By  on September 30, 2005

LONDON — Liz Earle and Kim Buckland may look like wholesome English mums, but underneath those bright smiles and creamy complexions are two renegades. The co-founders of Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare have taken an unconventional approach to the beauty business, and with annual sales of $36 million, their strategies are clearly paying off.

In the 10 years since it was founded, Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare has become a cult brand in the U.K., although it has never advertised, never made any antiaging claims and never been sold over a department store — or drugstore — counter. Instead, the brand is sold through QVC, mail order and the Internet, and its only brick-and-mortar outlet is Browns, the high-end designer clothing retailer in London.

Earle and Buckland set out to create the sort of skin care they felt was missing in the U.K. market. "When we started out, there was an explosion in hair care products in the U.K., but no skin care brands other than the department store Lauders and Rubinsteins — and faceless products at Boots," said Buckland, who was formerly director of sales and marketing for John Frieda.

Earle, a health and beauty writer, book author and former television host, said the two were fed up with paying a lot of money for beauty products. "We were always hoping that if we spent more we'd get better results," she said. "So we wanted to create a mass market brand that would offer customers expert advice along with the product. We wanted it to be accessible, affordable — and pampering."

The Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare line started out with Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser, which is now the company's best-selling iconic product. In August, Earle and Buckland threw a cocktail party in London for the product's 10-year anniversary.

The cleanser, which retails at 10.75 pounds ($19.50 at current exchange), is sold along with two muslin cloths (which help exfoliate), and contains almond milk and rosemary, chamomile and eucalyptus essential oils. Three million units have sold over the past decade, and this year it won U.K. In Style's Best Beauty Buys award.

Since the launch of Cleanse & Polish 10 years ago, the line has expanded to include everything from body creams and gels to self-tanners to essential bath oils and body sprays. All of the skin care products are infused with botanical plant oils, including rosemary, eucalyptus, rose hip and argan.Sales are growing at an average rate of 30 percent year-on-year, and the company plans to launch a full men's range, to be called simply Naturally Active Skincare, next spring. The brand will launch in Australia this year, and the company is in advanced talks aimed at taking it to the U.S., Japan and Germany next year. The business model in those countries will mirror that of the U.K. with a mix of sales via TV, mail order and small, independent retailers.

Earle and Buckland also plan to open a spa in the beachfront house that currently serves as the company's headquarters on England's quaint and quiet Isle of Wight.

There is no doubt Earle's telegenic good looks and solid background in skin care — and the media — have been a major marketing force over the years. Indeed, she was in the skin care business long before starting the company, and has written more than 30 books on beauty and health issues, including vital oils, aromatherapy and menopause. In the Nineties, she hosted her own TV series, "Liz Earle's Lifestyle," for Britain's ITV network, and "Beautywise" for BBC1.

Earle is proud of her products, but happily admits they don't work miracles. "We deliberately avoid antiaging talk. It's very negative, and we don't want to offer any false hopes," said Earle from a wicker chair in the living room of the company headquarters, overlooking the beach. "We just want our customers to look their best and have healthy, radiant, glowing skin."

Customer service is a company mantra, and a major reason they've never advertised. "Why spend money on ads when you can plow it back into products, service and packaging?" asked Buckland. All of the products are hand-wrapped in signature tissue paper at the company headquarters, and the company sends out a regular, chatty mailer to customers with news about the company and advice about skin care.

Earle and Buckland said it's customer service that feeds their bottom line. "We're always focused on the customer, and we've never chased profit," said Buckland. "The profit takes care of itself."

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