Using data to create high-end skincare at drugstore prices with Versed Skincare’s Melanie Bender

Joining me in today’s episode is Melanie Bender, Founding General Manager of Versed Skincare.

Versed launched as the first community-driven mass beauty brand and the first clean skincare line to debut in over 1,850 stores as part of Katherine Power’s lineup of super impressive brands including Who What Wear and Avaline.

Driven by a team of skin experts and a community of 16 million people, Versed’s mission is to make clean products for all, with the planet in mind. They help you find what you need to use and what you need to know—from the right product mix, to ingredient breakdowns (the good and the bad), and late-night chats about those lingering pimples.

We had so much fun recording this episode! We chat about the importance of gathering data to drive forward brand building, why launching into Target was critical to the success of the brand, keeping creativity as a core focus and what’s driving the brands growth right now.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Melanie: Yeah, I'm Melanie Bender, I am the founding president of Versed, where we make clean skin care for everyone, and I have the immense privilege of getting to run really the the day to day of all aspects of that business, from our marketing to our creative to product development, to how we distribute the retailers and on Ekom and really just just power that incredible ship.

Doone: Sounds so fun, so fun, you have an amazing track record of creating and building, starting with your own millennial focused agency prior to joining Who, What, Where, and then obviously going on to incubate the skincare alongside founder Katharine Power. So I want to go back to the very beginning and find out where this story actually starts for you.

Melanie: Yeah, and, you know, I think I think there may be is no real beginning point, because one thing as I reflect back in that I always felt in my career is that it was it felt so Securitas and I looked at other people that I aspired to become later in my career or my peers. And their career path seems so set and well understood and easy to navigate. And that was never mind, I was always someone that was incredibly curious, that loved learning different things, learning how things were connecting with people and just understanding how they interacted with with those things. And that led me to a lot of really, really different experiences that at times felt hard to string together. I actually end up back in university. I studied aerospace engineering and global environmental science, so I clearly had no idea I wanted to get into beauty. But it gave me this really awesome one, like a foundation for kind of scientific theory and thinking and forming hypotheses and testing them a really strong kind of engineering perspective and understanding operationally, how do you put things together? And also just a really great appreciation for our incredible planet and the people and things that live on it.

Melanie: After coming out of school, I started working in sustainability and really just felt like a spark was missing. It was interesting work, but not at all connected to to people, to emotion, to the the kind of beating heart that I felt inside me and and is so much of a culture. And from there, I transitioned into marketing more of a leap then than really knowing where it was going to take me. I was in New York at the time and that was where I just started starting to get so excited about digital that was emerging. And I was working in PR, which at the time was calling up editors on the phone and putting them on your story. But I thought how my day to day behavior was changing of spending so much time on Facebook, Instagram, which is coming online. Twitter was becoming to be a big deal and really got excited about what that can mean for brands. And that was the niche that I started to carve out for myself first at that agency, an agency that I that I started working at. And then I had the opportunity to get together with the team behind that agency and found a new agency really focused on that millennial consumer and helping brands reach them through these emerging channels. And no one had a playbook for you.

You had to get in there and experiment, test, try different things, be willing to fail and learn. And that was really how I first got in to brand building. And from there I was led kind of by cookie crumbs from one opportunity to the next or one project to the next. Learning, digital learning brick and mortar, retail learning, fashion, beauty, learning, math. I did luxury brands. I did drugstore brands. I did direct response brands that are sold via radio ads and MLM brands that are sold via via a multilevel marketers. And I was doing that work that I got more deeply into beauty working with one of the the largest contract manufacturers of beauty in the US, nanoproducts based in in New York. And that was a real inflection point in my career because I got to partner so closely with these incredible chemists, these incredible product developers. And that was really where I learned what goes into a product and the difference between a luxury skin cream and a drug game, the difference being typically packaging and markup. So that was just a really incredible way to to really kind of learn from the inside out beauty and and skin care that I was able to kind of tap into years later when I had the opportunity to start pulling together versus.

Wow, holy moly, I definitely want to dig into what you saw when you were building those luxury brands and the kinds of learnings that you're able to take and bring into first and specifically how you're able to kind of innovate on the pricing and innovate on packaging, like how you're able to get that price point so far down.

But I first want to stick with when you're in, who, what, where how did you kind of get into that business and get into a position where you decided to launch this brand with Catherine?

Yeah, well, first, I was just a big follower and lover and consumer of WHO or I had been reading it, watching their their content for probably close to a decade. And I think you always are the best asset to brands or industries or businesses that you already know and love because you have a unique purview to them. You probably have a lot of more direct empathy with their customers. So that was really where it all started. And I had a friend that went to work at it who were working on their data and insights, which is one of the the really incredible assets of that company. I started as a media company and then saw the opportunity to really tap into that audience and and create with them and to learn from them. And they had an opportunity come up for a marketing role a few years down the road. And I had actually at the time I was working at at Westfield at one of the the largest operators of brick and mortar retailer. I was really just getting steeped in and that environment, which still, you know, even even today accounts for 80 to 90 percent of all retail sales. So certainly significant. And I was involved in an initiative there around the future of retail and really thinking through what this world will look like, how retail will be a part of our lives 10, 15, 20 years down the road. It was a project that I kind of raised my hand for that I thought was interesting and I wanted to be a part of that.

Led me to lead a talk at South by Southwest and Katharine Power ended up being one of the panelist on that talk. And that was how I met her. And when that marketing role popped up that they thought of me, they reached out to me and it was just such a slam dunk for what I wanted to do, for where I wanted to be, had nothing to do with brand development. For the record, it was coming in and and running marketing for their media properties as well as their growing consumer brands, which is what I was. I was a marketer and brand developer by experience. And it was when I got in the door that I learned that she was interested in developing new brands. And I think one thing that I've done well throughout my career is, you know, the job that you have to do today, but also understanding where do your leaders want to go? What are their goals? What are what do they want to have happen? And they're one to five years plans. And how does that intersect with what you want to do and what you're interested in? And I was always great about raising my hand when I saw the light and when I heard that she wanted to do brand development, I said, hey, that's me, I can do it for you.

And I actually wrote a new job description. I wrote it into my job description that I was going to work on that.

And she gave really just incredible direction as to the vision for the brand that she wanted to see something that was very digitally driven, that was in beauty, in this really growing exciting industry that was powered by the community that she had built. And from there, it was really up to me and the team that I was leading to figure out the rest. And it was through listening to that community and honestly, through having conversations with retailers, with EDS, that clean skin care really became kind of the the light bulb that we wanted to hone in on. And from there, over a long course, I would say it took us probably a year and a half to develop the brand, the products. It's you know, it's an incredibly iterative process to really develop a brand, to develop an assortment of voice, a look, a feel, even a logo and a name takes a lot of time. So that was what led me into that role. And in throughout the development process, I was doing that as well as doing my my kind of job and how it works when you when you do kind of break open those those passion projects.

And ultimately, when it was clear that Verst was, you know, it was going to happen, it was it was there was going to be brought into this world.

Catherine asked me to take on the role of general manager for the brand, which is honestly not something that I knew I wanted. And it was even a little scary at the time to really take on the full PNL and and responsibility for areas outside of the more traditional marketing. But I, I was very, very fortunate that she saw the potential need to do that. And it's a a jump that I. Just so, so grateful for it, because it's brought me to this new new chapter of where I am now.

Oh, my gosh, it just sounds like the most exciting pathway for you and obviously such a huge learning curve that you've been able to up skill in this totally different area of and being able to witness building a brand on all different aspects. I want to go back into the data role that obviously who what where plays into building the skin care brand. As you mentioned before, it's super critical in what you guys have been building and you have this incredible audience already.

What were those initial steps like in finding out specifically what the consumer actually wanted in a skin care brand?

Yeah, that was absolutely incredible. And the community continues to be the beating heart of our brand and where other brands are found or driven or influencer driven or even retail driven, we're driven by our community. And I had developed brands before. I had worked on quite a few brands and none of them put the community at the center in the way that we had the opportunity to do. And it just was like this explosive experience of having so much information, so much depth, but also so much connection to the time. It was just our opportunity now, its connection to the people using our products every day. And it's kind of an unreal experience for a brand person where typically there's if not just one wall, there's two or three walls between you and the end user. But tactically, it started as really just wanting to understand the data and insights. And it was using a combination of quantitative data that came in through who, what, where more passively. So things like what articles people were reading, what products were they clicking on, what were they checking out in their carts, which we could see through affiliate data, what were the highest engage and interacted with social post and then combining that with qualitative data, which helps you understand the why kind of the reason behind the behavior. And that was focus groups. We have a private Facebook creation group which now has over sixteen thousand people. We do surveys that reach two thousand people and it's knitting all those data points together that we really navigated each step of the journey.

And oftentimes it's not an answer. When you kind of get one of those data points, it's really just asking another question. And to me, that's what's really, really exciting. And we it's different than crowdsourcing your brands because it's using data to really to empathize with them and become closer to them and understand what their life is like, what are their needs, what are their wants, what are their values, what's missing from from their experience. And what was so, so glaring is that for someone living in L.A. who worked at who, what, where and had all the right access, the products that you use in your skin looked completely different. They were clean. You were clued into ingredients. You're probably quite a bit in your skin care regimen. You probably had help with the hormonal acne or the dark spots or whatever the the concerns is. But for the majority of consumers that didn't have high household income and that couldn't drop two hundred fifty dollars on a regimen that didn't have a Sephora in their city, which is a lot of people, or just didn't want to spend two hours Googling ingredients to understand the difference between scorelines Waylan. Their regimens look completely different. And they saw the clean movement happening around them. But it felt like it wasn't for them. It was for people with access, with income, with the right connections. And that was what was really the the exciting moment for us, this opportunity to to take this movement that we so believed in and we were already benefiting from and make that something for everyone, really democratizing the access to it and and democratizing it in every sense of it.

Yes. Like Price Point is a huge barrier. How it's distributed is a huge barrier, but also just making it easy to understand, not treating it like it's it's rocket science, helping people understand the the right products to use for their own skin needs how to layer them and use them together and really giving them a seat at the table and signaling any way we could that this brand is is for you. And that was really, I think, the the biggest outcome of of creating with our community really the the breaking down of those barriers. And it gave this desire and even imperative for transparency. And when there's transparency, you're held accountable to everything you're doing as a business from how you're sourcing your products to the claims that you're making, the imagery you're using, who's on the team around you and. I think that's been to us something that's beautiful, scary at times, too, to really prioritize transparency because there's nothing to hide behind, which is typically Mbuti, you're hiding, hide your airbrushing and your Luxuria imagery, your beautiful merchandising displays. But for us, it was really about building this entire brand for the community that we we were serving ultimately.

Totally, and I imagine through all of that process as well and being so transparent and speaking to your community, you're really getting one hundred percent of that buy in the super excited about what you're building. They're going to be your first customers. They're going to be the ones who shout about it and tell their friends because they've been part of the whole journey from the beginning, which is just so exciting. I'm interested to know how you were able to innovate in terms of the price point and be able to produce high end products with those kind of active ingredients that are usually kind of exclusive to the Lomez of the world or whatever it is, and bring those down to drugstore prices.

Yeah, you know, first it was just the intent to do it. Most people who were were starting brands. They wanted the luxury price point. They wanted to create something that felt exclusive. It was very much the the Vogue thing at the moment. But that wasn't what we wanted to be. We wanted to create something for everyone. And I knew from my time working in beauty manufacturing that that really it's there's not a huge difference. The biggest cost between a mass product and a prestige product is the packaging. So we made some very deliberate decisions, like using one hundred percent stock componentry. When you see a beautiful prestige product and it's got that that custom jar or bottle that you don't see anywhere else, you're paying a lot for that. That's a custom mold.

It probably costs more than what's going inside of it. The markups also look very different for a prestige retailer than for mass. So it's kind of dissecting the typical cost profile of a product and figuring out how do we invest more in the group that goes inside of the bottle and then. Oh, wow. Yeah, building on to that, there's this little me that I learned from my time in beauty manufacturing. There's this practice of using marketing ingredients. So you put just enough of something in there. It's typically something by the CBD to talk about it in the packaging, but it's not in there at an active level. So it's not going to benefit your skin, but it's still adding to the cost profile of the product. So we we were very meticulous about what was going into each product. And if it wasn't in there at an active level that was going to benefit your skin. We pulled it out to really pare back and just focus on investing. And really what does the hard work? Certainly, we also focused on the most readily accessible, active ingredients. So instead of the buzzy new ingredient that was everyone was pushing out this season and next season, we focused on the kind of tried and true the hyaluronic acids.

The is one because the research is there, the results are so well documented that you know, that by putting them in there at a certain level, you're going to get that effect that you and two, there are a lot more cost efficient because so many people are buying into them. They're very there are a lot more inexpensive to source. And that ultimately lets you make the product a lot more affordable. And then the other big differentiator for us was having the incredible partnership that we did with Target to distribute. And we're now in in three thousand dollars globally. We started in and over fifteen hundred. So compared to the brands that wanted to start more selective in their distribution with like a detox or Accredo, which we love or wanted to start direct to consumer, only the quantities that we buy, they let us pass on really such incredible cost savings to our customer. When you buy twice as much of a product that often can cost 50 percent less. So those were the things that we knew that we built into the brand to enable us to really invest more than anything in the formula formula first, like we like to say.

Wow, that is just so many incredible insights that you just packaged up there in a few minutes. Holy moly, that the the packaging thing, that's crazy. I had never thought of that of custom molds vs. just a regular bottle that you're able to buy. Yeah. I was really curious to talk about the the reason behind launching into Target and I guess you've just touched on that versus going that traditional like see model, which we obviously see a lot of at the moment. So was that the reason that you exclusively kind of launched with them instead of doing the data see thing?

Yeah, you know, ultimately we we step back and I think with the time we were developing this, this was kind of the heyday. But like I said, even then, 90 percent of retail sales were still happening through retailers and stores. So for us, it was really about building a brand that could thrive in both worlds. And that's the future that we are at least looking five to 10 years out. Retail was, of course, going to be a big part of it. So we wanted to create a brand that could really straddle both. The other really important insight when talking to our community is that when they're evaluating new brand thinking about a new product, they want to discover it in store. They don't want to buy it from a sketchy website that they've never been to. They want to touch it and feel it. They want that credibility that having it on a retail shelf brings. And to us, that was a really key takeaway, that by by leaning into a trusted partner like that, we are able to just accelerate the growth so much more quickly. And that was really what we were after because we knew we had a window of opportunity.

We knew that no one was democratizing, playing in the way that we wanted to. And we knew it was going to happen and we wanted to be the ones to do it. So it was all about how do we go after this with a lot of integrity, but also with a lot of momentum so that we can be really the ones to break this open. So Target, really, it was about reaching more consumers more quickly, really partnering with someone who was invested in clean. And I look at what they done with their clean program and their heads and shoulders above the FDA in terms of the the requirements, the transparency, I think they've done more than possibly anyone in the US to to make clean more more prominent, more easy to understand. So really, our strategy was to lean in with a partner that could help us build this this brand ecosystem that takes the best of digitally native brands, which is what we it's how we think of ourselves, but brings it to life in a way that thrives in both direct consumer and retail worlds.

Hmm, yeah, totally, totally so amazing.

Can you share a little bit about how you actually launched the brand with Target and through your own channels and through who, what, where? In the beginning, yeah.

Yeah. I mean, gosh, brand launches. There's nothing quite like it. I feel like there's just so much anticipation and honestly, there's no right way to do it. So for us, it was one like you said, we had this incredible community that had created the brand with us at the time that we launched, I think we had about twelve thousand people that had actively participated in some way to to shaping the brand. So we really wanted to give them that that first access and and really make them a part of that. Hand in hand, we knew that influencer is obviously a huge driver in beauty. We saw hashtag ad going crazy. And we also, in talking to our consumer, knew that the biggest thing missing from mass beauty is trust. They're so used to the consumer, so used to being marketed to with claims, with supermodel imagery, with airbrush to a T. They don't trust anything that's being said. So that was the most important thing for us to overcome. And to do that, we felt strongly that we weren't going to pay anyone to