Ada Polla grew up in the family business, which happened to be beauty. In 2004 she set out to launch her family’s Swiss skincare range in the US market. The philosophy behind the brand is that skincare is a key component of self-care. And that looking good, means feeling good, means doing good. The Pollas are a visionary group responsible for a number of firsts in the beauty industry. In the age of #SelfCareSunday, their self-care through skincare positioning might be taken for granted, but 15 years ago this thinking was revolutionary.
Being ahead of the industry curve doesn’t always make for the easiest path, and it requires a belief in what your building while also being open to the need for pivots. Ada shared with BeautyMatter how growing up in a beauty family informed her career path and the evolution of the Alchimie business.
Your father is a world-renowned dermatologist and your mother is a biomedical researcher. In 1997, they launched the first fully integrated European medical day spa known as the Forever Institut. What was it like growing up in the beauty business?
I loved this part of my childhood. From the age of 10, I worked with my dad in his dermatology practice, which at that time was more medical and aesthetic. He was the first physician to offer laser treatments for skin in Europe, and he worked all day every day, including late evenings and weekends. I worked with him after school and on weekends, when he could not find anyone to work the front desk. Parents were coming from all over Europe to have him treat their children (from infants to teenagers) who suffered from birthmarks such as Port Wine Stains (PWS) and hemangiomas. I remember pulling patient files and then filing them again, I remember mailing out invoices, I remember the kids crying, I remember how after a number of treatments the children opened up and smiled more and felt more confident. It gave me an early understanding both of entrepreneurship and of the impact of one’s appearance on one’s feeling of self.
Did you always know you wanted to follow in your family’s footsteps?
I never really thought about it. I always imagined I would be involved in the family business—at least one of them (art gallery, medical spa, product brand). I worked outside of the family business in between college and business school, but really only to prove that someone without the last name Polla would hire me. I never imagined working for anyone else other than myself and my family.
What was the impetus for launching Alchimie and how did your background inform the development?
I realized I couldn’t clone my Dad to bring his treatment expertise to the world, so the next best thing would be to expand the reach of his formulations to women (and men) everywhere. We were selling products to our own patients, at our medical spa, and I just wanted to get those amazing products in the hands of more people. By the time I realized this, I was living in the US, and knew I wanted to stay here—so I picked perhaps the most challenging beauty market to launch Alchimie.
What is the philosophy behind the Alchimie brand and what marketing opportunity did you see?
The philosophy behind our brand is that skincare is a key component of self-care. And that looking good, means feeling good, means doing good. Our mission is to help you be your best self, and we do that through serums and moisturizers.
The industry has changed pretty dramatically since you launched the brand in 2004. What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Keeping up with new developments in science and ingredient developments is an exciting challenge. When we formulated our first products in the late 1980s, we used parabens. This was before the body of knowledge that suggests they may not be the best preservatives. Making the decision to remove parabens, and then reformulating our products to be exactly the same (texture, aroma, effect) was hard! Imagine wanting your grandma’s tomato sauce to taste exactly like how she made it but changing the type of tomato you use—it’s not easy. Fun, but not easy!
You made a pretty significant pivot in mid-2015 that provided significant growth in 2017 and 2018. Can you share why the pivot was necessary?
One of my favorite quotes is Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. This quote helped me pivot our distribution strategy. When I launched Alchimie in the US, I always imagined us as a prestige brand—distributed in Sephora, Bluemercury, SpaceNK. I tried for many years without making progress. At some point, I realized that my brand was perhaps not suited for the prestige channel. I realized my brand was more approachable, more available than that. And so I pivoted our distribution to partners who focus on making prestige beauty more approachable, on making high-quality products more available. Heyday, Walgreens prestige beauty doors, pharmacies.
What is the difference between spa, online, and drugstore consumers? In which channel do you think shoppers have more purchase intention?
I have always believed that when we speak about channels, and channel conflict, we are speaking to ourselves. One single woman (or man) enjoys a spa treatment. Shops on Amazon. Shop on QVC. Loves the department store experience. Goes to drugstores to pick up her prescriptions and sundries and her beauty products. She is one and the same.
You are very bullish on distribution in pharmacy chains. Why is that and how did it come about?
The pharmacy channel has always fit with our heritage. We were born in the medical world, and at heart we are founded on the connection between health and beauty. We have been successful in niche pharmacies in Switzerland and France. We have succeeded in independent pharmacies in the US (there are too few of them for my taste). So pharmacy chains made sense (and yes, it seems so obvious now, sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to realize that).
What are the challenges of entering the drugstore channel?
I think the challenges are mostly the same for every channel: differentiating your brand; convincing the buyer; convincing the consumer; executing and delivering. Perhaps the one added challenge in the drugstore channel is that while the consumer is expecting the “typical drugstore brands,” she is not expecting to see higher-priced, higher-performance brands. It takes a minute for her to get used to that!
How do you stand out from the competition, competing with larger CPG products in the drugstore channel?
My brand is not the cheapest. We are not the most innovative in terms of creating and patenting new ingredients. We build our business on relationships. Relationships with consumers. Relationships with aestheticians and beauty advisors. Relationships with retail partners. And as Debra Neill Baker says, “Relationships are the key to the Universe.”
What has been the best piece of advice you have received during your journey of building your brand?
“Don’t quit. And maintain your ownership.”
What advice would you give to someone thinking about launching a beauty brand?
I am not sure I have any productive advice to give!
You have made a conscious decision to avoid external funding. Why?
See best piece of advice question above.
The skincare category is hot right now—would you reconsider your stand on outside investment?
Another great piece of advice I have received is “never say never.”
What excites you about the future of the beauty industry?
Beauty is self-care. And without self-care, we cannot care for others. “Put your own mask on first” is an amazing thing the airlines are saying—and a good reminder to our industry. We need to remember to take care of ourselves. This is not selfish—it enables us to take better care of others.
What is the biggest change you would like to see and what are you doing to address it?
The arguments between various industry regulatory and lobbying groups bother me—and fear-mongering in terms of safety of ingredients is not in the best interest of consumers. And I’ll leave it at that …
What’s next for Alchimie?
My word for this year is “grow.” Grow the team. Grow the product assortment. Grow the distribution. (More) growth is next for Alchimie! The philosophy behind our brand is that skincare is a key component of self-care. And that looking good, means feeling good, means doing good. Our mission is to help you be your best self, and we do that through serums and moisturizers.
Photo: via Alchimie