One Cosmetics Brand’s Mission to Change the Beauty Industry’s Definition of “Nude”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with ecommerce founders who were featured on Live From Your Laptop in celebration of Black History Month.

What’s the key to a flawless “no-makeup” makeup look? The perfect nude lipstick, of course.

But for Amanda E. Johnson and KJ Miller, finding their perfect shade of nude at the store was easier said than done. In fact, it seemed no matter how widely they searched or how big the beauty brand they tried, they couldn’t find a true nude lipstick that complemented their skin tones.

I recently caught up with Amanda, co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) at Mented Cosmetics, to learn more about how her and KJ started a beauty brand for all skin tones, how they’ve grown to be found in 700 retail stores today, and how they balance their retail presence with a powerful direct-to-consumer (DTC) online presence.

Find out how Amanda and KJ founded this perfectly pigmented cosmetics brand, then watch Mented Cosmetics’ episode of Live From Your Laptop to hear more about their ecommerce marketing strategy and how they’re using email marketing to capture a quarter of their online revenue.

 

 

 

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Alex McPeak: Tell me about your background and what you were doing before you started Mented Cosmetics.

Amanda E. Johnson: I’m a traditional entrepreneur in that I had a very non-traditional path to entrepreneurship. 

I graduated from Howard University with a degree in finance and went into banking. I was at Goldman Sachs for two-and-a-half years. I realized you can be really good at something but not love doing it, so I left Goldman Sachs to work in consumer marketing for Time Inc., which was basically my crash course in marketing. 

After three years, I decided to go to Harvard Business School and graduated with my MBA in 2014. While I was there, I focused on retail, products, people, and digital—I was fascinated with the psychology behind how people make purchases, whether they’re rational or completely irrational. But I find the irrational purchases much more fun. 

Then I interned at Moët Hennessy—it was where luxury meets irrational purchasing decisions meets diverse markets because in the United States, a large part of a customer base for Hennessy is Black and Hispanic.

It was also the first time I realized the fact that Black and Hispanic markets really love luxury items at higher price points, and it made me think about how luxury brands typically exclude them.

"It was the first time I realized the fact that Black and Hispanic markets really love luxury items at higher price points, and it made me think about how luxury brands typically exclude them."

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

After I graduated, I went to Barneys, which in my mind was the ultimate in luxury at the time. That’s where I really learned about retail and became a product manager, and my focus was on building out novel experiences for our customers and bridging the gap between online and in-store

In business school, I also met KJ, and we were passionate about our idea for Mented Cosmetics. So while I was at Barneys, I was also working on Mented behind the scenes.

 

Alex: How did you come up with the idea for Mented Cosmetics?

Amanda: I got bit by the startup bug while KJ always wanted to start a business. I wasn’t like that. I was the corporate creature. I thought I was always going to climb the ladder, but then when I got to business school, everybody was talking about startups.

Those constant conversations really de-risked the idea of startup life for me. So when I met KJ, we clicked on so many levels. When we graduated, we didn’t have the idea yet, but we knew we wanted to work together.

We both ended up in New York after graduating, so we would get together on the weekends with a lot of wine—because that’s how you get ideas flowing—and we would talk about our ideas. One night, we ended up on the topic of beauty hacks, as we often did.

I told KJ I’d been looking for the perfect nude lipstick for years. And she was like, “Oh my God, me too. I hate everything out there.” And both we lit up. 

We were two deeper skin, Black women with plenty of disposable income. We considered ourselves beauty enthusiasts, but we felt left out of the market. We felt like our dollar and our desire didn’t matter as much as everyone’s else’s. 

"We were two deeper skin, Black women with plenty of disposable income. We considered ourselves beauty enthusiasts, but we felt left out of the market. We felt like our dollar and our desire didn't matter as much as everyone's else's. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

The more we dug into it, whether it was on shopping trips, through focus groups, or by talking to people in the industry, the more we found other people felt the same but had just accepted this was the way it was—they had accepted this narrow idea of what nude was. 

We aren’t chemists and we don’t have beauty backgrounds, but I was hacking a bunch of products together at home and making it work, so it seemed to me a company with billions at their disposal could also make the lipstick I need. 

"We aren’t chemists and we don't have beauty backgrounds, but I was hacking a bunch of products together at home and making it work, so it seemed to me a company with billions at their disposal could also make the lipstick I need. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

That was really our light bulb moment, and so we launched the brand in January 2017.

 

Alex: Tell me more about Mented Cosmetics and the mission behind the brand.

Amanda: Mented is short for pigmented. We’re a pigment-first beauty brand celebrating women of all hues and focused on women of color. We believe if we get it right for women of color, we can get it right for everybody. They’re the hardest complexions and undertones to nail down.

We’ve developed an expertise in pigmentation. We can take any type of product and make it the most pigmented for the broadest range of shades. 

 

 

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What we really wanted to focus on was everyday beauty—any woman should be able to pull products out of her bag and make an everyday face. That’s what we’re really optimizing for.

Glam and glitter already existed for lots of skin tones since they’re inherently very pigmented. What didn’t exist was an everyday, “no-makeup” makeup look for women of color. And so that’s what we focused on. 

"Glam and glitter already existed for lots of skin tones since they’re inherently very pigmented. What didn't exist was an everyday, “no-makeup” makeup look for women of color. And so that's what we focused on. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

We’ve been around for four years now and we’ve focused on rolling out more pigmented nude collections—we also have foundation, blush, eyeshadow palettes, and nail polish in addition to the original lipsticks—and we’re gaining a community around the idea. 

Women of color, olive tone, white women—so many people have flocked to this brand. We’ve created a nude that works for everyone, and we’ve spoken to their pain point in a way that’s very accessible.

 

Alex: What challenges did you face when you first started?

Amanda: We reached out to manufacturers to create the product we envisioned, and they said, “I don’t understand. We have nudes. We have pinks and beiges,” and we were like, “You’ve traditionally always got it wrong. We want to create something new.”

We couldn’t find a manufacturer who wanted to create with us and who was willing to look outside the box of what they traditionally thought was nude. 

"We couldn’t find a manufacturer who wanted to create with us and who was willing to look outside the box of what they traditionally thought was nude."

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

So we went on YouTube and watched some videos and learned how to make lipstick, and then went on Google and bought all the products you need in order to make lipstick—the dyes, the pigments, the molds, the containers, and everything else. We used to cook up lipstick in the kitchen in my Harlem apartment every weekend. 

In that process, we discovered we wanted to be hands-on with the product and it’s really our problem to solve because the industry has proven they don’t have this expertise.

mented cosmetics collection pigmented beauty lipstick eye shadow blush foundation

Alex: How did you get your first customers?

Amanda: When we finally had some products and shades we were happy with, we needed to validate the idea with an expert. We knew we couldn’t look to the industry because, again, our expert didn’t exist there, so we found our community of experts online. 

" We knew we couldn't look to the industry because our expert didn't exist there, so we found our community of experts online. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

Influencers, particularly women of color influencers, had been preaching the gospel of everyday makeup online on Instagram and YouTube.

These weren’t necessarily the girls who had the million dollar CoverGirl contract. These were the ones who were organically building their audience. They received makeup every week. They know what’s good and what’s bad, and they’re telling their audiences the truth. So we said, “Okay, those are our experts.”

We used to make products on the weekend, send it to influencers, and then direct message them on Instagram. We didn’t pay them to talk about us. We simply asked them to try the lipstick. 

We sent a blurb about the product and the company we were trying to create, and we asked them to tell us if they thought it would resonate with their audience. We mined Instagram and YouTube for influencers who are women of color who understood this everyday makeup idea.

 

Alex: What was the response?

Amanda: The feedback was enormous. It just swept up our Instagram one day. There were thousands of people coming to Mented because of the influencers we sent our products to. 

We got some great feedback and some people who didn’t email us back at all. We saw it in print or on Instagram, and they were making tutorials and tagging Mented Cosmetics. And this was before we fully established the business.

"We got some great feedback and some people who didn't email us back at all. We saw it in print or on Instagram, and they were making tutorials and tagging Mented Cosmetics. And this was before we fully established the business. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

It was really the influencers who helped us blow up, and so we started out by gaining traction on Instagram. People started following us, wanting to know more about the makeup and when it was going to launch. 

We took the traction to investors and said, “Look, we have a waitlist of people who want this product. They’ve never tried it, but they’ve watched our videos and they’re bought into the concept. We just need the money to launch.” And they gave us the money. To date, we’ve raised over four million dollars in venture capital funding.

"We took the traction to investors and said, "Look, we have a waitlist of people who want this product. They’ve never tried it, but they've watched our videos and they're bought into the concept. We just need the money to launch." And they gave us the money. To date, we’ve raised over four million dollars in venture capital funding."

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

So our first customers were those organic customers who found us on YouTube and Instagram from some of the very early influencers we worked with for free who were just so excited about a brand that was trying to do something new. 

 

 

 

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Alex: How do you think about acquiring new customers today?

Amanda: So much of what we do today is still about trying to infiltrate and influence people with that day one energy we saw from the influencers and their audiences. 

A huge part of our marketing strategy continues to be about influencers. And it’s not all about paid opportunities. We focus on women of color influencers who haven’t been in the spotlight in the beauty industry.

They might have fewer followers, but they have amazing content and they’re so passionate about the product and excited to wear a brand that highlights them. And we’re always creating new, exciting opportunities for them to highlight what they do. We truly feel like we co-created this brand with them because they were there before Mented Cosmetics was even a thing. 

I use the phrase “edu-tainment”—that’s what we do a lot, too. We survey our customer all the time, and we know she’s somewhat of a novice beauty customer. In fact, many of our customers are first-time beauty users because they never felt like they could participate before, so we create edu-tainment for them. 

"I use the phrase “edu-tainment”—that’s what we do a lot. We survey our customer all the time, and we know she’s somewhat of a novice beauty customer. In fact, many of our customers are first-time beauty users because they never felt like they could participate before, so we create edu-tainment for them. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

Whether it’s videos, blogs, or social media, it’s all about educating our audience on what Mented is, what the product is, what the benefits are, and how to use it.

What’s your face shape? What’s your undertone? What’s your brow shape? How do you use these products? We help our customers understand the basics, but we also have full tutorials. We know who our audience is, and we make content specifically for them. 

mented cosmetics tutorial jai chanellie uses our everynight eyeshadow palette for the perfect fall look

The other part of our marketing strategy is about consideration.

The average woman has about five to seven brands in her makeup bag at any given time. We don’t need to be the entire makeup bag—we just need to be one of those products. When someone goes to buy an existing product or buy a new product for her makeup bag, we want her to consider Mented because, most likely, we have a product for her.

The way we think about texts, email, videos, paid campaigns, and everything else is always about how we remind women we have the exact products she’s looking for. Whether she’s replenishing an item or looking for something new, she should look to Mented because we know her and her pigmentation better than anybody else. 

"The way we think about texts, email, videos, paid campaigns, and everything else is always about how we remind women we have the exact products she's looking for. Whether she’s replenishing an item or looking for something new, she should look to Mented because we know her and her pigmentation better than anybody else. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

We keep that in mind not only with the frequency with which we send out content and ads and marketing, but also how we create all of those marketing assets.

Want to learn more about how Mented Cosmetics acquires new customers with Klaviyo?

Watch Live From Your Laptop with Mented

Alex: Do you have a retail presence? How do you create unique experiences on your DTC website?

Amanda: We’ve officially launched on Ulta.com and, by the end of the year, we’ll be in over 700 retail doors between HSN, Target, and Ulta, which we’re very, very excited about.

 

 

 

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For us, it’s all a part of the Mented ecosystem. 

We’ll always have our content on Mented.com. The universe we’re able to create that’s personal, friendly, and welcoming is on our owned channels. Whether you find us through Target or you find us through Ulta or somewhere else, we think the true Mented customer is always going to want to be part of that universe. 

"The universe we're able to create that’s personal, friendly, and welcoming is on our owned channels. Whether you find us through Target or you find us through Ulta or somewhere else, we think the true Mented customer is always going to want to be part of that universe."

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

mented cosmetics welcome email series automation flow klaviyo

No matter how you enter the Mented universe, once you’re in, you’re in. And once you’re there, not only are there more products we can show you, but there are also things we can teach you. 

What we ultimately want is for you to be a lifelong customer, so there are a lot of ways we’re going to get there and do that. Keeping our marketing strategies siloed won’t get us there, so we have to take an omnichannel approach.

"What we ultimately want is for you to be a lifelong customer, so there are a lot of ways we're going to get there and do that. Keeping our marketing strategies siloed won’t get us there, so we have to take an omnichannel approach. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

Alex: How has Klaviyo helped you grow your business?

Amanda: It’s definitely changed the game. 

When we were on our previous platform, they were coming out with automations, but it was so limited. As our customer base was not only growing, but diversifying, we needed to get more personalized. 

We talked to other founders to find out what platforms they were using, and we constantly heard Klaviyo, so we said, “Okay, we’ve got to check this out.”

It was so tangible and easy. As a small company growing quickly, it’s not like we have a marketing team of 500 people—we have a mighty marketing team of four, so our email marketing manager needed to be able to understand the ideas we were throwing at her and actually make something of it.

Our relationship with Klaviyo has made that possible. It’s become such a huge part of our business. There’s no separating it. 

I think a lot of brands get into retail and they think they don’t need to pay attention to text or email marketing anymore, but it’s a cornerstone of our business—25 percent of our online revenue is from Klaviyo. If it went away today, we’d be in trouble. 

"I think a lot of brands get into retail and they think they don't need to pay attention to text or email marketing anymore, but it’s a cornerstone of our business—25 percent of our online revenue is from Klaviyo. If it went away today, we'd be in trouble. "

Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO, Mented Cosmetics

It’s not about downplaying email marketing now that we’re in retail. It’s actually given us the opportunity to do even more: How can we create even more segments and groups around retail customers? 

For us, Klaviyo provides endless opportunities to build relationships with our customers.

Interested in hearing more about Mented Cosmetics? Watch Amanda in Live From Your Laptop and hear her share more about the digital marketing tactics she’s using to grow the brand.

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