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Julianna chats with Zaffrin O'Sullivan of Five Dot Botanics about how her brand is reacting to COVID-19, and gets her thoughts on how to tastefully market your business while a pandemic is happening.

[JD]: Hey, thanks for listening to The Highlight, a podcast about the beauty and wellness industry hosted by myself, Julianna of Deco Miami, and soon to launch Souki. Whenever I have conversations with other founders in the beauty industry, I think, wow, I wish we could have recorded that. And that’s exactly what The Highlight is.

COVID-19 is the center of everyone’s world right now. If indie beauty brands didn’t have enough to think about before this happened, we have even choppier waters to navigate now. In this minisode of The Highlight, I’m chatting with Zaffrin O’Sullivan, founder of Five Dot Botanics, about the pandemic’s effect on her brand strategy for 2020 and her thoughts on how the beauty industry is reacting to COVID-19. Zaffrin, thank you so much for recording with me today.

[ZO]: Oh, it was wonderful. Thank you so much for asking me.

[JD]: To start, can you give us a brief summary, elevator-pitch style, of what Five Dot Botanics is all about?

[ZO]: Yeah, so Five Dot Botanics is a minimal ingredients skincare company for men and women. We launched in July of 2019, so we’re relatively new. We’re based in London in the UK. We’re primarily direct to consumer. However, a few months after launching, we secured a couple of our first retail deals, so we’ve got a bit of a blend of bricks and mortar and direct to consumer.

[JD]: Five Dot is a new brand, and I see from Instagram that your brand's marketing and sales strategies involve retailers. Now that brick and mortar retail is essentially on pause, do you view your DTC channel in a new light? Do you feel that this is going to permanently transform your channel strategies for your business post-pandemic?

[ZO]: When we set up, we always had our eye on being primarily direct-to-consumer. However, the relationships in brick-and-mortar were always going to be something that was on our agenda. Simply because from a brand awareness point of view, a customer acquisition point of view, and actually from just a distribution point of view, that was always a cost-important thing for us. But for anyone in the industry, you might have a strategy where it’s an 80/20 mix or 50/50 mix.

For us, we kind of fell into brick-and-mortar a little bit by chance. I don’t think it’s radically overhauled our strategy because we were simply always focusing on the end-user and having that relationship. Probably what it has done is make us realize, in a weird way, and appreciate even more the relationships we have with brick-and-mortar.

So, for example, our big distributor in the UK who took us on at the start of this year was Holland & Barrett. They’ve remained open. They’re a health food provider, and they kind of worked cross-aligned. Actually, we realized that’s another gateway for our customers to find us, so it hasn’t reduced our needs or reliance on them.

[JD 0:02:42]: DTC was not getting a lot of love this year with some pretty big DTC names going down. Clearly, the DTC model is in a great position right now, assuming that the post remains open. What are your thoughts on how COVID-19 will affect the beauty and wellness industry in the short and long-term?

[ZO]: Yeah, and the beauty industry actually is part of a larger sort of macroeconomy. Of course, on like a healthcare and [spa, malls] are closing down, therapists can’t work. That’s quite specific to beauty. The front of the direct-to-consumer brand and the brand that’s in brick and mortar retailers, we are not immune to the macroeconomic effects of what COVID-19 is doing.

You know, people are losing their jobs. The economy has stuttered. There’s huge amounts of cash injections coming in from the government. We haven’t been able to benchmark what the long-term effects of this happening to the economy is. Simply we don’t know. Is it going to be three months? Six months? Is the knock-on effect going to put us into like a depression for five years? So, you know, in the context of our business, I think the beatings should stick within the macroeconomic context.

But actually, if you ask me. What are the specific opportunities that someone like me, in a skincare brand can offer? I think wellness is going to become very important. Scrutiny of ingredients is going to become very important. People getting things delivered to their door that may have not done it before will peak a little bit more. People online are engaging with brands that they didn’t use to do. They’re on social media. There’s a big spike in social media use. They’re bored and a bit more open to investigating the brands that they’re engaging with. So, for brands with integrity, brands with a heart. I think there’s a possibility of developing a relationship you otherwise might not have got were it not for millions and millions of people being at home.

The flip side is we don’t know how long this will last, so there’s still a bit of period of uncertainty as well. What people spend in Paris, our price point is quite high. So obviously a lot of our consumers already maybe may have been employed alredy in jobs that might continue and have still got a salary or might have cash that they still want to spend. So, there is a lot potentially. We are another thing that they may purchase.

[JD]: Whenever this is over, I will be very curious to see how the sales data differs geographically between the US and the UK and different places around Europe, etc. Because I think culturally, too, consumers definitely want to connect right now.

[ZO]: Yeah.

[JD]: But like you said, this is an opportunity. I’m curious to see if different cultures are more eager to connect and to order online directly from a brand versus others, not so much. Like for example, I live in an apartment building, and it looks like Black Friday when I walk by the packages because people are just ordering everything online.

[ZO]: Absolutely, and actually I did, I was very sensitive about selling. I did a litmus test. It was a four-hour campaign. It was a really local campaign in London, in my neighborhood, to test the appetite for one product with a self-care wellness angle. It sold out within two or three hours. I hadn’t expected that at all because I thought people would be very worried about spending, and actually it was the opposite.

People were at home, they were bored. They’re suddenly thinking about, you know, now’s my time. I’m not wearing tons of makeup at home. Maybe now’s my chance to use really good skincare, think about my skin, keep it fresh. I’ve never thought about using a face mask. There was a face mask that we did this offer on, and it came with a brush and a headband and all these other accessories that we don’t normally sell on our website. But it was like, what does a bundle look like that people might be interested in?

I was really surprised because actually what it showed was there are people out there that still want to buy things to make themselves feel good and improve their skin. It’s still a problem for them. But also the advantage we had over bigger brands is that they were suddenly looking at brands with owners. They’ve got the time to think, who owns this business? Oh, it’s a person, a little business. Maybe I could support a little business. I don’t want these little businesses to all go because of this COVID-19. What if they all go and then we’re back again?

So, I see what you had was support. I think a lot of those were purchases for themselves, but behind the scenes, if you asked what were the other motivators? I suspect a lot of it is supporting local, supporting the small business, or independent retailer. Which is what creates variety and flavor in the marketplace when you go to choose things. I think there is space now for us to have that conversation as indie beauty founders, which was already happening pre this situation. But we can talk to our audience authentically and quickly. We don’t have to go through chains of management just to discuss how we’re going to talk to our audience. We’re literally like, this is happening right now. This is where I am. This is what I think, and in a short space of time, we found that people are really interested in having a real conversation with a brand.

[JD 0:07:45]: Absolutely. I think that this is the time for small brands to shine with their stories and show how intimate a relationship can be between a consumer and a smaller brand. On that note. In all of my conversations with brands, tastefully marketing during a pandemic, has been a huge topic. Do you have any thoughts or advice on this?

[ZO]: Yeah. I think when it became obvious that lockdown was going to happen in London. That this was potentially thousands and thousands of lives being lost globally, and this pandemic hadn’t even started to hit developing countries. Where you’re always at the cusp of wondering, is there a humanitarian disaster just about to happen globally?  We were very, very aware of consumer sentiment, and we switched off direct sales, selling marketing messages. That wasn’t because we didn’t ever plan to sell, because obviously as a startup and as a new brand, we need to convert our marketing into cash to stay afloat.

[JD]: Right.

[ZO]: But it was that initial shock for people. That first week, people were in blind shock. The second week, they seemed to be in massive fear, and now as we go into the third week, people are finding a new normal, and they’re ready again to engage. I think had we in weeks one and two, not been insensitive to it. We would have been really remembered by our consumers being thoughtless, tasteless, aggressive to see a profit over everything. Whereas what we’re going through is completely unknown for most people.

So, we have even on social media, just post done. We have a campaign at the moment, which is 90 days of gratitude. The minute lockdown happened, you could sense people were worried. I was like, “What can we do for our audience that will make them feel better?” So, we started the campaign 90 days of gratitude, day one, and we just chose something really super simple. Nothing’s about consumption. Nothing’s about owning anything luxurious. Nothing’s about purchasing. It’s like in your space, in the four walls that you exist in, or looking out the window. What can we each day, feel grateful for? We asked everyone to post their posts.

We were like, we’re a brand about positivity and gratitude, and we know that the situation is going well. We don’t want you to buy stuff from us. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re humans behind the brand. We don’t know what’s happening in our lives. Then as time has gone on, people are saying, “Actually, you know what? I do want to buy from you.”

We’ve sort of been led by consumer sentiment. This is the first, this last few days in the lead up to Easter. It’s the first time we’ve, remember our stuff again. It’s been really, really gentle. But equally, we’ve got a lot of community-based columns going out. Things that want to do for the wider community. We used it as a chance to talk about some of the charitable and social impact schemes we’ve done earlier that we haven’t had time to talk about. So, we’ve gone back to a little bit of marketing, but we did definitely pulled it. I just don’t think people want to be sold to as aggressively. They need brands to acknowledge the situation we’re all in.

[JD 0:10:38]: Absolutely, and that goes in very nicely to my next question, which is about Tata Harper. They were making hand sanitizers for their employees in order to remain open. It was unclear to me if they were actually selling or going to sell the hand sanitizers at some point too, and there were mixed reactions to this. Keeping in mind, too, that this happened a few days ago, less than a week ago. So, I also wanted to comment that I think you’re absolutely right. That there’s stages of people’s reactions to what--. I mean, everyone goes through stages on this, let’s be real.

[ZO]: Absolutely.

[JD 0:11:16]: But with marketing and what people are willing, what their susceptible to and what they want to see. So, how do you feel about it?

[ZO]: I mean, it’s difficult. For example, with hand sanitizers in the UK. There were some really amazing brands, and actually, we also wanted to do this, which was immediately our thoughts. How do we use our expertise to solve a problem for the society? We didn’t think about how do we use this problem to make more money or make more products to sell? As beauty entrepreneurs, if I can sell hand sanitizer or give it away for free, at costs to solve this problem of chronic shortage. That’s got to be my number one thing because it’s saving lives. Profit is not more important than lives. People are.

In the UK, you saw a lot of the manufacturers of brands that are able to get hold of the alcohol level needed for a quick hand sanitizer, using the WHO formula, which has a dispensation in the UK, which would allow you to get it out there without having to follow the usual routes to getting something like that out there.

In the case of someone like a big brand like Tata Harper, who has the profits, if they had access to the ingredients, it would be unusual, I think, not to be using some of it for community benefit. It’s very hard if you have no access to cash. Some of the bigger brands I think really do need to be soul searching, and I think the society will be asking business brands as well. What did you do? What did you do? If you had money, what did you do to help? If you have no money, if you’re a startup like us, It might be social media posts. It might be sharing a post that helps a campaign for somebody else.

We’re talking to a gin distillery in Kent at the moment. To get alcohol, to get a very basic [handle] that we would give to people in our community for free or buy one get one to try and cover some of our costs. So it’s difficult. It’s a difficult one. But at least, yeah, our manufacturer has stayed open, and they stayed open to be able to manufacture hand sanitizer for a government contract. So, I’m not against businesses staying open, but I think we will need to be really clear about what the focus is, and that is the health of larger society.

[JD]: Right. I think too, a common theme that came up in the anti-criticism of Tata Harper was that our keeping people employed and putting money in people’s bank accounts is also helpful too. But where is the line between thinking just in terms of the money and actually thinking with a more altruistic mindset?

[ZO]: And it’s really difficult because none of us can ever know what’s motivating anybody really on the outside, you know? I think that’s really compelling. If you say, “I can’t do anything other than preserve the jobs of the people that work in my company.” A primary reason to go back to selling is we paid the invoices of nine individuals, 80% of who are working parents. Where for some, we’re their biggest clients, for others we’re their smallest.

But you also have a duty of care to the people who work for you. So, once you’ve fulfilled their health and safety in, say, manufacturing plant, the social distancing has been done really effectively, and the government hasn’t prohibited it. I can understand how a business can say, “I want to preserve the maximum number of jobs through this time, and I want to keep paying you. In the UK, 80% of your salary will be paid back by the government.” I know in the US, I don’t think you have that same kind of system.                                                                 We have a safety net here where companies could follow you, and you get put on leave, but you’ll get 80% of your salary back. But in the US, if you haven’t got that  safety net, I let you go tomorrow. So I think it’s a little, I mean, this is where you see the nuances in different countries, and motivations.

On the face of it, it can be easy to say a brand isn’t looking after it’s people. It’s looking after its pockets. When, in fact, by looking after his pocket it’s able to pay the bills of the people. It’s a very mixed, mixed thing. I don’t know if they’re right or wrong, really. Unless it’s someone making hand sanitizer. Everybody’s sort of chipping in.

[JD]: I purposely asked you that hard question.

[ZO]: Yeah. There’s no right or wrong way.

[JD 0:15:27]: Female founders in the beauty industry are also wives, mothers, caretakers, et cetera. And we also have our own needs to tend to. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for women who are juggling it all right now?

[ZO]: Yeah. I think, I mean, I’m a mum of three, like I mentioned earlier. I’ve got a four-month-old, five-year-old, and a seven-year-old, and we’re all at home together. My husband’s working from home as well full time. The first week I was very stressed out because my eye was the business and wondering, you know, will we survive? Will we pay our bills? What’s going to happen?

Actually, it’s kind of a strange reaction really because what really is happening is we are all at home because there’s a global pandemic happening. We’re not having our normal lives at home because we want to. Something really serious is happening in the world. That took me a little while to digest because I was living with quite levels of high stress. Once that started to sink in, it became really important to think about what is really important to you? What are your priorities?

If you said to me, you asked me that question, I’d say, “Looking after my loved ones.” We’re all in this together, and I think reassuring my kids is super important. That can’t be second to me working on my business, or being stressed over my business. But I had forgotten that in the rush of not thinking about things. I put all my priorities in the wrong order.

I think it’s actually just about slowing down. You can’t clean the house. You can’t cook everything, three perfect meals. You won’t answer all of your emails. You won’t be on top of your to-do list. You will have things happen in the middle of the day that will just throw that whole day right off, and it’s just leaning into that, and everybody’s also experiencing it themselves.

I had a couple of calls with people who were working for me. Three of them all have kids. The first few were all pretending, you know? They’re like, “We’re fine! All the kids are doing [shatter boards], like fine.” Then slowly, everyone said, “Actually, I’m finding this quite hard.” Then it was really easy to be flexible. A quick WhatsApp message, “I can’t do this right now. My kid’s having a tantrum.” That would have stressed me out before, and now I’m like, this is the effects on me. Fine. It doesn’t make me less credible. We’re just going to move it because we’ve all got real lives to do.

Also, I think it’s really important to just take the space to have to yourself. You juggle lots of different hats, and we always in role, but actually just to stop and just even just breathe or take five minutes alone, which is just about you just centering yourself. I think people are very fearful. I know a lot of people aren’t sleeping super well and are really worried. Not just like their jobs or their life or their business, they’re scared about what does this mean? Why is the death to a thousand or whatever, 900 a day? That’s frightening.

Not acknowledging it, I think can create more fear. I think it’s having time for your friendships. Making sure you reconnect with people that matter to you. Writing that email to the people, your friends, or that little text to the person you haven’t been in touch with to say, “Are you okay?” I think that’s what the purpose of life is. The purpose of life isn’t as much as we like to think it [inaudible 0:18:56]. It’s actually the people we love and the people that love us. That’s got to be the thing that I think gets us through all of this.

That’s probably not a very business answer, but it’s the answer that I think that resonates the most with me because I think we all can be a bit workaholicy about our jobs and our businesses. We’re obsessed by them. As entrepreneurs, we live and breathe our businesses. So, it’s very hard to come off that treadmill to be assessable in the space of the completely freak situation that we’re all going through.

[JD]: The common theme in all of this, even though we’re talking about our personal lives, but even when we were talking about marketing, it’s just acknowledging that people are human. People are looking for real connections, and people have emotions, and you can’t just ignore that. People have needs, and it’s okay.

[ZO]: Yeah, I completely agree, and I think it’s going to change society. I hope it lasts. I hope we stay more compassionate and more in ensuring that the things that matter. It provides the shift that it could have on all of us.

[JD]: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Zaffrin. That was awesome, and thank you so much for your time today. I hope that you stay safe.

[ZO]: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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