At first, Regina Merson thought mask-wearing would cripple her cosmetics startup. But it turns out that Latina women wear lipstick even in a pandemic. By Amy Koch.
In March of 2020, a Google video team flew to Dallas to film a segment on a Latina cosmetics startup called Reina Rebelde (“Rebel Queen”). Its founder, Regina Merson, was a University of Chicago-trained lawyer who had dropped out of Big Law to pursue a passion she had nurtured since her childhood in Mexico, where makeup is worn bold and glamorous. Convinced that Latina women represented an underserved market in America, Merson launched the business out of her home in the autumn of 2016, making such a splash using digital ads and social media that before long Target and Walmart asked her to place Reina Rebelde products on their shelves.
Now, in a major coup, Google had decided to highlight Reina Rebelde in a video illustrating her success using digital marketing tools. “It was going to be a whole weeklong project,” says Merson. But no sooner had the crew arrived than the pandemic forced its members to return home. Instead of winning loads of new customers from the Google video, she now pondered a terrifying question: Could a startup whose flagship product was lipstick withstand a prolonged period of mask wearing?
Through deft leadership during the pandemic, Reina Rebelde has survived. Speaking to Brunswick’s Amy Koch from her Dallas home, Merson describes the past year (during which she also gave birth).
What did the pandemic mean for your business?
When it hit, I cried for probably a week. I just said, “It’s over. No one’s going to buy makeup.”
I’m sure you’ve heard of Leonard Lauder’s Lipstick Index, which shows that cosmetics sales rise during hard financial times, because lipstick is an inexpensive indulgence that gives you a bolt of energy. But from the start of the pandemic, I was concerned that lipstick sales wouldn’t rise this time. Not with people wearing masks.
My entire 2020 plan went out the door. In a way, we decided to just shift away from selling makeup. It didn’t seem like the right moment to be saying, “Look, I’m going to give you a shade you never knew you needed.” Our brand is supposed to be about making you feel good about yourself, and at that moment it was important to be sensitive to how our community was feeling. We had people we work with—influencers, content creators—who just stopped responding, who went dark for months at a time. They needed a break from it all.
So as a brand we pivoted to: How can we show up for our customers, our community? What do they need from us? A lot of the people who buy our products are frontline workers. We donated sales and money to causes like One Fair Wage, which was trying to fill in the gap between unemployment and what restaurant workers, for instance, would have been making. As a small brand—I’m not Jeff Bezos, I can’t write a million-dollar check to various organizations—we gave a lot of thought to where we could make the most impact.
But we struck a balance. Some people were tired of hearing about the pandemic. Some of them would rather us post an eyeliner tutorial, so they could imagine what their life’s going to look like when all this is over. By giving them those escapes, on Facebook, on Instagram, we kept them engaged.
In the end, from a revenue perspective, we had our best year.
You took the focus off selling makeup—and had record revenues?
Yes. It helped that our core customer, a Latina woman, wears makeup even when she’s not going to leave the house. That’s part of our culture. I grew up watching my mother and grandmother sit before a mirror putting on makeup even when they weren’t going anywhere. During the pandemic, whereas other people were baking bread, a lot of our customers were doing makeup videos.
It’s also worth noting that, while many women generally tone down their makeup as they get older, women in our community wear makeup in their 60s and 70s—a lot of it. My mom still wears purple lipstick. She’s 70.