It has been a wild ride this year for skincare maker Urban Skin Rx and its founder/CEO Rachel Roff. The company was launched around 2010 as an extension of her successful spa and laser treatment center in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was driven by Roff's own passion for making skincare products more relevant to a wider range of melanin-rich skin. A decade into Urban Skin Rx, about half of sales are still D2C, but its products are available at Target, Walmart, Ultra, CVS, and a number of other outlets. A surprise TikTok hit and the COVID-driven self-care impulse have helped sustain the company's meteoric growth. But as a white founder of a company with a 90% African-American clientele, the social protest movement this year presented Roff and the brand with a special challenge. They came under pressure and criticism from which it continues to learn. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
MediaPost: What is Urban Skin RX’s target market?
Rachel Roff: [It] was really inspired out of my experiences at my medical spa. All of the medical spas and laser centers were turning away those with darker skin tones, and I thought that was absurd and it was unjust. It was a bad business move. So I decided that I was going to take my love for clinical corrective skincare, and also try to make a difference in the world and make accessible skincare for people with all skin tones easier to get.
Through these experiences of developing a brick and mortar company to treat the needs of diverse skin tones, I then realized through a lot of demand from customers they needed my help all over the world. And I just did not think it was realistic for me to open medical spas all over the world. And so I decided the best way to really help people all over was through developing a skincare line.
MP:What are the specific communities that you're the strongest in?
Roff: The last time we did a survey on who our consumer was, was the last 12 months, and it was 90% African American millennial women. So that is a very specific market.
MP: How did you grow in terms of the marketing channels that you used, and the type of media that resonated for that target?
Roff: I launched a product line with already 40,000 customers frequenting my brick and mortar. And that was really just my initial focus: making great products for them. And then those that reached out could then have these products shipped to them.
So initially it was all through Instagram. I was treating celebrity clients at my medical spa, they would come get services, purchase my products and post them on social media channels. It really drove a demand. And so for years our way of marketing was social media, not digital ads.
MP: What did the marketing mix look like as you went into this year?
Roff: We do have what I consider a pretty hefty digital advertising budget, still a lot of investment into social media for us internally to create organic content. We're at 400,000 followers and a lot of our sales do come from that in addition to that. [We] take [celebrity] videos they post on their social media page and turn them into ads on social media and direct them to different audiences. So then, for years, it was expos. That really drove brand awareness and that was honestly a huge change for our brand after COVID hit.
MP: In March, with retail closings and personal lockdowns, what happened to the business?
Roff: Luckily we were able to be very effective as a remote-based business, although it has somewhat changed the culture of our company, which I pray we can get back to one day. The business boomed. I mean, I'm talking dramatically. We could not keep inventory in stock.
Our daily D2C sales were just insane. When it came to retail and the doors closing, luckily, we were in Target. Target stayed open, Ulta did not stay open, CVS stayed open. And we were doing really, really well still at Target and CVS. Our online sales at Ulta stayed strong.
MP: Did your messaging change at all? How did you change around the pitch, and what was resonating with your users?
Roff: Definitely a lot of Instagram series on just trying to keep people engaged, offering content for making cocktails at home, meditation.
MP: So you went off-topic.
Roff: Definitely, we were trying to do whatever we could to keep them engaged and put out content that was relevant to the changes in their life. We know you can't make it to the spa right now; you can use our tools as this next best thing to really get your professional treatment at home. And that resonated well with the consumer.
MP: Then a different social earthquake hit around the the George Floyd murder and the rise of the BLM movement, calls for many brands to take a stand. How did you and your team form a response?
Roff: We did respond about George Floyd within a couple days. Initially it was taken really well by consumers, and then pretty quickly we started getting some negativity that we weren't doing enough.
The messaging was that we basically don't stand for these injustices, and we're going to do whatever we can to support the Black community and to try to end police brutality and racial injustice.
And then what really transitioned was a demand, specifically a movement called #PullUpForChange. [It] was started by a woman [who] has a very successful makeup brand, and she started an Instagram page that demanded beauty companies to be transparent with who their employees were and how many people of color worked within the brand. And not just how many people work there, but in terms of leadership executive levels, board levels.
Hiring with diversity in mind has being a priority of mine for 14 years, but at that moment our executive leadership, although it was diverse, it wasn't as good as it could be. And so we committed to doubling that number by the end of the year.
And luckily, within a couple of months, we doubled it. We also donated $100,000 to different Black Lives Matter organizations and then really transitioned our content.
So in June, we went from posting two to three times daily about products to barely posting about products. No sales, no promotions. Trying to find inspirational messaging and education to our customers about racial injustices, and just trying to be as good of a partner as we could.
MP: So how did that impact sales?
Roff: It wasn't as good of a month, it wasn't a bad month. But Instagram drives a ton of our business and so definitely I think that we did lose money behind that. But it was necessary.
MP: How did your audience respond?
Roff: Overall, it was mostly very positive. And I think the one thing that I learned through it was I truly thought that just making formulas that were inclusive of the needs of darker skin tones was enough, and that's all my customers really cared about.
And that's not true. People are really voting with their dollar right now, because I think they feel that their vote really doesn't matter, so at least where they spend their money does.
And people are looking for a lot of transparency about what brands are really about. People want to know what community services do you support, what do your employees look like, what are you really committed to do in this world to improve things? So it has really changed things for us.
MP: What sort of information were you putting out there and also, what was the nature of the commitments that you made?
Roff: We started a campaign called “Raise the Bar and Vote” trying to bring awareness to minority voter suppression. We are doing a lot to support the Stacey Abrams organization called Fair Fight and using our platform to not just encourage people to vote, but understand that it's not easy for most people to vote. A lot of people are set up to not have their vote count.
MP: So as you look back on just the last five to six months, are there key lessons that you've learned about your brand, about your customers, maybe something that you didn't know or didn't fully appreciate just five to six months ago?
Roff: I've always known the importance for a lot of the Black community to invest in other Black-owned businesses. And I'm not Black.
I've always been transparent. I'm all over Instagram. I've never tried to hide the ownership of the company.
But it seemed that became even more important than ever before to our consumers. And so I had to really let them know that it's important to me, too. I very much stand for the movement of buying Black, and feel that there is plenty of money in the beauty industry to go around. So I just let people know that if they felt the need to leave us and invest in other Black-owned skincare brands, I fully supported that -- because one of the most important ways to change a lot of the racial injustices going on in this country is to put more funding into the Black community. Money is power.
MP: What was Urban Skin Rx’s big TikTok moment?
Roff: In January, it's regular day at work, and all of a sudden I look down and our sales are like 10 times what they should be. And then our customer service manager contacts us and says, “Hey, we just got this email from this girl. She said she posted a video on TikTok and it was her using the Even Tone cleansing bar with a before and after picture, and the video has gone viral. She said that she's already gotten a million views.”
So we look her up. She's a regular girl on TikTok. She's not an influencer; none of her other videos have much views. But this particular video ended up on this Explore page on TikTok, and ended up with this crazy amount of views.
She posted before and after pictures that were very impactful. And she started a challenge. And TikTok was all about challenges. She started something called like the Three Week Clear Skin Challenge. And from there, I think to this day we're now like 50 million views on TikTok.
But it was very different, because TikTok was not our normal consumer. It was very young -- and, to be transparent, much whiter than who our customer base had been.
And so we were just talking about trying to pivot. We didn't have a page on TikTok. None of us knew anything about TikTok. We are a millennial company, and that was very at that moment like Gen Z. And we're scrambling to try to train our customer service team on how to respond to people on TikTok, to answer questions, give them information. It was just mayhem.
And then on top of it, [the Even Tone cleansing] bar, along with many of our other products that sat beside it at Ultra and Target, sold out for months. I mean it was just insane.
It was such a blessing. I think with any situation like that, it's bittersweet. It is great for your business, but you also feel like, gosh, I wish I had that inventory. Gosh, I wish had that knowledge. And you never feel like you made the most of that situation, and it does haunt me till this moment. Like, we could have done even more.