IBA Chats with COOLA’s Chief Creative and Cultural Officer Chris Birchby

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COOLA wants you to wear your (healthy) sunscreen. The brainchild of founder and Chief Creative and Culture Officer, Chris Birchby, this sun protection brand has been at the forefront of organic sunscreen marketing for almost fifteen years. Before much of the beauty industry formally embraced anything organic, COOLA was living it. Even today, as the sun care category becomes increasingly crowded with newer entrants like Hero Cosmetics and ZitSticka, COOLA’s founding proposition, to offer effective and plant-powered formulations with 70%+ certified organic ingredients, remains its key point of differentiation. 

IBA recently caught up with Birchby to discuss how painting and online poker transitioned into a career in sun and skincare, the many challenges he experienced in bringing COOLA to market, and why the brand steers clear of the term “clean.”

Apparently, you worked for fashion photographer Steven Meisel in a previous life. How did your path lead to COOLA?

I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a small apartment with three other people, and I got the job as his production assistant without even knowing how famous he was! I had every little odd job around set, from keeping the craft services table looking orderly to moving around a heater or fan next to a model. It was usually a closed set with just a dozen people including Pat McGrath, who did all the makeup, and models like Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Carolyn Murphy. I had a lot of fun, but at the time I was applying to graduate schools. I got into an MFA program at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, so I moved out west in the summer of ’98. That started my great love affair with southern California.

After graduate school I got a studio in Alhambra and started toiling away as a painter, and it was right around that time that I started playing a lot of online poker, which was really starting to boom then. My grandmother had taught me and my three younger brothers how to play when we were younger, but I read every book I could on it. It was incredibly more lucrative than painting, so I balanced those two for several years, traveling around Las Vegas, Europe, and the Caribbean. But in 2006 the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed, which didn’t make poker illegal per se, but put the stigma of illegality on it so it became more difficult to make ‘easy money.’

About two years before that, I had gotten the idea for COOLA. Both my parents had melanoma within a year of each other, and I had never even been to a dermatologist before. So I went under the ultraviolet light and saw all the sun damage from years of wearing tanning oils and Hawaiian Tropic Factor 6. I was surfing a lot then, so I needed to start taking sunscreen seriously. I was living in Venice, which turned me onto all things organic; I grew up in New Jersey at a time when that just wasn’t a thing yet. I couldn’t find anything that I thought was both healthy and wearable. The only other organic sunscreen on the market then was Badger.

I thought, this may be a fun side hustle that would combine my passion for creativity with my knack for analytics that I acquired from playing poker. I wanted to create something that was more mission-based that would, frankly, get me out of the studio during the day. That was around 2004. We didn’t get to market though until three years later.

What was the journey to market like?

My first lab made this beautiful formula that felt totally weightless. It was only later after I packed it into the tubes that I realized that you needed to do SPF validation testing for the FDA. I knew nothing and was very naïve. I had it tested, and lo and behold, there was no sunscreen in it! I called up the lab owners, who were two brothers who used to work at L’Oreal. It turned out they were going out of business and leaving the country. One of them was apologetic and the other didn’t seem to care much.

Then I ended up going to arbitration with my second lab in the Valley because the silk screen printing on the tubes smudged off as soon as you touched them. I had to get an attorney on Craigslist because I had such little money at the time, but I got $0.30 on the dollar back for that lot.

With the next lab I had figured things out a bit more. I expanded my product line from two products to six; I had sunscreens for the face and body as well as an active sports version. But I realized that my price point was not sellable in surf shops, which was the only market I knew at the time. I brought in a consultant then to help me pivot to the resort and spa market. I started going out and meeting spa directors and estheticians, as well as small beauty store proprietors, bringing them samples, and asking them questions about ingredients and scents. Essentially, I created a focus group that helped me shape COOLA the brand for launch.

I was just about to launch, and I got a call early in the morning that there was a warehouse fire where I was storing all my products. The facility totally burned to the ground. The owners didn’t have proper insurance, so I had to get another attorney and ended up getting $0.30 on the dollar again!

By a year later I had blown through all my poker money. I was focusing 100% of my time on COOLA and really needed it to succeed. We finally launched in 2007 with a few great blue-chip accounts like Fred Segal, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the Montage Hotel in Laguna Beach. I went to every spa meetup and went door to door just pounding the pavement.

Talk about the evolution of the organic/healthy-for-you side of the brand?

We were ahead of the curve there. The market was definitely very different back when we launched, with much less competition. I remember when we originally pitched the brand to Sephora back in 2012 or 2013; they said that their customers weren’t interested in organic. There wasn’t much discussion around it, but it was a real point of difference that we’ve always been true to. We were one of only two organic sunscreen companies, Badger being the other. We use plant-based ingredients to boost the efficacy of the sunscreen actives so we can use less actives yet still achieve effective test results.

Going forward, we’re trying to do a better job at storytelling. We have so much brand equity that we’ve created over the years, and so much we can mine from our heritage as far as our authenticity, our team, and our ingredients story. The percentage of recycled packaging we use, for example, as well as full transparency on the ingredients and where they come from, and who we support with organic farming. We have a trademark on ‘Farm to Face,’ which means we formulate our products with ingredients that follow sustainable farming practices.

There’s no third party that will authenticate and recognize organic sunscreens in the U.S. because the infrastructure isn’t there, and there’s no current definition for it. We go by the standards originally stipulated by the California Organic Products Act of 2003, which has since evolved into the California Organic Food and Farming Act. Obviously, our active ingredients can never be organic and we’re not claiming that they are. We have two very distinct collections: one with mineral actives and the other with chemical actives, but we don’t use oxybenzone or octinoxate.

What we’re claiming is that our complete formula, including the actives, is 70% organic. There are QAI and NSF standards for organic, but they exclude actives from their calculation when they quantify the amount of organic material. California organic standards are more stringent; you must include the actives in your calculation. We do audits with the state every other year to ensure the authenticity of our formulas.

COOLA tends to stay away from the word “clean” in their marketing. Why is that?

It’s becoming a target for people looking to take down companies. The downside of this industry are the troll attorneys whose sole intention is ‘the shake down.’ There are always going to be brands that are disingenuous with their claims since ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ are not currently defined by the FDA. The best you can do as a brand is to be as transparent as possible so that people can’t try to willfully find fault for their own gain. But it’s still the wild west out there because the government hasn’t put the proper regulatory in place in this industry, which makes it challenging.

How do you stay on top of innovations in your category?

We’ve always put ourselves out there as an innovation-first company. We’ve had a ton of global firsts that we’re very proud of. We were the first company to incorporate sunscreen into makeup setting spray, for example. Everything we do comes out of our innovation department.

Every two to three years we update our formulas because there’s always newer ingredients and formulations coming out. I see competitors in our category in spa and resort who have the same formula with the same packaging year after year. We’re constantly evolving thanks to this incredible focus group that we have of dermatologists, spa directors and estheticians, and people who just really know skin. That group has evolved over time to also include influencers as well, and we rely on our customer service team as well to harvest reviews and customer feedback.

We have an incredibly robust packaging team that spearheaded a big transition into glass and sugar cane plastic for COOLA. Our analytics team looks at all the data out there from sources like Nielsen, for example, so we can get as much info as possible on consumer sentiment and what’s selling.

We go directly to all the raw ingredient manufacturers both domestic and global, as well as a whole network of U.S. manufacturers with their own chemists. We also bring in chemists that we work with directly at different labs around the U.S.

We also talk to a lot of the buyers at our bigger accounts like Ulta and Sephora. What do you see as far as white space and opportunity? Where is the gap? What is moving quickly on your end? Conversations like that. We want them to feel invested in us so we’re as interactive as possible.

COOLA has expanded beyond ultraviolet protection into blue light and environmental protection as well. Is this your innovation department at work?

Our protection heritage has evolved into blue light protection, which initially came to us from an American Association of Dermatology show around 2016. We were initially skeptical of blue light, like a lot of people were, but more and more data has been coming out about it.

We found three different labs to do independent ingredient testing on three cell cultures – white cocoa seed, Peruvian pink pepper tree, and Indian Jasmine & mangosteen, which all have the scientific data to back that they can protect against the effects of blue light exposure. Then we went to our SPF validation labs and asked them to test on blue light, which they’d never done before. We pioneered this with our third-party testing facilities to test on the finished product. We used all three at the clinical level, not the marketing level, in our Full Spectrum 360 Collection. We’re extremely confident and we trademarked the term ‘Blue Screen’ as well as ‘Digital De-stress,’ which is really the only way to protect your IP as a small brand.

 

Erica La Sala is a beauty writer and reporter who specializes in covering the business behind beauty. Her work has been featured in several digital publications and newsletters serving both the professional and consumer communities, including Beauty Independent, Glossy, CEW Beauty News, BeautyMatter, and Allure Magazine. She graduated from Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business with an MBA in Management Systems.

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