Why I Love and Hate The Ordinary

via theordinary.com

The Ordinary, which is the low-cost and simple line from parent company Deciem, has been growing in popularity over the last year and I think in the past 3 months the hype has reached a fever pitch. I find that anything that gets too popular too quickly attracts a lot of attention, positive and negative. I've found myself reflecting on deeply negative and positive feelings toward the brand. This is a meandering discussion of those feelings and where I think they come from.

This is not a product review, although I have tried many of their products and even more from their sister brands. I am more interested in exploring the feelings and thoughts I have seen pop up in the skincare communities online and in my own head while observing the growth of this innovative and unique skincare brand.

The Active Ingredients

It's hard to fault The Ordinary for their brand's understanding of active ingredients. They use scientifically-researched old standards and promising new ingredients and deliver them in a refreshingly transparent manner. As a consumer bathed in green-washed lies of Ancient Coconut Oil Magic and force-fed products whose active ingredients aren't even functional at the pH the product is developed...it's nice to see a company use the ingredient at the right pH and concentration that it claims to. I have noticed a great deal of people who find their formulary honest and straightforward.

On the flipside, I have witnessed pushback and myself felt a twinge of annoyance at the other side of the coin. The Ordinary (and its sister brands Hylamide and NIOD) are so focused on the scientific portion of the skincare experience that it has alienated customers. It can come across as hardlined and elitist.

I personally think that there is room in the skincare market for this type of bald focus on active ingredients, even at the expense of alienating folks who want a more holistic, gentle experience of being marketed to. I have personally seen many routines belonging to skincare enthusiasts who happily use perfumey and luxurious expensive creams alongside a bland and basic Ordinary product. The Ordinary seems to be positioning itself to be the discreet but powerful companion to the artsy, indulgent items that we all enjoy. 

The Formulary

Continuing on a similar theme, this is an area where I personally feel a big cloud of emotions and opinions forming. Because The Ordinary's focus is actives, it leaves out the other piece of the pie. If a skincare product isn't "cosmetically elegant" i.e. fun or enjoyable to apply, then it drastically reduces a person's desire to use it. Skincare is part health, part hobby for many of us. If it were like taking a vitamin pill, nobody would post Instagram photos of their 10-step skincare routine or spend hours discussing their favorite products with strangers online.

So many of The Ordinary products are formulated for maximum potency of actives. Rather than optimizing, which is the practice of maximizing one variable in relation to the other, The Ordinary seems to max out and go balls-to-the-wall with whatever ingredient they are featuring. This means they sacrifice the feel and comfort in much of their line, all in the name of chemical efficiency. I think this is good in a way- it turns some consumers away but it also gets the message across that The Ordinary takes skin health Very Seriously. There is nothing more important to The Ordinary than getting the active ingredients we pay for onto the customers' skin and working.

Many people, including myself, complain about the stickiness, greasiness, graininess, and generally baffling textures of multiple items produced by the brand. What this means is The Ordinary is certainly losing potentially good customers, customers interested in their value proposition, by formulating their products with such a singleminded direction. But nobody can be popular with everyone, and no one brand can satisfy the whole market. What The Ordinary is doing is giving customers highly simplified options that are undeniably effective, even if they are not comfortable.

I worry that people using The Ordinary won't enjoy the products enough to use them long enough to see results. While several of their products have results that can be measured and observed within days or weeks, others claim to have a lasting effect that will manifest over the course of months or years. Peptide serums like the Matrixyl 10% use ingredients whose effects are subtle and far from immediate. If the serum doesn't feel or smell nice, and it doesn't show results quickly, why would a customer stick with it? When the price is the only persuasive factor, the argument for repurchasing dramatically weakens.

You want to give the customers multiple avenues to excuse and justify their expenditure on your product. When they have no silky skinfeel or beautiful fragrance to enjoy, their justifications shrink, and they might end up not repurchasing.

The Repeat Customer

The Ordinary has expanded past their initial launch and each time they announce a new product, there's plenty of excitement. However I still do see the medium and long-term customers' interests waning with time. The excitement over spending $5 on a serum overcomes the initial distaste for smell or texture...but the longer a person uses that item, the price paid becomes a distant memory and therefore less "valuable" as a component of the experience.

The Ordinary does an amazing job of capturing new customers and creating excitement. What I wonder is how many customers they will be able to retain long-term. I know that the products I recommend to others are the ones that bring me a little shiver of joy when I use them. Many of The Ordinary's products are, well, ordinary. They are ordinary by design, but that means they can come across as joyless.

When someone is looking to insert a potent active into their routine, it's possible that's exactly what they want and need. Maybe The Ordinary will build a long-term and loyal fanbase because of their cheap, purpose-driven range. Then again, maybe people will become disenchanted with the negative or plain aspects of the brand and begin to dislike the brand in general.

I think of the skincare brands that have attained household name status in the last decade- and there are quite a few, contrast with my teenage years when it felt like Estée Lauder and Clinique were IT. These newer household name brands blow you down with brand image, fantasy, and combine it with cosmetic elegance. A brand like Tatcha has good products, but by no means ones that are so effective they warrant the price tag for every item. The brand image is essentially snake oil dipped in rice wine and powdered with geisha makeup. But it doesn't matter! That purple and gold packaging, those scents, that skinfeel...it seduces customers. It keeps them wanting more and imagining what they could be if they own the latest Tatcha release.

Of course this kind of aspirational luxury pricing and brand image can really hurt customers. They end up paying high prices for items that either do nothing, or do a mediocre job. I think that for people disenchanted with high prices and underperformance, The Ordinary is a breath of fresh air. But I do question The Ordinary's ability to really delight consumers and fully convince them of value after the initial low-cost shock-and-awe strategy.

The Price

That brings us to price- which is a huge factor in determining the success of this brand. Without the positioning as an ultra-low cost skincare brand, I doubt The Ordinary would have captured the loyalty of so many people who are admittedly offended by its inelegant textures. To put up with greasiness from a $5 bottle is reasonable...to do so with a $150 bottle...not so much.

I remember when The Ordinary first launched and I saw the hype building at a feverish pace. The first thing people remarked on was how damn cheap it was. Could it be? A company producing serums and acids for less than $10 each? Nobody had seen anything close to this before, and I think The Ordinary did an amazing job of entering the market with a bang. If you're going to be inexpensive, then by all means, be so dirt cheap that people have to give you a shot.

I think that because of the development costs associated with creating a perfect product- one that feels good and works- that's why you see such simple, targeted, but unpleasant formulas. At such a low price. Each skincare user has to decide for him or herself if they can put up with certain inadequacies if the payoff is worth it in another way.

Something I rarely think of, but which comes to mind with The Ordinary, is that being cheap is not always a good thing when you're selling to consumers. Brands like Drunk Elephant and Sunday Riley, for instance, keep customers coming back partially because they are so damn expensive. When someone is looking for a gift, or a treat for themselves, or they are pining for good skin and want to be seduced and encouraged, they look for fantasy and beauty. A brand which cultivates an image that's greater than the sum of its parts, through sometimes eyeroll-inducing marketing or exaggerated claims, can still capture much of the market. If you make ostentatious claims, you attract users, and if you aren't completely lying, well, you can retain them despite your initial promises being overblown. And when you do deliver big-time, as with the Sunday Riley Good Genes product, a chemical exfoliant that I wouldn't dream of paying more than $15 for that goes for $150, you get fans who are willing to fight and die defending your high price as "very much worth it." There is a cachet that accompanies high prices, and so it's a valid strategy to chase that type of reputation. It can pay off in the long run.

I think it is fantastic that we now have options for chemical actives and ingredients that were only available at absurdly high prices in the past. More competitive formulas on the market will force innovation and perhaps bring prices down a bit. Although The Ordinary is so low-cost I doubt it's cannibalizing any profits from the really high-priced stuff. I think it's more of a stepping stone to skincare for people intimidated by prices but eager to learn about the science. Indeed, The Ordinary's parent company Deciem has several other higher-cost brands under their umbrella, and I'm sure The Ordinary serves as a gateway drug to attract new customers who can burn cash on their nicer lines.

The Distribution and Service

When I first began thinking about this post, The Ordinary did not have any distributors in the USA. In the UK they had Victoria Health, but in other countries, they sold their products exclusively through their own website. I ordered three times from their website and each time was what I would consider to be an unpleasant customer service experience. First, they took about 5 days to ship. Second, they did not have all their products stocked while simultaneously announcing new releases. Third, their followup customer service was like wrestling a slippery eel. I did not feel a great deal of warmth or goodwill toward the company after my experiences. I began to resent that a company was so focused on new releases and they weren't putting in what was, in my opinion, a very fundamental piece of work to retaining their existing customers.

However, recently The Ordinary partnered with Beautylish and the San Francisco-based beauty e-tailer now carries their full line. I couldn't be happier about this partnership because Beautylish has consistently amazing customer care. Their service is proactive, unobtrusive, and quick, which is exactly what you want as a customer. 

I think that The Ordinary's stocking and service issues were getting so huge that they could not have survived 2017 without 3rd party distribution. When the manufacturer faces the customer directly, and the customer finds the transaction unsatisfying, that poisons the goodwill and the reputation of the brand directly. That kind of stain is very hard to remove, and once somebody thinks of your company as having shoddy service, you've usually lost them forever. I had already decided to never purchase a Deciem product again when my best friend Beautylish decided to carry The Ordinary, at which point I decided I might be willing to give their products another shot.

Finding a reputable distributor who can go above and beyond with taking care of your customers was a smart move for The Ordinary. I had heard people excusing their poor service and shipping times saying that "you get what you pay for" and that people ordering low-cost items shouldn't expect good customer care. This is entirely the wrong way to look at it- because the majority of the market will not think of companies in this manner. The Ordinary was right to course-correct and find someone with the infrastructure in place to stock and ship items in a more streamlined fashion.

Concluding Thoughts

I don't consider myself a fangirl or a hater of The Ordinary. I'm very intrigued by the strong market position they've taken- I truly do believe they're doing something unique. Whether their strategy pays off remains to be seen, but they are surely creating an enormous buzz and capturing an untapped market of potential skincare-users.

Everyone's bundle of considerations (price, delight, aesthetic, personal skin chemistry) will be slightly different. So of course you will find people who despise the brand and who love it, based on their differing perspectives. This is true for any brand, and I'm curious to watch this type of market discussion/impression play out with the bold stance The Ordinary has taken.