How can brands win over consumers and ensure they "own" their space? In a word, consistency. So says, Chris Skinner, founder and principal of School House, a beauty-centric creative agency based in NYC specializing in beauty. The firm features capabilities across a wide swath of disciplines, including strategy, branding, content concept and creation, architecture, experiential design, and industrial design, including packaging and virtual merchandising.
It also has an enviable roster of clients, including Ami Cole, Elemis, Beekman 1802, Kosas, Briogeo and Dr. Dennis Gross, to name a few. And, recently School House worked on DevaCurl’s rebrand, including packaging.
Skinner’s career began at Space NK and Fresh, where he gained experience in design and store experience, while identifying a need for a creative studio with its finger on the pulse. School House was subsequently launched in 2015.
At Fresh, Skinner had learned the ins and outs of the LVMH system of creative work, but also noticed that larger companies were outsourcing creative, while upstart brands were struggling to do that work internally.
In response, he built an agency that would be collaborative and understand the inner workings of brands, and feature experience with retail partners. The goal was to touch every brand department on projects, not just marketing, to ensure success.
The company has also focused on giving back. Its recent collaboration with Ami Cole was part of its 1,000 Hours Pledge, a program that pledges 1,000 design hours, reportedly equal to $150,000 in value, to independent Black-owned beauty businesses.
The Hero Strategy
School House focuses on equity and bold consistency, says Skinner, adding that the hero product strategy works. He says that focus is the reason Vintner’s Daughter remains a well-loved brand. Skinner therefore encourages brands to focus on loyalty-driven SKUs and to concentrate their efforts on the few things "you can really go after.”
Skinner says that whenever brands seek to embrace something, he encourages to ask themselves “is this something I can own?” He explains that people will call out brands if anything about them feels like a “copy/paste” from other brands.
To win, he says, brands need to stand up and say why they do things, rather than getting stuck in a rut of newness. That said, he adds, “not everything needs to be around forever.” Sometimes it’s appropriate for products to go away to allow a brand to amass focus.
Skinner says that if a brand prospect is bold and consistent, it will stick. He warns against brands getting bored with their own choices. He notes that some high-profile failures resulted from an overreliance on newness over brand focus.
“The pendulum swings,” says Skinner. “Sometimes it will be close to you and sometimes far from you.”
For instance, at one point the pendulum swung away from verified experts like Dr. Dennis Gross and toward influencers with questionable credentials. Things now have swung the other way, favoring clinicians.
Brands that remain consistent can weather these challenges. Those that struggle to follow the swing risk being rejected by consumes.
The Impact of Sustainability
As for the importance of eco-friendly design, the founder says that “sustainability is at the table” but not always leveraged. The agency is challenged to persuade and push brands in sustainable directions and, as the liaison between the vendors and the brands, ensure successful fulfillment.
Skinner notes that packaging is the most visible element of sustainability, but other elements also have an effect. He adds that it’s important to understand the impacts of design choices and to have the right vendor partner who can execute on sustainable packaging. Sourcing of ingredients is also an area focus, which requires an understanding of the ethics of supply chains.
School House can have impacts elsewhere, such as arranging sustainable photo shoots and avoiding flying materials overnight. The firm can also develop visual merchandising that uses post-consumer waste, and ensure materials are discarded correctly, particularly making certain that retailers are recycling containers. On a smaller scale, School house can avoid over-printing of marketing decks.
Beauty Design in a Pandemic
When asked about the impacts of the pandemic on School House’s work, Skinner says the team has managed to work well remotely. That said, the direction of projects has been impacted.
Pre-pandemic, School House worked on large-scale physical activations inspired by art installations. But now, says Skinner, experiences have become hyper-personalized amid the beauty market’s reckoning with a massive switch in activity to digital commerce.
To illustrate, Dr. Dennis Gross launched master classes that leveraged its namesake’s credentials as a practicing and formulating dermatologist. This leveraging of human attributes into a digital space allowed the brand to engage consumers in a new way.
The brand introduced the classes on its Shopify presence, part of a larger warming up of the clinical feel of the brand. The brand has also worked to create a global story in a digital manner in the absence of events.
This switch from in-person into persona also took place in a project with Sheena Yaitanes, founder of Kosas. School House worked to personify her in a way that reshaped the brand books and bibles and introduced the ethos of the brand.
Skinner’s philosophy focuses on leveraging what consumers know into the brand experience, such as adopting online groups, video games, etc. A key example is the ANRcade gaming experience Estée Lauder introduced amid a promotional push for the Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Multi-Recovery Complex. The mobile-first, gamified approach epitomized brand understanding of how consumers want to interact with brands.
“It’s just a reinterpretation of things people have nostalgia for,” Skinner says.