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From the source: Bec Jefferd, Ultra Violette

In a competitive sector like beauty, it can be hard to create cut-through, but it took Ultra Violette co-founders Bec Jefferd [left] and Ava Matthews [right] less than two years to turn it into a cult brand with the help of social media and a unique sun protection product. Jefferd takes us through the brand’s journey and its post-pandemic plans.

Inside Retail Weekly: How did you guys come up with the idea for Ultra Violette?

Bec Jefferd: Ultra Violette was a nugget of an idea we had back in 2016. We were both working in beauty at the time and we really saw beauty as an opportunity for a product that had beautiful, cosmetically elegant formulations in the sun category, coupled with a brand that was engaging and inclusive to a wider audience. We couldn’t see that happening anywhere in the beauty industry at the time. So, we used our weekends to pull together a business plan for the brand and over the course of two-and-a-half years, we chipped away at product and brand development before we launched in January 2019.  

We’re now cycling through our first year of growth and even during COVID-19, we’re seeing great growth on last year as you’d expect. We’re far from penetrating the Australian market in any sense after 12 months, but we’ve been incredibly encouraged by the response. We’ve probably had a 100 per cent increase in the first 12 months over what we expected.

IRW: Tell me about what the product development stage was like.

BJ: We both had a background in product development so we knew where to start. What makes Ultra Violette unique is that a lot of sun products are developed purely for the purpose of sun protection and don’t incorporate that layer where girls put lots of [other skincare] on their faces. Sun products hadn’t previously been developed with that cosmetically elegant feel that I had mentioned before. We had already developed other skincare products and we had an extensive background in beauty and we’re girls, so we knew how many other products we were putting on our face every day.

We weren’t just thinking about the basics of SPF and broad-spectrum protection, but what about hydration? What about radiance and antioxidants? They’re things we want in a skincare product, so why not in a sun product as well? We talk a lot about our products not being sunscreen, but ‘skinscreen’ – that combination of skincare and sunscreen was our brand ethos from the beginning and it flowed through the entire product development process.

IRW: What were some of the greatest highlights and challenges that Ultra Violette faced when it first launched?

BJ: Given we only launched in January 2019, there were lots of highlights and challenges. The highlights were really seeing how consumers reacted and responded so positively to the brand. When you work on a new brand for over two years, it is easy to lose sight of what the end consumer wants.  It was important that we continually checked in with real people (mostly friends and family) on our formulations and brand message before we launched, to try to get a sense of whether it would resonate or not. Launching a brand is still a massive gamble, no matter how many insights you get along the way.

The first highlight was the incredible reaction we got from consumers. Ava and I launched online first, and we were on her kitchen table one Thursday afternoon in January last year when we turned the site live and sent out an EDM. And literally, we had 10 sales within the first three minutes. That feeling of exhilaration – I’ll never forget how exciting it was to see something you worked on have such great customer feedback. And people were buying from us again – that’s the other highlight, our return purchase rate is always over 25 per cent. We have a good loyal customer base, which is so important in building a sustainable brand.

The consumer response followed by retailer interest was absolutely a massive highlight. We launched in January and in February, we were overwhelmed with retailer interest from all around the world. The first one here was Adore Beauty and we were really surprised. Before we had launched, we had a social media presence and they contacted us. They have their finger on the pulse.

We had intended to keep it primarily direct-to-consumer as long as we could, but I guess once Adore came to us, we realised there were real benefit to the credibility a retailer can bring to a brand, particularly in a category like sun, where so many people have had bad experience with products.

Adore Beauty was our first retailer in Australia, but everyone from mass channels to department stores reached out within the first six weeks including big prestigious American retailers. It was just incredible. It goes to show how global social media and e-commerce are. Just because you launch a little direct-to-consumer brand here, if you have some buzz around your brand, it can go global quickly.

We went with Adore Beauty in April last year, a few months after we launched the brand, and as a retailer, we really respected their credibility in skincare. It was important for us to be skincare plus sunscreen. Adore Beauty has the largest database of skincare customers in Australia and they’re engaged, and being online, it was less risk [for us] in terms of merchandising, setting up and training store teams, so we felt we could cope with taking them on board. They’ve proven to be a phenomenal retailer and they’re going through incredible growth. They’ve nurtured us as a brand; we have a direct line to [founder and CEO] Kate Morris and she’s been an amazing support. We couldn’t imagine a better partner to help us through the teething problems you have in your first year.

We talked to Sephora in February last year, but we weren’t sure if it was the right thing for us at the time, but by the end of the year, we thought we were ready for bricks-and-mortar. The number one question through our customer service line was always ‘Where can I try your product?’ Going back to the risk of people not having a great previous experience with sun products, we wanted to overcome that hurdle and Sephora was super keen to get us on board. They didn’t have an offering in the category at all, so it was a good, wide space for us to have a retailer partner where we could help build a product category and not just shove our products on a shelf. We signed with them in January and launched in February this year.

Our challenges evolved after launch from whether anyone would like our product, to ensuring we had the right amount of stock when we ended up being a fast-growing business.  Getting the business basics right of customer service, inventory management and cash flow was a real shift in pace as we (thankfully) grappled with growth.

We had a few hiccups early on. One product didn’t perform as well as we’d thought it would and to be honest, we’d suspected it might be weaker than the others. It was our mineral SPF, so we’ve now got a reformulated version of it. Tying to be responsive to consumer feedback from the get-go is a challenge, but an important one to face early on and to improve the things you need as quickly as you can.

IRW: What’s the sun product category like? Given we’re in Australia, I’m not surprised that it’s a fairly competitive sector.

BJ: I’d describe it as being incredibly vibrant at the moment. There’s lots of discussion around the importance of sun protection, like the Call Time to Melanoma movement – [founder] Lisa Patulny and her team have really built up awareness of the importance of sun protection in a market that’s really interested in the cosmetic elegance of formulations like ours. We’ve evolved from the ‘slip slop slap Aussie zinc across your face’ message now. I think Australia is leading the way globally in terms of the importance of sun products and now you don’t have to compromise for it to be part of an everyday beauty routine.

There are definitely some other players doing a great job as well as Ultra Violette, but the challenges are still around getting those cosmetically elegant formulations right and meeting everyone’s needs. A lot of people are after a beautiful mineral formulation and we’ve been scouring the globe for formulators to help us and we think we’ve found it. We’ve got a product launching later this year that’s SPF 50+ zinc, but beautifully done. It is a real challenge finding those formulators that get that beauty element. Typically sunscreen developers are older, often male chemists who have a deep knowledge of the development of broad-spectrum formulations. We’ve found success in working with younger, dynamic, often female chemists who understand the importance of both the sunscreen and skincare attributes in a formulation.

In a market like Australia, we’re lucky that there is awareness for the need for sun protection. We’re starting to turn our head to other markets and they’re definitely not as sophisticated in their understanding of why SPF is important every day – that’s the next wave of challenges in the sector globally.

IRW: Given you’ve had so many major retailers approach you, do you think you’ll eventually be mostly wholesale, or would you like to keep that direct-to-consumer focus?

BJ: We really want to remain a D2C brand first and foremost and we’ve put some targets in place to ensure we don’t drop below a certain percentage of direct-to-consumer – a third of the business must be our own channel. Having that direct dialogue with the consumer has been so valuable to evolving our business so quickly. We’ve reformulated products completely based on the dialogue with that customer, it’s important to never lose sight of that.

We’ve worked for brands where you go through retailers and you lose the connection with the consumer the more wholesale you’ve become. We need wholesale to boost the scale of the brand and our reach to consumers and give the brand credibility and to ensure that consumers can touch and feel formulations before they buy them. Wholesale will always be balanced with a strong focus on direct-to-consumer with us.

IRW: Ultra Violette launched last year, but it’s already become a cult beauty product and racked up 29,300 followers on Instagram. How do you think you were able to build that community so quickly?

BJ: It’s in the basics. It’s about having a brand and a product that solves a problem. You can’t bullshit the consumer. You have to be able to really solve a problem in their everyday lives and for us, that was the problem: “I’ve been told I have to wear sun protection. I can’t find anything I like. Help me.” We’ve been laser focused on solving that problem for the consumer, but doing it in a way that’s fun and engaging. We don’t really talk a lot about skin cancer and scary messages – it’s about having fun, keeping it lighthearted, and I think they’re the brands that are winning in beauty right now.

IRW: Being a direct-to-consumer start-up, social media has played a significant role in your growth. Tell me about your strategy.

BJ: First and foremost, it’s about meeting your customer where she’s spending her time, like Instagram, Facebook and social media in general.

Once we got the scope of where we wanted to talk to the consumer, we boosted posts; we’ve invested in Facebook advertising, we’ve invested in Google Adwords. A lot of SEO and SEM have been really critical in the backend and really pulling our messaging together.

Social media is just a fabulous place for you to build an engaging brand, whether it’s user-generated or shareable content. It has been absolutely critical in our messaging and having fun and wanting people to share that fun with others.

What’s been really important is being an absolutely mobile-first e-commerce business. We know from our numbers that’s where she’s shopping and scrolling, so we want to make it easy for her to shop. Mobile-first is where we structured the platform from the get-go and it’s paying dividends for us.

IRW: What are some of the lessons you gathered from your previous experience in the beauty industry that you’ve implemented at Ultra Violette?

BJ: Coming from the beauty industry to building a brand, we’ve had great contacts in all facets of the industry, whether it’s media, PR, product development or marketing.

We understand the vernacular of the beauty industry and that helps position ourselves in skinscreen. Like any industry, you can sniff out whether or not a brand is genuine and from a beauty background, so it’s helped us fit in from a positioning point of view. And from just years of both of us putting stuff on our faces, we know what’s a good product and that has really been a tremendous shortcut in that product development process. You can sniff out a bad facial or a sunscreen from a mile off and a good one is hard to find – but it helps you get a quick read on what’s good and what’s not.

IRW: What are some of the challenges in the beauty industry right now?

BJ: It’s definitely a fast-paced industry and things change all the time, so it’s about really keeping up with the trends as well as the sentiment in the industry. You can be hot one minute and not the next, so being in that fast-paced industry requires you to be light on your feet. That’s the biggest challenge, but then, what’s not fun about that? Testing products? Listening to new brands? Finding out what people love? It’s a really fun industry to keep on top of.

IRW: Are there any e-commerce trends that you’re interested in right now?

BJ: The ability to touch and smell a formulation is a major omission from the convenience of e-commerce shopping.  We have overcome this by working with bricks-and-mortar retailers (Sephora) as well as offering samples of our products online, and a generous refund policy if customers just don’t like it once they receive it. Lowering the risk of an online purchase of a beauty product has never been as important as it is now, with the world facing limitations to the ability to test and feel products in retail and e-commerce has to fill the void to keep the category growing.

In e-commerce, your site isn’t just front-of-house and transactional, it’s not just the cash register, it’s also the salesperson. How are we making sure our site is also a portal for fun and engagement? It’s the shop assistant, your visual merchandising, your customer service hub, so how do we make our website that hub of retail experience?

IRW: As a start-up business, what’s your experience of coronavirus been like?

BJ: It’s actually been a positive one, to be honest. Online shopping, particularly in our category, has grown immensely and we’ve heard that from our partners at Adore Beauty, they had their best two months ever in March and April. The negative is Sephora closed all their stores on April 2, and we were really concerned about the impact it would have on our business. We had only launched with them in February. It was a bad thing to happen, but it was good that we weren’t reliant on the revenue as we were still new. We had a good base business supported by ourselves and Adore, and those two channels have continued to do really well.

We had to be light on our feet and think about the right tone to have at this time. Everyone was grappling with being tone-deaf at the time if we continued on business as usual. What are we doing to be engaging with consumers? In the last three weeks, in every pack someone buys from us, they also get a Freddo frog and a love note from Ava and me that has a pic of a funny COVID-19 meme. There’s been some fun and lightness and we’ve put samples in there and said, ‘If you want to share this, put it in a neighbour’s letterbox and share some love.’ We’ve tried to meet the consumer where she’s at at this time.

IRW: Beyond the current pandemic, what plans do you have for the business?

BJ: That’s another impact of COVID-19. We had some really big plans to launch the brand into at least one overseas market in 2020 – that’s been put on hold because buyers in those markets have had other priorities to work on. We’ve had to evaluate what that looks like for us and we’re now considering a direct-to-consumer market entry into another market as opposed to working with a retailer in a new market.

We’re pretty determined to take the brand globally, so we have to get our skates on and make it happen sooner rather than later. Australia has the harshest sun in the world, the hardest regulatory environment for products to get approved – we should be on the global landscape. We should be the owners of a beautiful sunscreen everyone wants and aspires to use. We need to get going on that aspiration and if we can’t do it this year with a retailer, then we’ll do it ourselves.

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