Unlike his Honest Co. colleagues Christopher Gavigan, Jessica Alba and Brian Lee, chief marketing officer Chris Thorne doesn’t have an activism, acting or entrepreneurial background. Before he landed at the consumer packaged goods company last year, his career snaked through video games (Electronic Arts), sports (FanIQ and CSMG Media), and management consulting (PricewaterhouseCoopers). The commonality isn’t on a résumé; it’s at home. Like Gavigan, Alba and Lee, Thorne is a parent, and he shares their passion for protecting children from toxic chemicals, which also happens to be Honest’s mission. His task is to make others aware of that mission and Honest’s merchandise, a task that’s definitely been complicated by controversies surrounding the company’s sunscreen and laundry detergent.
WWD caught up with Thorne on Thursday in Los Angeles at the Hotel Bel-Air during Facebook’s first beauty summit to discuss Amazon, social media, celebrity and calming firestorms.
WWD: Do you feel Facebook Live has a lot of potential and how have you worked with it?
Chris Thorne: We did one yesterday morning. We release five new diaper prints every season, and we announced our summer prints yesterday on Facebook Live with Jessica Alba. We are still getting the numbers, but it’s pretty powerful in terms of how many people watch it and click-through to drive your web site. There is a huge first-mover advantage on Facebook Live right now. The scale that Facebook’s bringing is unmatched, and we are going heavily into it. It won’t be daily, but certainly we will do Facebook Live events weekly, and any time we feel we have something to say relevant to consumers, we will use it as a platform.
WWD: You’ve had to put out more fires than you might have expected during your early tenure at Honest Co. What’s your advice for other companies going through similar challenges?
C.T.: Just get out there and talk about it. Talk directly to your consumers. Let them know your side of the story. That’s been a really powerful thing for us. We have such loyal customers. We don’t hide from them. We really think our products are top-of-the-line, high-performing, safe products. We have detailed, authentic explanations for each of these things that have popped up. Sometimes companies feel like maybe we should just lay low and let this blow over, but, if you have a story to tell that’s an authentic one, get out there and tell it.
WWD: How have you communicated to your customers most effectively about the issues that have confronted Honest?
C.T.: In our blogs, which our subscribers and our shoppers use heavily. We talk to our customers through e-mail as well with long notes from our founders whether it’s direct mail from Jessica Alba or a note from Christopher Gavigan. We talk directly to our customers because they are what matters most. It comes down to us being consumer first. That’s not just in what products you make or how you market them, it’s also in how you provide customer service and how you provide responses to these type of issue that come up. It’s really about people over profits.
WWD: If you were starting a company from scratch today, would you attach it to a celebrity?
C.T.: I used to be a sports agent, and we represented lots of athlete clients, and we linked them up with tons of brands. That’s about a face and a marketing campaign. Jessica literally is helping us decide what products we make next, what formulations and shades we make. When we have had issues in the past that have arisen, she’s along with Christopher Gavigan made proactive phone calls to our customers. She is in the office every single day that she is in town. This is a senior level executive that would be at any company, but she just happens to be a celebrity. So, to answer our question, I’m not sure if there is another example of an actual true business executive/celebrity, but, if I had that type, then I definitely would. Otherwise, I’m not sure what upside you get.
WWD: Do you think virtual reality is applicable to consumer packaged goods?
C.T.: I really think there is going to be disruption in beauty online. How do I not have to try this product on at Ulta or Sephora? How do you buy this online without such a high return rate because you didn’t like it or it didn’t feel right? If you bring virtual reality or augmented reality into this, I think there is a huge opportunity in beauty.
WWD: Honest Co. incorporates augmented reality into an app that enables users to virtually try on Honest Beauty’s products. How has that been successful?
C.T.: In two ways. It gets people comfortable with the shades that look good with their skin tones. It gives them confidence to buy them, and I think it also reduces the return rate because, if you are just looking at a picture of a model wearing it, you are guessing that the skin tone is similar to you and that it will look good on you.
WWD: Honest Beauty produced a video that showed makeup products in the foreground and five different looks using them that quickly registered 10 million views. What were lessons you drew from that?
C.T.: The biggest one is you need more. You create this great video. You can break it up into five different parts and, then, you create tutorial videos off of that and images that you put on Instagram and Facebook display ads and across the Internet. Where do you go from there? That’s where influencers come in. I view influencers as an amazing creative agency almost. As opposed to just paying them to say things about you, it’s about working with them to create content with you that you then can distribute. The amount of beauty content consumed by women is staggering. How do you possibly keep up? That’s the biggest challenge.
WWD: Do you believe digital influencers remain extremely impactful?
C.T.: The nice thing is they refresh constantly. Who are the big ones today? To me, those aren’t the ones I want to partner with. I want to partner with the up-and-coming ones to create new, fresh content. They might have a short life cycle individually, but the category as a whole is not going anywhere and will continue to create great content and have a lot of influence.
WWD: Where are you placing your biggest bets in social media?
C.T.: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat is becoming big. How paid layers into Snapchat is a question mark for me. At EA, we did some paid stuff on Snapchat. It’s a very powerful platform, and there are a lot of users that are relevant. It’s a top-of-the-funnel thing with paid at this point with very little targeting capabilities. It’s kind of a TV equivalent, which can have a lot of value, but I don’t see it as a Facebook or Instagram competitor. Their secret sauce to me is the customer data. You can take your customer data and their customer data, and come up with a really complete picture to deliver highly relevant messaging.
WWD: In the year you’ve been at Honest Co., what have you discovered about Millennial moms?
C.T.: It applies to dads, too. When you have a baby, everything changes and you start to evaluate everything certainly that touches your baby. Everything they ingest, you become hyperaware of that. Then, I think it starts to extend into what’s in the home, and then they think about themselves. I really see that in Millennial moms and dads and, not only them, moms and dads in general. When you have a child, you need to be aware of everything that’s in a product and how you are using it. It shocked me when I had a kid. I was pretty happy-go-lucky, and I didn’t even give that stuff a second thought. Then, I had a kid. That was a big reason I switched from Electronic Arts to the Honest Co. Before I had a child, I am not sure that this type of role in this type of company would have resonated. I had my son and, all of a sudden, I wanted to do something that really matters. I know how parents are feeling and what concerns they have. We are trying to help them, and make it easier for them so they can trust products and not constantly have to do research about what is safe.