As good as it gets

When asked to develop a new skincare brand 18 months ago, it was the perfect opportunity at the right time for Catherine Cervasio.

The Aromababy founder launched her baby skincare business 25 years ago but she had scaled back a little over the past few years to focus on raising her two sons.

“Over the past three years I have also worked on several projects as a consultant,” she explains. “With this latest project, and my two ‘babies ‘all grown up (now aged 18 and 24) you could say I have taken more of a personal interest. 

“I was approached to work on developing this new brand―GL (taken from the company name, Greenleaf) Natural Beauty 18 months ago, during a trade show in Shanghai. This Australian made collection of products champions an impressive lineup of locally grown, superfood-type ingredients including Japanese green tea, avocado, Kakadu plum and amaranth. We launch with five products in the coming months, with a further three products planned for late 2019.”

As with any product development, there are often challenges, says Cervasio, not the least of which is mastering a way to stabilise new raw material combinations.

“When I developed Aromababy it was the first natural brand of its kind for babies so it was no surprise I struggled to find cosmetic chemists who had expertise in natural formulations. Whilst natural and organic products are certainly more widely accepted by consumers these days, at a formulation level the category is still regarded as niche and therefore it takes a particular capability, commitment and probably passion to bring a product from concept to market.

“Not all cosmetic chemists are capable of (or excited by) innovation. With many of Australia’s personal care manufacturers now becoming brand owners themselves,  not only is there a potential conflict of interest, but there is an increasing pressure on lab staff to prioritise in-house product development and production over that of their customers. 

“The reality is that no matter how much a manufacturer (or cosmetic chemist) tries to convince you they are the right person for the job, for a number of reasons they may not be. It is critical to be working with the best team for your specific project right from the get-go. We had some hiccups in this area along the way but are all the wiser for it,” she adds.

Having already conducted soft launches in Shanghai, Seoul and Bangkok, it’s clear the brand styling and eco messaging is on trend, with appeal from across the Asian markets as well as in Australia.    

However, Cervasio knows waving the ‘Aus Made’ flag is not enough and doesn’t guarantee success. GL Natural Beauty boasts not only Australian made as a selling point, but Australian grown ingredients as well. The no-fuss, eco-friendly packaging and (as with Aromababy) an absence of goats milk, dairy and other animal ingredients, means GL also crosses over into both ethical beauty and indie  territory.

“The consumers who purchase these purpose-driven types of brands care about reducing their carbon footprint and the absence of animal by-products―they demand transparency and see value in a brand led by authenticity. Natural products are my life’s work and I believe in today’s climate, having a strong back story is becoming more crucial to the success of any new beauty brand.”

Additionally, Cervasio is very passionate about sharing her knowledge and experience with others. Putting her business experience to good use, she runs workshops with both health professionals and parents, which she says brings a huge amount of personal satisfaction to her work.

“When I launched Aromababy it was very unique. Even in today’s saturated market, consumers and store buyers alike still don’t always understand the difference, for example, between, natural and synthetic vitamin e.

“I am a qualified aromatherapist, infant massage instructor and beauty writer; I have been working in natural and organic skincare for over 25 years. I am passionate about my industry and the best way to share that passion is by providing information in a fun, interactive environment. It’s more than simply ‘selling’ a product, it’s about sharing knowledge. It’s what I love most.

“I’m in Hong Kong and China regularly offering educational sessions around natural and organic ingredients, the power of ‘touch’ through baby massage and general wellbeing for women throughout pregnancy. This allows me to connect personally with midwives and mothers. The feedback is always so positive―I feel like I am making a difference in my own, small way.”

She is expanding these workshops to Shanghai, Beijing, Melbourne and Sydney twice a year, supporting mothers who are looking to learn more about natural ingredients and organic care.

While the new skincare was always intended for export, this wasn’t the case when she launched Aromababy. However, the business has done extremely well overseas, especially in Asia.

“In my experience perhaps the Asian markets place greater value on the brand ‘story’ and its origins compared to Australia. In Australia retail is tough and we simply don’t have the population to sustain growth without exporting. Whichever market you’re in, there needs to be a certain amount of margin or you simply don’t get a foot in the door.

“Once on shelves in Australia, however, margins are further eroded (for both retailer and brand owner) by continuous percentage off sales, sampling, advertising fees and settlement discounts. I believe there is less differentiation between brands in Australia with a number of baby brands for example, opting to modify existing messaging and marketing rather than create their own, unique dialogue and in the process, branding.”

Whilst based on population, trading in some international markets brings an opportunity to scale your business which is not possible to achieve in Australia, export is not without its challenges.

“Challenges which are unique to export include cultural and language barriers, navigating regulatory compliance and in some regions, managing the territory geographically. I always recommend business owners attempt smaller markets first―maybe Singapore or Hong Kong instead of China or New Zealand before US.”

While she has been a very successful exporter and supplier for more than 25 years, Cervasio has always had a dream to have a retail space.” Originally when we launched we had a ‘shop in shop’ in department store Daimaru which enabled customers to enjoy the full Aromababy experience―complete with organic cotton baby wear, accessories and customer packaging all served by staff with brand knowledge.

“We had a similar presence in Myer and have also done a concept area within a department store chain in Taiwan. With the retail climate so tough right now, however, our own traditional-type store is out of the question. Because we had reduced our offering to an essential range of 15 products (across several sizes) and 10 gifts when we scaled the business back, in order to grow Aromababy into the future we recognise there does need to be further investment into extending the range again, which will ensure we have enough of an offering to explore some form of retailing when the time is right.”

So besides having two brands, organising workshops and presenting a radio show in Melbourne, does Cervasio still have time for anything else?

“The radio presenting has been a great experience, however, combined with my workload, travel and family, I have to say I was a little time poor during 2018. This year will be all about focusing on the two main projects I have and building distribution here at home in Australia―the baby care category in pharmacy for example, is almost identical to that in grocery. Perhaps it’s time for change?

“I have always wanted to publish a book. I have been mixing up face masks and body scrub since I was a teenager. Combine this with over 25 years in the industry and I’d say it’s time to put pen to paper, so watch this space.”

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