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Defining Whitespace and Pioneering Categories with Amy Risley

It's a Matter Of...Science

April 5, 2021
April 5, 2021

Unlocking the value in a heritage brand requires vision and a very particular skill set that balances business acumen and branding skill. Every business has a different history. In 2014 Amy Risley discovered Skinfix, nurturing the business into a brand purpose-built for this moment. Kelly talks with Amy about taking a 160-year-old heritage formula for treating eczema and turning it into an innovative and relevant. 


Kelly Kovack [00:00:09]:
               This episode is presented by Eco Soap Bank, a global humanitarian non-profit that’s working to save, sanitize, and supply recycled soap with hygiene education for the developing world.

Amy Risley [00:00:28]:                   
Hi, I’m Amy Risley, the founder of Skinfix, and to me, it’s a matter of science.

Kelly Kovack [00:00:38]:
               Finding a beauty heritage brand is like finding a needle in a haystack. I’m Kelly Kovack, founder of BeautyMatter. Unlocking the value in a heritage brand requires vision and a very particular skill set. The balance is business acumen and branding skill. Legacy can be a liability, or a unique differentiator. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to unlocking the value in a brand’s heritage; every business has a different history. Taking a 160-year old heritage formula for treating eczema and turning it into an innovative and relevant brand is certainly not for the faint of heart. In 2014, Amy Risley discovered Skinfix, nurturing the business into a brand that’s become purpose-built for this moment.

                                                           
So, hello my friend! I am so happy to have you here, Amy, and it’s nice to just see your face, even though we’re doing this by voice, it’s a podcast, we’re still doing it kind of Zoom-style. So, how are you?

Amy Risley [00:01:48]:                   
I am great, thank you so much for having me. I love your podcast, I love BeautyMatter, and it is also great to see your face, hopefully in person soon.

Kelly Kovack [00:01:58]:
               I know! You know, in trying to sort of pull this together, kind of putting my thoughts together, I was trying to figure out how long we’ve known each other, because it’s been a really long time. You were one of my first clients when I left Bliss and set up my first consulting shop, which, I mean, that’s over 20 years ago.

Amy Risley [00:02:16]:                   
It was, I think, 1999.

Kelly Kovack [00:02:20]:
               Wow.

Amy Risley [00:02:21]:                   
Yeah, a long time ago.

Kelly Kovack [00:02:23]:
               I know. And, here we are.

Amy Risley [00:02:25]:                   
Amazing, and you were amazingly insightful and helpful then and continue to be amazingly insightful and helpful, to my business and the industry.

Kelly Kovack [00:02:36]:
               Well, thank you for those kind words. But, I just love…you know, it’s always fun to have people on both the webinars and the podcast where there’s a history, because it just feels like you can go so much deeper in conversations, because there’s sort of this shared experience. So, I’m looking forward to diving in to what you’re doing now.

Amy Risley [00:02:58]:                   
Thank you. I’m looking forward to it too. You always ask such good questions.

Kelly Kovack [00:03:04]:
               Well, alright, so let’s get started. You know, your career has really been this amalgam of big beauty and entrepreneurial start-ups, and since 2014, you’ve been building a brand around a 19th century heritage formula for treating eczema. I love heritage brand stories, I’m a total junkie for heritage brands, and have such respect for people who lead these brands and kind of resurrect these brands, because it takes this passion, vision – they really are a labor of love in many respects, and if they’re not, they don’t work; I think that’s kind of the secret sauce. But, to set the stage, can you share a little bit about your backstory, and how you discovered this business?

Amy Risley [00:03:49]:                   
Yeah, I had worked in beauty, as you know, from the beginning of my career, L’Oréal, and then at Coty, and then I worked for Lauder in the U.K. when they just acquired Jo Malone, so I was part of the team that worked with Jo during her earn-out phase. And then, I moved to Canada, Nova Scotia, actually, where there’s no beauty business, no consumer beauty business…

Kelly Kovack [00:04:12]:
               But you found one!

Amy Risley [00:04:13]:                   
Yeah, and I had a couple of babies and I was a stay-at-home mom for about five years, which was awesome, would never trade that for the world, and thought, “Okay, now it’s time to do something again.” I worked for a company that was selling fish oil to the supplement space, I was very excited by the wellness industry and learned a lot about the regulatory environment related to fish oil and the claims we could make. That company then sold to DSM and moved to New Jersey, and so I was out of work and looking around, and I was introduced to a woman, locally, here in Nova Scotia, Canada, that had a formula that her great, great grandfather created in 1870 in Yorkshire, England and the family had emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s, and he continued to make this formula in their kitchen and sell it privately for decades, and I loved the formula because it had four pharmaceutical-grade active ingredients in it at very high levels, which coming from L’Oréal and Lauder, I never would have historically been able to do. You know, you sort of pick one ingredient, build a marketing story around it. This thing was loaded with actives, but what really captivated me, Kelly, were the letters, basically the early testimonials that people had written to this family over the decades. There were literally hundreds of letters from people who had serious skin issues, things like diabetic foot ulcers, a form of dermatitis called Lichen sclerosus, psoriasis, and had tried everything, seen lots of doctors, tried lots of modalities, and finally found this healing balm from 1870 and it had worked to heal their skin. So, that was the hook, it’s what got me, and I ended up mortgaging my house and buying this little brand, which was a formula and a great name and a great story, and a vision for what clean skincare could really be, and that it could actually be medicinal and truly treat skin issues, serious skin issues.

Kelly Kovack [00:06:08]:
               So, I find it so interesting that a business based around a formula and an ethos of a brand created in 1870 feels almost purpose-built for this moment in time. It’s clinical and science-based, it’s empathetic, and it lives comfortably in premium and mass outlets. And, I know that it didn’t just happen, you built into kind of the opportunity, obviously sort of a set of circumstances has kind of amplified all of that and really maximized the confluence of trends that puts Skinfix kind of in the crosshairs of the moment. Can you share some of the challenges that you’ve turned into differentiating factors and have actually fueled the growth of Skinfix?

Amy Risley [00:06:57]:                   
Yeah, that’s such a great question. I mean, we love the quote, “Luck is a combination of when opportunity meets preparedness,” and I think that is just absolutely Skinfix. I mean, you captured it beautifully, we have sort of been doing our thing, and then all of the sudden, it’s the thing that is kind of the hottest category of skincare right now. I think for us, the challenge with Skinfix is that we were so early in with this concept. When we first launched U.S. retail in 2017, it was – clean was just happening, clean was really just happening in skincare, and this idea that clean could also truly be clinical, medicinal, was just five years off, it was a long way off. So, we believed in what we were doing, we believed that clean could be truly clinical, could be truly science-led and efficacious, and we kept going with our problem formulations that treated specific skin issues, we worked hard to gather the clinical efficacy behind those products, we worked with the derm community, which was really kind of the long game at the time, because at the time, derms were not interested in clean. We really showed them our science, showed them our formulations, got them on board, and it was a huge challenge because it just wasn’t what people were focused on in that moment in time. They were focused on sort of products being clean and smelling great and having all of these sort of trendy ingredients in them, and there certainly was a market that had true skin issues that were interested in Skinfix, but it didn’t sort of have the momentum behind it that it has right now, and so that was a challenge, sort of staying in the game and really pushing for what we believed in and staying true to our ethos.

Kelly Kovack [00:08:46]:
               I know that we talked about this kind of early on, that, you know, one of the things about white space opportunities that no one really talks about, and why they’re elusive, is that when you take a white space opportunity and try and put it in a retail environment, there isn’t a natural home for it, and I know that you were kind of up against that, because, you know, you have this portfolio of products that live – that potentially could live in multiple sections in sort of a, call it a Target or the like, and you don’t naturally fit into sort of like the beauty skincare set.

Amy Risley [00:09:30]:                   
Absolutely, and I know you and I have discussed this for a number of years. It was a challenge because, to your point, we could have been in the HAB section, the skincare section, we could have been in first aid, we could have been in the natural set. We were actually put in the middle of the derm recommended skincare set originally, at Target, amongst the Cerave’s, Cetaphil’s, Aveeno, the AmLactin’s, and here we are, this little brand, trying to say, “And by the way we’re clean! We can do everything they can do, but we’re clean.” It was really a challenge, but it was also an opportunity, because it really established the fact that we were truly clinically-led and efficacious, we weren’t just another sort of new, natural or clean product on the market. But, it was hard. I mean, the retailers have always been really collaborative with us in terms of trying to figure out where we fit and what makes the most sense for us.

Kelly Kovack [00:10:26]:
               Clean and sustainable brands have really become table stakes. So, it went from you were too early, to everyone’s doing it. The problem is both…you know, they’re open to interpretation, there’s no regulation on terms, and more importantly, it’s not really a differentiating factor. One of the trends coming out of the pandemic, though, is the fact that science is cool, and people want brands that they can trust. How has the shift impacted your business, and what are you harnessing in this moment from a marketing perspective to sort of differentiate from this clean kind of table stakes, undefined landscape we have.

Amy Risley [00:11:10]:                   
Yeah, great question. I mean, the moment is really harnessing us. It is really has just kind of taken us, and we have tremendous talent in our business right now, which is exciting. I agree with you, clean is foundational. I think if you’re going to launch a brand in 2021, it better be clean, you certainly better have a strong position on sustainability, all of the packaging vendors have made great strides with respect to offering packaging that’s more sustainable, but it’s never been the focus for us, it’s never been what we’ve really talked about, it’s just been something that we do, because we believe it’s the right thing to do. The science has always been our most important factor, and the clinical efficacy behind the products, and with COVID, you know, dermatologists, doctors have become really important influencers on social media, as you know. We’re looking to our medical community and our medical professionals for guidance and direction, and the fact that our product is actually clinically proven to treat things like hand eczema or face dermatitis, which are such important issues right now as we’re washing our hands and wearing masks, has just been just a perfect sort of confluence of timing, and we’re also, you know, accessibly priced, we’re not super premium, and I think that in this environment, we’re exactly what the consumer is looking for, and we’re exactly what the medical community is recommending, and we’ve just been incredibly lucky that we exist at this moment in time.

Kelly Kovack [00:12:47]:
               Do you find consumers are asking different questions now, or framing them differently than they did, say, ten months ago?

Amy Risley [00:12:55]:                   
Absolutely, absolutely. You know, there’s just…there’s a lot of more knowledge around ingredients, but they’re even asking things like, “Is this an FDA approved ingredient?” It blows our mind. We’re like, yes, this is awesome! You actually know what that means, and why it’s important that it’s been proven for decades to treat this concern. They’re asking a lot about the levels of our ingredients, the percentages, which at Skinfix, we’ve always called out on our packaging the percent of our active ingredients, but they seem to be more interested in that. They’re interested in making sure that we don’t have fragrance, things that they’ve learned from a lot of the sort of skin influencer and derm community. Very different questions, I think, then they were contemplating ten months ago.

Kelly Kovack [00:13:45]:
               You know, one of the offshoots of this moment, I mean, it’s something that we were actually seeing happening as early as 2018-2019, is sort of the rise of real expertise, but overnight, sort of influencers that happened in March when the world sort of fell apart around us, but overnight, these influencers that served up perfectly curated Instagram moments felt so completely out of touch, and those that kind of peddled drama, it’s just like yeah, there’s enough drama in the world. I don’t care who did what to you, and keep it on YouTube and out of my social feed, and it really did happen really quickly. And, the skincare category obviously is having a moment on social media as people look for real information and experts, like you said, dermatologists, estheticians, and it’s also given rise to kind of this new influencer, or this skinfluencer, which I find this group of people so interesting, because they do try and peddle in facts, and there’s a transparency when they’re wrong, and they are very sort of honest about, “Hey, I don’t know everything, I’m not a scientist,” and they’re really sort of having a dialogue rather than sort of pushing information, I think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this shift and how it has not only impacted the skincare category, but the industry at large, because I think this kind of influencer is here to stay, at least for a while.

Amy Risley [00:15:33]:                   
I love it, I embrace it. I think it’s been an incredibly important shift, and I agree, I think it’s here to stay. I think that the honesty and the transparency, and also the level of sot of research that these influencers are putting into the products and the category, and establishing sort of what their ethos is – not pushing it on other people, to your point, saying, “This is what I think. This is what I know, and this is how I know it and this is why I think it, but you do you.” I love it. I think it’s so refreshing. I mean, I had reached out to Hyram Yarbro, I think it was about 15 months ago, I was supposed to go to Hawaii on vacation and I was following him, and just loved his ethos, we’re very aligned in our ethos about formulation, and I had reached out to him and asked if he wanted to have lunch with me when I was in Hawaii last Christmas, and it was really sort of at the precipice of him gaining traction on Instagram, he hadn’t launched TikTok yet. We just had lunch and I asked him a lot of questions about sunscreen in particular, because I don’t know a ton about sunscreen and I was asking about that. But, he loves Skinfix, he loves the way we formulate, and that has been incredibly helpful to us as a brand, but I just…people like him, people like Carmine Montalto, Skincarma, I just love the fact that they have a strong point of view, you know, they have a really strong ethos, and I think it’s great for the category. I do think it’s causing major changes to the category and major shifts, and I agree it’s not going away, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out, but I love the transparency, I love the education that they’re giving to consumers, and I love the dialogue that we’re having in skincare right now.

Kelly Kovack [00:17:25]:
               Yeah, I think it’s such sort of…the passion that they have is so kind of palpable, where the influencers that were kind of rose to success are sort of a different genre, where it was a bit more manufactured, and listen, they were very much on trend at that moment, of serving up these beautifully curated, perfect moments on Instagram, but this is a totally different animal.

Amy Risley [00:17:56]:                   
It really is, and you know, I have two Gen Zs living in my house, a 15 and 16-year-old, a 16-year-old daughter who is very engaged in social media, and I love the fact that they’re getting this level of information, this level of honesty, this level of dialogue across all categories, but particularly in skincare. I think it’s great, they’re getting information, and they’re able to make their own opinions about that information, but I embrace it.

Kelly Kovack [00:18:26]:
               Do you see your daughter is kind of gravitating to skincare more than color?

Amy Risley [00:18:35]:                   
Absolutely.

Kelly Kovack [00:18:36]:
               Well, obviously because their mom is in the business, so maybe that’s sort of a weighted question.

Amy Risley [00:18:41]:                   
Well, she could be more loyal to Skinfix, she could be more compliant with her skincare, but no, I mean, we went through the gears of the big Ikea makeup drawers and just piles of makeup, and I’d come home from the Women’s Wear Daily event and she’d pilfer through my makeup, and now she’s streamlined her makeup, she uses very few things, but she’s also streamlined her skincare. There’s this trend, as you know, towards using less skincare, really minding the skin barrier, not over exfoliating, not over sort of attacking our skin with all kinds of things, not chopping and changing as much as we used to. I find that there’s a few core products that she uses every day that she replenishes, that’s kind of a new trend as well. I mean, there’s been so much chopping and changing that she’s kind of like, “These are my cores, and then I might add a few things here and there,” but definitely skincare is winning the day, in my opinion, amongst the Gen Zs.