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Founders Bertrand and Mathilde Thomas on Caudalie’s Growth

In the two-and-a-half years since they moved from France to the U.S. to grow their business, the brand has experienced a 35 percent growth in sales.

Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas

In the two-and-a-half years since Caudalie founders Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas moved from France to the U.S. to grow their business, the brand has experienced a 35 percent growth in sales.

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Success didn’t come easy, though. In a lively and frank presentation, the husband-and-wife team revealed the primary lessons learned about the brand experience U.S. consumers are looking for when it comes to skin care — namely, instant gratification, clear and concise brand communications and a compelling story.

“You probably have two questions in mind: Is it possible to be husband and wife and work all day together?” said Bertrand Thomas. “Possible, yes. Easy, no.”

Noting that he had a good role model for successful family businesses in the form of Leonard Lauder, he continued with his second question, which referred to the brand’s heritage in wine growing. Caudalie uses grapeseeds produced on Mathilde Thomas’ family-owned vineyard in Bordeaux, the famed Château Smith Haut Lafitte. “How do we make money with a crate of grapeseeds?” he asked.

And Caudalie is making money, particularly in Europe, where it has a strong role in the pharmacy channel and has garnered three patents for its potent antioxidants since its inception in 1995. Still, translating that into success in the U.S. wasn’t automatic.

During the Thomases’ first year in the U.S., it became clear to them after a series of store visits that the brand wasn’t delivering on what Americans are looking for. “Women want instant gratification and a quick fix,” said Mathilde Thomas. That insight has since informed product development, such as the upcoming launch of Divine Legs, a tinted body moisturizer. “You can look sun-kissed in two minutes,” she promised.

Caudalie also had to radically rethink its approach to marketing. Whereas the pharmacy distribution in Europe supported a strategy built on delivering copious amounts of product information and education, the Thomases found that in the U.S. the message needed to be more concise and targeted. Likewise, the look and feel of the line was too dense. The Thomases repackaged the inner and outer components, making it more streamlined, sleek and less wordy. “Changing our packaging was the best decision we ever made,” said Mathilde Thomas, as she showed a slide of the initial packaging. “[At first] they didn’t get my packaging. It was a nightmare.”

In some cases, though, more was more. Through their time spent interacting with consumers in stores, the couple learned that shoppers are eager to hear their unique brand story. “When we would tell them about our beautiful story, about the research behind the brand, that we’re natural, luxurious and we have an art of living and spas, they would buy the product,” said Mathilde Thomas. “They would buy tons of products.”

Despite the success, the Thomases have a humble mind-set. “We don’t consider that we’ve made it,” said Bertrand Thomas. “We believe we have a lot more to learn, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves competitors to all of you in the room. But, as French people say, we feel that we are en route.”