Normally I am the one sitting in the so-called interviewer’s chair – virtual or physical – asking fascinating people questions and spotlighting them for you. However recently the table has been turned on me, when Croatian blogger Sanja Martinovic asked me thought-provoking questions about the beauty industry. As Sanja’s On.Skin blog is currently available online only in Croatian, I am publishing Sanja’s original questions and my unedited answers on my website in English.
Sanja Martinovic, founder of On.Skin blog: As a beauty journalist, how long have you been following the world of natural cosmetics?
GAP: Having been born and raised in the Soviet Union, concepts like banya, using fruit or honey as a face mask, taking charcoal for stomach upsets or making your own kombucha were very common, so you can say that my interest in natural beauty stems from my childhood. But if you mean the beauty industry, I started shifting my focus during university, as I loved exploring the little artisan markets, which were early “showcasers” of natural beauty. My interest in that segment only grew stronger once I had my children and started questioning more & more what I applied to my children’s (and my own skin).
Sanja Martinovic: In what way do you cooperate with beauty & wellness brands, as a beauty consultant?
GAP: Until recently I wore my beauty journalist hat alongside my consumer hat when it came to consulting beauty brands. I provided one-off advice sessions or regular advice on strategy, introduced brands to retailers, as well as spotlighted brands worthy of consumer interest on my social media and website. There are quite a few now well-known international and British brands that I was involved with in some professional capasity from their early days, thus contributing to their growth & expansion.
Sanja Martinovic: What are the differences between green beauty at the very beginning and now?
Marketing and greed. Interestingly enough, I had a conversation about it recently with a friend, who has a skincare/bodycare brand and we reminisced how things have changed over the years. Green beauty industry was incredibly supportive and inclusive in its early days. Founders & retailers shared enthusiasm not only through their work, but by supporting other brand founders in the segment. Now it’s often the brands who have the biggest marketing budgets and ears of celebrity/influencers that get the upper hand. More often than not such brands are simply much better at marketing themselves, rather than actually offering consumers something truly pioneering or different from what already exists in the beauty market.
Sanja Martinovic: Why don’t you like to use word ‘clean’ when it comes to cosmetics?
GAP: I know my answer might be controversial, but to me ‘clean’ always lacked substance, while at the same time segregating people. Clean vs what exactly – dirty, chemical or toxin-free? Of course, different people have a different understanding of that term, but for me while «green», «natural», «plant-based» or «holistic» might not be ideal, but when those claims/terms are scientifically substantiated, consumers get infinitely more from such brands than from the popularity contest that is ‘clean beauty’. Truth be told, it’s really not even about «clean» – I believe in clear terminology that a) doesn’t confuse the consumer b) is science and testing-led c) delivers on brand’s promises.
Sanja Martinovic: Lately, we can often read news about small beauty brands being acquired by big conglomerates. Do you think that the world of beauty is really changing and that the ‘big ones’ are adapting to customers who want sustainable and cruelty free cosmetics? Or is everything just about monetizing something that is popular?
GAP: In my opinion most big conglomerats are not ‘leaders’, but rather ‘followers’, when compared to innovative, niche beauty brands they are acquiring. They had significant budgets, time, laboratories/facilities, world-wide consumer recognition & loyalty for decades, but they didn’t make any significant changes until smaller beauty brands started quastionning & challenging the existing patadigm. So big conglomerates are forced to change their practises and buying those innovative brands allows them to create a shift in consumer perception. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. For example, I am curious about the evolution of the business relationship between Courtin-Clarins family, founders of Clarins, and British sensitive & sensitised skincare pioneer Pai, as the initial synergy at the moment seems different to the efforts of other big players.
Sanja Martinovic: Unlike the outcry on social networks, caused by the Schmidts and True Botanicals being acquired by Unilever in 2017, the recent acqiuiring of Pai, KW, RMS Beauty, ILIA and Drunk Elephant went almost unnoticed. What do you think is the cause of that?
GAP: I don’t think those acquisitions went unnoticed, it’s simply that some of them aren’t as well-known to a wider group of consumers world-wide. Consumers might like a brand, but they don’t have a say in its business strategy, be it short or long-term. Also, whatever products from this or that brand consumers are using today, they are increasingly spoilt for choice by the ever growing number of beauty brands.
Sanja Martinovic: Do you think that the acquisitions will affect the transparency of brands, the freedom to choose raw materials and, in general, their independence in decision making?
GAP: I think in most instances the answer to all of those questions would be ‘yes’. He, who owns the biggest chunk of the company, would have the control over everything. And the bigger and more popular the brand, the more it tries to influence the overall narrative directed at the consumer, who eagerly jump at every new launch. So far there are hardly any examples where a niche brand was bought out and continued to thrive, without loosing its core customer base, while gaining traction with a wider audience. I note that overall more and more brands use misleading claims and aren’t as transparent, as they present themselves to be. As to the freedom of choice when it comes to raw materials, sadly due to the increased economic volatility everywhere, more and more brands choose to use cheaper and more easily available ingredients. And increasing prices are simply pushing some innovative beauty brands to the brink of survival.
Sanja Martinovic: Lots of natural cosmetics admirers like to know who they are buying from. They follow the brand’s ethics and ultimately do not want to finance companies which test products on animals. Do you think that smaller, independent niche brands will profit from this situation now?
GAP: I think it all comes down to engagement and trust that consumers place into the brand. If the brand is honest, even about mishaps, then there is vast potential. If not, one mistake can be your competitor’s gain without you getting a second chance. Bare in mind that younger generations of consumers, unlike more mature ones that more and more beauty brands genuinely ignore in their messaging, are very fickle and not particularly loyal. Younger adults are constantly looking for newness, winning over and then turning them into loyal customers is a battle in itself.
Sanja Martinovic: Do you think that green beauty in the beginning was all about transparency, ethics, research and innovation, and now it seems that their driving force is just profit?
GAP: I don’t want to generalise, as it really depends on each brand when it comes to what their core values are and how they evolve over time. Profitability is vital to the success of any business, large or small. But for any business to be successful, one needs to have not just short-term goals, but a long-term viable strategy. A lot of investors on the other hand don’t want to commit to a beauty brand in the long-term, but rather want to make short-term gains on something that is popular with consumers.
Sanja Martinovic: I have noticed that you like to collaborate with smaller niche brands. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of smaller brands in comparison to large ones? Do you think that by choosing small niche brands, we must be willing to sacrifice lack of luxury and cutting edge technology which in the end, result in poorer final performance of the product?
GAP: I tend to collaborate with brands where theire is genuine affinity and dialogue between us. My aim has always been not to preach or to tell you what you must purchase, but rather educate and share insights into brands or products that have the potential to help you look and feel better about yourself. Having said that, I have also had multiple experiences when brands make a very impressive start and then loose their authenticity in the process. In that case, I simply step back from supporting or collaborating with the brand because if the leopard changes its spots behind the scenes, but pretends to be the same publicly, then why would I want to support that type of behaviour, when internally its goes against what I believe in? That’s a big plus of being a beauty insider, who is not affiliated with a particular publication or brand – I can share my professional opinion and support those I genuinely believe in.
As to compromising on luxury in the context of niche / indie beauty, I can give you countless examples when small brands are as luxurious, as they are pionering in the concept. I truly believe that it is the small, niche brands that now lead the way in the beauty marketplace, helping change things and practises for the better. Whether that momentum can be maintained, if the brand founder reaches a stage when he or she thinks they’ve taken the brand as far as they could and want to cash out and enjoy their well deserved success, is another story. Running a beauty brand is becoming more and more challenging by the day and most consumers simply don’t understand or see the 24/7, 365 days a year hard-work going on behind the scenes.
Sanja Martinovic: Which niche brands would you recommend us?
Galina: That’s like asking me what arm or which of my kids I prefer .) I have been lucky through my writing to meet many brand founders and test products that are truly exceptional. Based on what has drawn my attention in the last year, I would direct your gaze towards Australian brands Ipsum (their eye cream is extraordinary) and Fifty Seven Kind (TANU & NADI ) – both founders, Janet and Gabrielle, are the most formidable women and inspiring beauty leaders, who I truly admire for their tenacity, knowledge & sense of humour. Manasi7 when it comes to make-up that is really diverse and unusual in its offering. The shades & textures of that make-up brand allow each person to express their individuality. Votary for face oils that really help resolve many of skin’s voes – whether you are a teen or a mature woman. Saint Iris Adriatica for the creation of enticing skincare products that can easily be used on your body as well. RUA Beauty with its two skincare products that deliver visible results to one’s skin within a very short period of time. And acupuncturist Ross Barr, who has created a trio of patches (Sleep, Calm & Healing) that are a must for your wellbeing.
To read the interview in Croatian on the On.Skin blog, please click here