How Skin Inc founder Sabrina Tan harnessed digital marketing and social media to grow successful skincare brand

Sabrina Tan is only half-joking when she describes the skincare industry as a highly competitive blood sport. After “10 bloody years” in the arena, she ought to know. The good news though, is that Ms Tan and Skin Inc, the company she founded in 2008, are sitting pretty in the beauty world. The homegrown brand-gone-global has a glowing reputation among millennials and enjoys double-digit growth, with a healthy bottom line that’s boosted by a strong online presence. But she doesn’t plan to sit still.

Skin Inc’s breakthrough was a customised approach that blends beauty with technology to create a one-size-fits-one skincare universe. Potential customers complete an online Skin Identity Check that provides specific information (let’s call it ‘skin-tel’) on their lifestyles and skin condition. Each person is prescribed a custom-blended, ‘caviar-inspired’ serum comprising different active ingredients that remain encapsulated until applied to the skin. The company has well over a million ‘skin profiles’ – each with its own barcode – in its database.

Ms Tan, 45, spent a decade marketing computers and software in the IT industry before a sensitive skin condition and the mom-preneur in her (she has two children now in their early teens) led to a switch in career paths. She developed the customised serum encapsulation concept with researchers and manufacturers in Japan, then packaged and marketed the finished goods to appeal to audiences in search of a simple and effective skincare routine. Skin Inc products are available at retailers and e-tailers like Sephora, Amazon and Bergdorf Goodman. The company also has two skin supplement bars in Singapore.

Ms Tan says she is a proud disruptor of the beauty scene who works hard to stay ahead in the skincare game. As someone who is constantly time-challenged, she isn’t averse to appropriating the occasional Skin Inc tagline to get her point across. Asked to encapsulate her business philosophy, she says without hesitation: “Customise, don’t compromise.”

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Skin Inc celebrated its 10th anniversary with a three-day bash last month, bringing in social media and brand influencers from around the world. A live stream of the event attracted seven million views with a reach of over 80 million. Those are impressive numbers.

That’s what digital is all about today. The core concept was to showcase Singapore, and Skin Inc as a homegrown brand that’s gone global. It coincided well with the Crazy Rich Asians craze, and we took guests to Newton and Ce La Vie on the same night. The experience is what drives a lot of content today and we want to project being grounded yet dream big at the same time. There was the real experience of the store as well as cultural exchange between us. There’s a lot of real science behind the digital marketing, making sure the message gets out there. Our point of differentiation is to marry tech with beauty, tech and lifestyle. Our lives are disrupted by technology in a positive way, our perspective is more global and there’s speed to market. Coming from a tech background I had the foresight 10 years ago to create a product that is backed by data – we were able to navigate consumer behaviour.

You took a bold step by leaving a successful career and going into the skincare business. What prompted you to make the change?

I have this saying in my online profile: Start strong, finish well – it’s four simple words, but hard to execute. There was an insanity of purpose with a three-year-old and a one-year-old to want to start the business. I was inspired by people like Chris Lee of (design agency) Asylum and Cynthia Chua of the Spa Esprit Group. How many people do you come across where you can take away something positive to apply to your life? I just want to be a perfect role model for my two kids, making a difference and being able to be influential in my own way. Especially for a brand builder, it’s a marathon and a sprint at the same time. The beauty industry was full of BS and empty promises, I wanted to debunk the myths and speak the real truth of skincare. Of course, I didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I try to push boundaries by not saying no.

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In an industry that relies a lot on digital marketing and social media, an indie brand like Skin Inc has been able to make a significant impact in a relatively short time.

We now have over 200 outlets across the globe, including at 136 Sephoras across 48 cities – it’s huge. We talk about the ‘lovemark’ where global editors are talking about the brand without being paid, they respect individuality. The brand continues to raise the bar. Consumers will trust word of mouth and their best friends because they have your best interests at heart. If you hang around people who are smart and start owning those relationships, you can stay ahead. The real truth of doing skincare is, evolve with your lifestyle. You can do it with data. For example, 70.3 percent of consumers sleep less than eight hours a day. Dark circles around the eyes are a bigger concern now than wrinkles. Millennials sleep after midnight, while online shopping peaks after 10pm: when shops close is when the real shopping starts.

Young women today know what they want, and they want it right away.

It is already a difficult process to grow up but if you have good skin, 50 percent of the makeup is done, the rest requires five-to-10 minutes every day. From a skincare perspective it’s finding out how to have something that resonates with a universal audience – it goes beyond vanity. I like to say there are no ugly girls, only lazy girls. We are lazy but we want to be pretty too. We want to simplify life and make the world a more beautiful place – but in a quick and effective way, without having to follow 20 or more steps.

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What are some other factors that have contributed to Skin Inc’s commercial success?

Small is the new big. All the indie brands have had double- or triple-digit growth because consumer mindsets and lifestyle preferences change. One of the more important aspects is accessibility. We are the top skincare brand with Sephora in Asia, until recently we were the only brand with them that does customisation. In the online space you just need to give a very bespoke experience. Currently 60 percent of the business is offline and 40 percent online – we see that going to 50:50.

What advice would you give your younger self ten years ago?

Go for impact and stop sweating the small stuff. It’s important to pay attention to details but when you’re sweating the details it’s not good. I am time-starved but not energy-starved – not sweating is one way of conserving energy. My life philosophy, the three big rocks in my life are my purpose (Skin, Inc), my God and my family. Think about how to be of some significance and stay wise, impactful and kind – there are so many people that are right, but so few that are kind.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Desmond Wee/SPH

This article is originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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