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Case Study: Steer for the Fast Track

By: Don Condit
Posted: October 5, 2009, from the October 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Choosing the right contract manufacturer always hinges on the same fundamentals: assessing development and production capabilities, capacity, market savvy and human “chemistry.” Experience with a particular class of ingredients is generally not at the top of the list. But in the natural and organic product categories and during this economy, brand managers would be wise to reconsider their priorities.

“Organics are more challenging than most people in our industry realize,” says Greg Stewart, R&D director, Sensibility Soaps. “They require unconventional processes, out-of-the-box thinking and a lot of experience to optimize their performance.” Sensibility Soaps began focusing on organic personal care products in 1996. In 2003, the company became the first manufacturer in the category to be awarded organic certification through the USDA’s National Organic Program. Today, it is a fast-track manufacturer of custom and private label bath, body, hair and skin care products—acting as the development and manufacturing engine powering many of the most successful organic brands in the U.S.

“Only a few years ago, skeptics were still crowing that organics would never win a meaningful share of this market,” says Lynn Betz, who co-founded the company with her husband Thom Betz. “ ‘Organics aren’t stable enough.’ ‘Their shelf life is too short.’ ‘They’re hard to preserve.’ ‘Customers will never be satisfied with the color and texture possible with organics … ’ It was an uphill battle, but we’ve resolved all those challenges. In fact, we launched our own Nourish brand in 2004, mainly to prove once and for all that luxurious quality, performance and mainstream customer acceptance were all possible with a line of natural and certified organic products.”

“It’s easy to tweak chemical additives and optimize a conventional body wash. We’ve all been there,” says Stewart. “But doing this with organic ingredients is another story. A deep, rich lather and creamy texture, for example, are a lot tougher to achieve consistently when you have to account for such things as normal crop variation in botanicals. It requires a great deal of intuition—not just a recipe that will always produce the same result. Developing a certified organic body wash is really more like working as a chef in a five-star restaurant than an R&D director in a laboratory.” An ongoing search for out-of-the-box “enabling” technologies is among the core strategies that have led Sensibility Soaps to success—posting consistent annual growth exceeding 40%.

“Every cosmetics manufacturer monitors new developments in such enabling technologies as cosmetic actives, biopolymers and botanical actives,” says Stewart. “Their attention is 90% focused on the front end of the process. Our approach is different. Our perspective is broader, more holistic instead of being splintered into the usual divisions that separate development from production, and so on. We’re all looking at the whole picture—from concept development through production, packaging and delivery.