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When entering a saturated market like beauty products, having a point of difference is critical. But for Christchurch-based cosmetics firm Sorbet, its unique offering – sustainable, natural products with minimal packaging – could also be its Achilles heel.
Founded by University of Canterbury chemistry and biology student Brianne West two years ago, the fast-growing early-stage firm makes shampoos, conditioners and body products in a solid bar form which activates in water. West set up the company after hearing statistics on the amount of packaging used in beauty products.
“I heard that the average consumer will throw out about 164kg of un-recyclable rubbish to landfills and up to 20 per cent of that can be cosmetics. I thought that was outrageous, especially [given] up to 85 per cent of shampoo is made of water, and half that packaging isn’t necessary,” she said.
While using only a small amount of packaging is great for the environment and saves the company a lot of money, not having a shiny plastic wrapper isn’t so good for Sorbet’s brand visibility. Most of its products, which include natural ingredients such as Samoan coconut oil, cocoa butter and kiwifruit oil, are wrapped in water-soluble paper. But as the packaging dissolves in the shower so does the product’s recognition.
“The benefit of beautiful packaging is that it inspires customer loyalty, but it’s not our niche to have ribbons and sparkles. We are a natural product,” West said.
“You can put the product in a normal soap container of course, but we are trying to tackle this problem by creating reusable branded product delivery systems for the bathroom. I’m looking into [containers] made from compressed sugar cane pulp.”
The company’s sustainability efforts have earned it a place in the finals of this year’s Sustainable 60 Awards.
Sorbet is the leanest of lean businesses, operating on “nearly zero capital”, West said. The two-person operation produces all the cosmetics from West’s kitchen, and the company sells its products direct to retailers and through its online store at sorbetcosmetics.com.
Despite the lack of funds, Sorbet has built a loyal following of 6000 customers in New Zealand and overseas through social media and PR campaigns targeting beauty bloggers and magazine editors. It’s on track to achieve turnover of $150,000 this year, and West is in talks with Christchurch department store Ballantynes as a potential stockist.
One of the biggest challenges in launching Sorbet has been getting customers and retailers to understand how to use a solid beauty bar, West said.
She decided to launch the shampoo and conditioner range before trying skincare products, because she thought solid shampoos were less likely to be to be confused with soap. “Chemically, soap and shampoo are very different. I didn’t want people to think, ‘this is just a bar of soap’.
“It’s shampoo without water, and because there is no water, there are no preservatives.”
West is talking to angel investors about a $110,000 capital injection to establish a manufacturing facility.
Sorbet is West’s third business. The 27-year-old previously founded cosmetic firm Ethique, and Tub, a brand of spoonable fudge. As a student running a beauty business, West said she sometimes struggled to be taken seriously by the business community, even with two successful exits under her belt.
“Getting recognition in things like the Sustainable 60 [awards] is great because if other people think you are doing a good job, it lends to your authenticity.”
As Sorbet expands, West has made the most of mentoring she has received from Entre, the University of Canterbury’s entrepreneur development programme.
Her mentors, Bill Dwyer of law firm Lane Neave and former chief executive of VBase events management Bryan Pearson, have helped her clarify her business strategy.
“I’ve got a much clearer vision than with my other two businesses. I know where I want to take it,” West said.
Pearson said West was a visionary and “truly entrepreneurial”.
“Where she needs some support is in the strategic direction and planning.”
One of West’s goals for 2015 is to get some Kiwi brand ambassadors involved in the business to help with Sorbet’s market penetration.
“We’d love to have someone like Lucy Lawless, Xena Warrior Princess, on board as people in our target market respect her because she is extremely environmentally focused.”
The winners of the Sustainable 60 Awards will be announced on Tuesday, October 28, at a ceremony in Auckland. For details and to view the full list of finalists, go to sustainable60.co.nz.