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The little black soap causing a stir at Priceline

Carbon Theory founder and CEO Philip Taylor

Launching a product into retail at the height of a global pandemic could be seen as a risky move, but its proved worthwhile for UK beauty brand Carbon Theory.

The brand launched into Priceline last month and sold out in just three days, with its hero product, the Breakout Control Facial Cleansing Bar, selling 2500 units alone.

Founder and CEO Philip Taylor developed the cleansing bar at his kitchen sink with a little inspiration from Nike and guidance from Youtube.

Since then, a flood of glowing reviews online has helped the brand reach new heights.

Taylor shared an insight into the brand journey with Inside FMCG.

INSIDE FMCG: How important was social media and customer reviews in propelling the Carbon Theory brand?

Philip Taylor: Social media has played a huge part in the growth of brand. Our Instagram page is the core of Carbon Theory’s community and its where the growth of the brand began. When we launched the brand in 2018, we didn’t have any marketing budget at all. My business partner Stuart also our Creative Director used to work for ASOS, we used to sneak into the studio after hours in London and shoot the products. We had beautiful images and Instagram enabled us to showcase the brand without spending any money. Then without warning and completely organically we started to receive before and after images from customers who had used the product and it had cleared their breakouts, some of those were incredibly dramatic. This is the best endorsement a product like ours can have – and they just kept coming! These images got picked up by the Daily Mail Online and within an hour of it going up on their website we had sold out of three months’ worth of stock with Boots in the UK. It proves that PR is just as important than social, that article is the reason why we are here.

We have over 4000 five star verified reviews at our own e-commerce site and we know that 50 per cent of site traffic interacts with our reviews so we understand how important they are. On the same front we are always honest with consumers and tell them everybody’s skin is different we will not be right for everybody.

Inside FMCG: Did the social media frenzy happen by accident or was the brand working with social media influencers to get the word out about the cleansing bar?

PT: We have never paid an influencer in two years of trading. We are dealing with problem skin which is incredibly emotive for young people and adults alike. It would be incredibly dishonest and misleading to our customers to pay someone to say something positive about our products. If you have someone with 100K followers or a micro influencer with a highly engaged audience who requests product to review then absolutely we would be silly not to, but in that scenario is balanced, no one is compelled to post it or say something great. Our real influencers are the guys that share the before and after images, those are the guys that really impact our sales             

INSIDE FMCG: Tell me a bit about the experimentation process and how you came up with the ingredients for the cleansing bar?

PT: I had this idea of what would a bar of soap look like if Nike made it. I wanted to create an accessible daily skincare product with the added benefit of being effective on breakouts, something super clean and a clinical brand which is where the resealable pouch came. Many millennials have never heard of a soap dish so it was important to provide a storage solution if I was going to get kids into washing their face with soap. From an ingredient perspective I’ve always known from being a teenager that Tea Tree Oil was great for breakouts and I love the smell which fitted well with the clinical aesthetic. I had seen Charcoal products on the market, read into its benefits – in particular its ability to absorb dirt and toxins from the skin. Plus, a black bar of soap looks like it actually does something, it’s not like what your gran has on the side of the bath.

Carbon Theory Cleansing Bar

I watched YouYube videos on how to make soap at home, I got to work in the kitchen, completely destroyed a beautiful white resin sink with charcoal powder, it was messy and not actually that much fun but I got samples out of it which gave me huge satisfaction. I honesty I didn’t experiment a lot, I took two proven active ingredients and pulled them together in something that looked completely different to anything else in the market. It wasn’t long before I sought the expertise from the professionals.  Soapworks our manufacturers based in Glasgow, helped me develop the commercial formulation you see today.

INSIDE FMCG: How do you think the Australian skincare market is performing in terms of meeting demand for natural and vegan skincare options?

Just taking a look at Priceline’s own vegan category I would say the Australian market is more than meeting demand from an international and domestic level. It makes no sense for any brand to produce products that are not vegan. All of our products are vegan as we recognise the demand for these products but performance is at the forefront of our range.

INSIDE FMCG: Tell me a bit about your journey to collaborating with Priceline?

PT: We have grown rapidly in the UK with Boots and we’re now in over 1300 stores nationwide. Boots has proven the right environment for Carbon Theory and we very much see Priceline as a mirror to Boots in Australia. We don’t see either Boots or Priceline as pharmacies but very much destinations for beauty and skincare. In the US the large chain pharmacies have a very different feel and as such we opted to partner exclusively with Ulta Beauty which is a destination for discovery. When I approached Priceline they were impressed at the level of cut through we had gained in the medicated skincare category considering our size and felt like we were bringing something very different particularly from an aesthetic perspective. We chose to go exclusive with Priceline as we knew the added value they could provide for a brand of our size in terms of store count and digital exposure, which would give us the best chance of success and we obviously made the right choice as we sold within a week.  The Priceline team have been incredibly supportive to give us the best entry point into the market.

INSIDE FMCG: What challenges have you encountered in terms of exporting product?

PT: If I’m honest before COVID-19, it was fairly smooth sailing, excuse the pun. If you time it right, sea freight is a cost effective option for moving stock globally and we have a great fulfilment team in Sydney who have worked with Priceline for a while.  It was very straight forward but selling so much stock so quickly now has its challenges. We moved what we considered to be four months of stock in only two weeks. Air freight is currently 3 times its normal price due to the lack of planes in the air and its 60 days delivery by boat. We have hugely over performed but now we have a good read on numbers we need to get to work ensuring we have ample cover moving forward. It’s a good problem to have.

INSIDE FMCG: Do you think that the COVID-19 lockdown had an impact on the success of the product in Australia and the UK?

PT: It’s difficult to determine. We knew there was a demand for our product in Australia from our own Instagram and we have been shipping to Australia for a while, but I think the success of the product in the UK & US had given it something of a mythical hype, people seem to know “that black soap” wherever I go – we truly believe it is an iconic skincare product. Our PR team Portobello based in Sydney have done a phenomenal job getting our brand into key publications and of course my request for a great piece in the Aus Mail Online was swiftly delivered and again hugely impactful. We have built our brand on PR and again its proven to be super effective. As for COVID-19, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a lot of people at home shopping online but I certainly won’t be sad when it’s over.

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