Brands to Watch: As Cheekbone Beauty grows, so does its mission

The brand is working to drive Indigenous representation in the beauty space.

Sustain 1

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

When launching Cheekbone Beauty in 2016, founder Jennifer Harper set out to create a platform for Indigenous representation both in the beauty space and in business.

“I have that weight on my shoulders, not just to have a successful business, but also to be a role model for our next generations of Indigenous entrepreneurs, to show them that you can think about doing it differently,” she says.

Thanks to its social-led marketing and approachable branding, the company quickly captured a small but devoted online audience who cared as much about its quality, cruelty-free cosmetics as it did its underlying mission. Harper routinely serves as the face of the company, appearing in social posts and videos showcasing the latest products. But with an Instagram community of more than 150,000 people, Cheekbone also uses its platform to share the stories of its customers, amplifying their voices.

MobileFrom day one, Cheekbone has given back to the Indigenous community, donating 10% of its proceeds to First Nations non-profits. And it’s growing fast. The company’s revenue jumped 350% in 2020 and continues to grow between 90% and 100% every month as a result of new product innovations and retail partnerships. But as the company grows, so too does Harper’s ambition.

“We still have our mission and vision, which is helping every Indigenous kid on the planet see and feel their value in the world,” she says. “But now we’ve added: ‘while we craft sustainable colour cosmetics using Indigenous wisdom.’”

In keeping with Harper’s Anishinaabe roots, Cheekbone has embedded Indigenous teachings into every business decision, including a commitment to work towards a zero-waste goal for 2023.

Cheekbone TutorialThe brand took a step towards fulfilling that commitment in March 2020 with the launch of its Sustain collection of lipsticks, mascara, blush/bronzer and eyeliner. The earth-friendly line is made from sustainably sourced raw materials and packaged in almost fully biodegradable tubes.

Later this year, it will introduce makeup sticks that consist of 65% agricultural waste pulled from landfill, an innovation born within its Niagara-based Innovation Lab launched in February. Led by a Western-trained chemist, Harper says the lab brings together Indigenous wisdom and science and is intended to help “redefine manufacturing for small business.”

In addition to its eco-conscious packaging and product innovation, Cheekbone is gaining momentum with distribution and marketing.

To coincide with the launch of its Sustain collection on Sephora.ca in September – its first foray into retail – it worked with Sid Lee on new branding and packaging that features vibrant colours and copy that emphasizes humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

If successful, the deal with Sephora could propel Cheekbone onto physical shelves for the first time, helping significantly expand its reach.

Then, in early November, Cheekbone launched its first mass awareness campaign, also led by Sid Lee. “Right the Story,” backed by $1 million in donated ad inventory from Bell, attempts to reclaim the narrative of Indigenous peoples by overriding negative headlines and giving a more positive tone to their stories.

While Cheekbone is growing quickly, Harper remains focused on its original mission. “I don’t want to scale at this rapid pace where we’re making rash decisions,” she says. “We’re here to make a difference in the lives of Indigenous kids and to leave less of an impact on the planet.”

And while the world might not need another beauty brand, it does need more Indigenous businesses that are finding ways to “protect the planet, empower people, do good,” she says. “There is no business like ours that exists, and that’s why I feel we need to be here.”