Carpe Deciem: How the ‘Cult of Personality’ Can Go Wrong

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Deciem is a boutique skincare company that owns a family of brands, include the now cult-status The Ordinary. Deciem was founded in Toronto in 2013 and is a privately held company by founder Brandon Truaxe. 2017 was probably the biggest year for the brand since its launch. Beautylish, an online beauty store that prides itself on selling luxury and quality cosmetics, began selling The Ordinary and it is still frequently out of stock due to popularity, and beauty powerhouse Estee Lauder invested in Deciem.  With its science-driven, consumer-focused approach to skincare, and social media success, Deciem was poised to be the next “big” brand in beauty. So, where did it start to unravel?

To answer that question, we need to look more into the man behind the brand, Brandon Truaxe.

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Deciem founder Brandon Truaxe

From the start, it was clear that Brandon was a unique and quirky individual, something not necessarily uncommon in the beauty industry. However, he wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t like everyone else. Brandon supposedly smiles as little as possible to avoid wrinkles. He is self-described as “screwed up” and has said himself that the entire beauty industry is a scam and, as such, he refuses to hire anyone that has worked in the industry before. A controversial stance, from the start, and one that was sure to isolate him in an already competitive market.

Brandon was born in London and adopted by a Canadian family that he would hate. He left home to study computer science in Toronto at the University of Waterloo. He rarely speaks about his life prior to university. After receiving his degree, he worked for a cosmetics company where, he says, he was outraged at the outrageous margins the company was enjoying.

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Now, large margins between production cost and retail price are not abnormal in the beauty industry. Josie Maran sells a 1.7 oz bottle of pure argan oil for $48USD. Meanwhile you can get a bottle more than double the size on Amazon for $19USD. I’m sure the company would argue things like purity, source, etc., but is that large of a price difference really necessary? Probably not. So kudos to Brandon for wanting his company to avoid this. In fact, his intention is one of the main reasons behind The Ordinary’s success; the products were pitched by skincare addicts as cost-efficient dupes for expensive luxury brands like Sunday Riley and Drunk Elephant. Forums like r/skincareaddiction on Reddit were regularly discussing Deciem’s product lines and raving about the quality.

When you think about risks a business might face, you immediately think of things like overhead costs or competitors, but rarely do you think that the biggest risk would be the figurehead themselves. If you were to complete a SWOT analysis for Deciem, you’d find a picture of Brandon’s non-smiling, Botox-ed face in the “weaknesses” and “threats” quadrants. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that a self-described screw up would be a ticking time bomb. Brandon has never pulled any punches; from the start he was outspoken (some would say combative) and these qualities have just become more and more apparent over time.

Cracks have been showing for a while, but the real drama kicked off around the beginning of 2018. In January, Brandon announced that all marketing for Deciem would promptly end and that he would be taking over the operation of the company’s social media. With Brandon at the helm of public relations, he began to post long-winded, rambling, seemingly random posts on Instagram, as well as response in a not so kind manner to the plethora of critics that commented on the situation.

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In February, in a bizarre move, he stepped down as CEO. “I will now be called Worker. Responsible teams don’t need CEOs… I don’t want to be a boss…  I want people to be my friend and not my employee.” Brandon does not seem like he is making many friends, however.

In late February he ousted co-CEO and longtime friend Nicola Kilner. Following this, CFO Stephen Kaplan reportedly resigned. When reached out to for comment, Brandon simply said, “I have terminated employment of several people at DECIEM who do not subscribe to my peaceful values.” Apparently, many Deciem employees also did not subscribe to Brandon’s values; in April 2018, he reportedly fired the entire US team.

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Former Deciem co-founder Nicola Kilner

An anonymous Estee Lauder executive said that the investing company is concerned and keeping an eye on the situation, and who can blame them? They reportedly own just over a quarter of the company and they probably view this as their investment sinking like the Titanic. A ship is only as good as its captain, and Brandon seems determined to make this success of Deciem as challenging as possible. In a world where nearly every consumer has access to social media and the internet, gone are the days where executives and companies were able to operate under the radar. With a leader like Brandon, with his now infamous rants and controversies, Deciem faces the flip side of the cult of personality. When the personality behind your brand is so polarizing, can you combat it with good products? Only time will tell, but for now, we will just wait and see what Brandon does next.

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Me, lurking on Deciem’s social media waiting for the next shit storm.

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