The business of building a consumer brand is not for the faint of heart. It takes passion, commitment, persistence, money, and a bit of good timing and/or luck. It also takes the ability to recognize when to pivot. In this article, I share four key pivot points in the story of my family’s brand, Alchimie Forever.
Let me begin by sharing one of my favorite quotes: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different resultsa.”
I like this quote because, while I am the most persistent person I know (not a nag, though), sometimes I can be persistent to a fault. The quote above has served me through the life of my brand, reminding me of the need to pivot when necessary.
Here, I would like to share four such cases that made the difference for my family’s brand, Alchimie Forever.
1. Pivoting our ingredient strategy
When we launched our brand, or rather when my father created the first product in what would become the Alchimie Forever brand, we formulated with parabens. They were not yet the pariahs of cosmetic formulations that they have become today, and the scientific literature indicated that they were the most efficacious, safest and most studied preservatives for beauty products.
For several years after that initial launch, we continued to formulate with parabens because the core of our brand is science, Western medicine and dermatology. My parents, both MDs, spent their medical schooling and some of their medical careers reading clinical papers and conducting scientific experiments in medical labs. They will tell you to this day that the pure scientific data on parabens is inconclusive in terms of the link between these molecules and cancer.
However, after years of internal debate, we pivoted, and made the decision to reformulate without parabens. Why? Because the market demanded it. Because I, being on the commercial side of things, got tired of having the paraben argument. Because we realized our mission was not to re-educate the entire planet on parabens, but rather to make the best possible products and get them in the hands of the most people possible to change their skin and their lives.
We pivoted from hanging on to what one might call “pure science,” and shifted to consumer science. We reformulated our entire line—with great difficulty, I might add. Recreating the same product while replacing the preservative is like making the same tomato sauce with green tomatoes instead of red ones.
The lesson: In the world of beauty, perception is (most often) reality. Pick your battles.
2. Pivoting our story
My favorite part of my brand is the family story that comes with it: two MD parents, four sisters, time spent at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and an art gallery thrown in the mix. As with all family stories, ours is complex, long, and filled with twists and turns. It is at the core of our brand; it is a story I love to tell.
Yet the consumer does not have the time, patience or desire to listen to a family story. They love it, but they don’t have the necessary attention span. They want the Cliff’s Notes version, the soundbites. With the help of a marketing expert, we refined our long and discombobulated family story to the essence of what matters to the consumer and thereby repositioned Alchimie Forever as a “Clean and Clinical” brand focused on Dr. Luigi L. Polla, the best dermatologist in Switzerland.
Does that mean my mother, Dr. Barbara S. Polla, did not contribute to the brand? Not at all. It just means that, while two doctors are better than one, the story is more easily told and understood when focused on the dermatologist. And Dr. Barbara S. Polla is just fine with that!
The lessons: Don’t tell your story how you want or like to. Tell your story in the most effective way possible by thinking about your audience. Also, the right marketing expert can change the course of your brand, particularly if marketing is not your strong suit.
3. Pivoting our packaging
Perhaps the most important pivot from a marketing standpoint was when I decided to change our packaging. I remember the exact moment, in early 2014. In the course of running Alchimie Forever, I had heard on more than one occasion that our packaging was not reflective of our brand. We were positioning ourselves as a dermatologist-formulated clinical anti-aging brand ideal for sensitive skin types. Unfortunately, our packaging came across as “young” and “trendy,” which had nothing to do with “clean and clinical.”
However, every time I heard this feedback, I had the reaction of a mother who is told her baby is ugly. I reacted by getting defensive, and I couldn’t take the advice and feedback for what it was. I also was so deep in the weeds of building a brand, I didn’t have the brain space to look at my packaging strategically. That is, until I heard it one too many times from someone whose opinion I very much valued and respected.
It was January 2014. I had to sign off on the printers’ proofs for two product boxes that day to avoid out-of-stocks. I did not sign for either. I cancelled all my meetings and spent the day in Sephora, Kiehl’s and Bluemercury, looking at skin care packaging. Then I went back to my graphic designer and brainstormed ideas to improve our packaging. Our current white and purple look stems from that day. When it was introduced, some new retailers started paying attention.
The lesson: Don’t take things (too) personally in business, even if the brand is your baby. Listen to those who have experience in your field. Watch what other brands are doing. And spend time “on” your business instead of “in” your business.
4. Pivoting our distribution
For 10 years, I wanted my brand to be in Bluemercury. Somehow it seemed it was meant to be, as we were both beauty companies based in Washington, DC, we shared the same office building for several years, and cofounder Marla Beck and I shared a Harvard connection.
My first meeting with Marla Beck was back in 2004, when I had been working with Alchimie Forever for about two weeks! I remember it like it was yesterday. We met at the Starbucks on M street in Georgetown. Presciently, she raised an eyebrow when looking at our pre-redesign-era colorful packaging. Over the years, we had a few more meetings and I met with Bluemercury buyers, but somehow it was never meant to be.
Then Walgreens/Duane Reade came calling, interested in Alchimie Forever for its prestige Look Boutique doors. The buyer even liked our new look (go figure). This was a key pivot in terms of our distribution strategy, which had up until then remained very exclusive and professional. Partnering with this retailer would take my brand in a slightly different direction. This is when that “insanity” quote really helped.
I had been trying the prestige distribution route for 10 years, with some challenges. Perhaps I had not been looking in the right place. Perhaps I was wrong in my assessment of where my brand belonged. So, I pivoted our distribution strategy and have not regretted that decision a single day. The 100-plus Walgreens stores we are in (all prestige beauty formats) has made our brand more available, more approachable and more visible.
The lesson: This pivot reminds me of a purported Chinese proverb that I love: “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.” Listen to the market and go where the demand is.
Be Willing to Listen and Change
Even though change is often hard and uncomfortable for most, the ability to pivot is key in life and in business. Take time to work on your business. Look at what the industry is doing. Listen to experts you trust. Be open to feedback. And remember, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said, “[O]nly stupid people don’t change their mind.”
aCuriously, while this popular quote is most often attributed to Albert Einstein, the earliest instance of its use derives from a November 1981 pamphlet from Narcotics Anonymous, per an investigation by Quote Investigator (quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same/)
Ada Polla ([email protected]) is the co-creator of the Swiss antioxidant skin care line, Alchimie Forever, which launched in the United States in 2004. Her strategic focus and implementation have yielded double-digit annual revenue growth for the company. Polla holds an MBA from Georgetown University, majored in art history and political science at Harvard University, and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1999. She is also a Global Cosmetic Industry editorial advisor.