started to learn about them because that's what I do." Then, after a men's leadership and mindfulness retreat (does it get any more millennial than that?), Zabel was inspired to start Feel. "[The retreat] gave me the inspiration to start this brand and to promote this movement around emotions and understanding that if you want to be happy you need to understand how emotions dictate what you do," he says. "I really took it from there and had that as my reason and mission for creating a brand, and that was about two years ago."
So what sets Feel apart from the many beauty brands already in existence that are attempting to reach that same sweet spot of millennial female clientele? "It's not about the typical marketing of physically marketing products the way it's traditionally done," he explains. "I wanted to create something radically different from that and make it have a positive impact on people's lives." With Feel, Zabel is hoping to change the conversation around beauty products and the way they're marketed to consumers.
"The traditional way to market a beauty product is based on physical appearance. I think that's pretty standard. I don't think customers are interested in that," he says. "Our brand is about, use this and think about why you're using it. The reason you're using our brand is because you understand that when you think about how you feel about things that's really what's going to impact your life in the most significant way, as opposed to trying to look like somebody else. It's this idea that beauty isn't about what's on the outside, but in fact beauty, like many things, is about how you're feeling about stuff."
That's all well and good, and in speaking with Zabel I don't doubt for a second that these sentiments of positivity are genuine and coming from a blend of altruism and entrepreneurialism. But even despite these intentions and desire to buck traditional beauty marketing, I couldn't shake the feeling that there's something inherently old guard about a young male entrepreneur creating a beauty line to make money off of women.
Take, for example, Feel's target customer, who according to Zabel, is "women in their mid-20s who are focused on a lot of different things: wanting to have a great job, wanting to have awesome experiences, seeing the big picture, but also seeing the importance of living in the moment. They probably live in big cities or are working really hard to make something like that happen." This concept of the woman who is Trying to Have It All — though Zabel doesn't actually use that term, it's clearly what he's dancing around, however eloquently — is itself more old-school than Zabel probably realizes as he's saying it.
When I ask Zabel if he uses any of Feel's products, which to me seem quite gender neutral, he's perhaps a bit too honest. "I'm sort of a typical guy. I buy, like, 12 packs of Ivory soap and that's the extent of my routine," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "I love the process of making the products and I love the process of the feedback and developing the product, but I don't necessarily really use them."
In terms of how Feel is trying to see messages of emotional wellbeing through, Zabel cites the design of the packaging and the names of the products themselves ("Balanced," "Renewed," "Pure"). It also comes back to another patently 2017 concept, though he doesn't actually say the buzzword itself: self care. "It's about realizing that your beauty routine on a day-to-day basis is really a chance to check in with how you're feeling and keep that as a motivation through your day."
There's also an aspect of super-hip eco-consciousness at play: The products are cruelty free, made from "carefully-sourced, skin-boosting natural ingredients," as the press materials note (aloe, apple, beeswax, blueberry, charcoal, pumpkin seed and so on) and come in recyclable packaging. Because wellness is so often conflated with green-ness, it's understandable that the brand would want to highlight this artifice of natural beauty. But in 2017, when natural beauty is a booming industry and even mass retailers are doing green beauty well, it rings hollow.
Despite some of these incongruences and the general murkiness of its messaging, Feel is a brand to watch, without a doubt. First, the products are good. The Restored Self Warming Clay Mask and Renewed Pumpkin Walnut Facial Cleanser are standouts, while the Brilliant Bamboo Charcoal Facial Sheet Mask is one of the better clarifying sheet masks I've tried. "[Response from consumers] has been really great," says Zabel. "We haven't had any bad product reviews that I can even point to. We just did a box with Ipsy, featuring our Pumpkin Walnut Facial Cleanser, and [the reviews] have been so positive. I can't believe how many emails I've gotten with people saying they love it. I could probably count on one hand the number of returns we've gotten in our entire existence. I'm really happy with the product." And yes, they do look very pretty on a vanity.
Second, it's getting attention. While its social media fanbase is still on the small side, with just over 6,000 followers on Instagram, the photography and branding is there, and the choices the brand is making, like using a diverse casting of models, bode well. Just a few months after the launch, Urban Outfitters took notice and stocked two of the brand's products amongst its impressive and ever-expanding beauty offerings.
He's also realistic about the business and its growth. "We just want to keep growing our e-commerce presence and our online presence and just get more recognition for the brand in the marketplace," he says. But there are plans for potential experiential pop-ups in New York and Los Angeles in 2018. And he doesn't rule out influencer marketing, though he is adamant about going about it the right way. "It has to be really authentic. It has to be something you really commit to, because the idea of just reaching out to influencers and paying them to post our product is not something we're at all interested in. When we do have relationships, we're much more interested in collaborating on product launches and combining that with a charitable organization," he says.
And finally, Zabel may be new to the beauty industry, but there's a determination and energy to his entrepreneurialism, and he has a keen sense of what makes people excited about a brand. When I ask which brands — in the beauty space or other industries — he thinks are particularly successful, he doesn't hesitate. "I really love Glossier as a brand... another brand I know well because they're based in Vancouver is Lululemon. They do a huge amount of outreach and promotion and real values, and even though are this huge company now, that's still a huge priority. In the apparel space, they're really good."
Who knows? Maybe in a few years, Feel will be the Lululemon of the beauty realm.
Homepage/main photo: Courtesy of Feel