Catherine Cervasio, founder and owner of Aromababy. Image source: Aromababy
Rewind to 1994.
Grunge was in fashion, Jennifer Aniston’s ‘The Rachel’ started a hair frenzy and, unfortunately, natural beauty care was almost non-existent.
And it was the year Aromababy was born, with a deeply personal desire to address the need for natural baby care products.
Growing up making facemasks and body scrubs as a teenager, Catherine Cervasio, founder and owner of Aromababy, has always been passionate about beauty and skin care.
Through constant innovation and market development Aromababy has overcome many challenges – but COVID-19 is something different. At a time when isolation is demanded, Aromababy’s model was based on dedicated support from retail outlets, not online sales in its own right.
Aromababy has had to adapt. Rapidly.
Twenty-six years on from the brand’s inception, Catherine shares her story, her passion for wellness and her hopes for the future, post COVID.
Renée: How did Aromababy come about?
Catherine: Aromababy launched in 1994 after I was retrenched from a senior role in product development. I was working on body care products at the time, which is something I was, and still am really passionate about.
At the same time, I was expecting our first baby and had a very keen interest in natural health and well-being and was very concerned about the use of potential chemicals in baby products on my newborn.
I began to research and I found, to my astonishment, there was actually nothing available that was petrochemical, sulphate, fragrance free, etc.
I had travelled the world looking at product development ideas and there was no natural baby care in the world that I was aware of. There was definitely none in Australia. And if there was, they weren't brands that were readily available to consumers.
It was a new concept, it hadn’t been done before and when you are the innovator and you're the first to do something, there is always hesitation.
I’m a bit of a perfectionist and being so passionate about health and wellness, I spent a lot of time looking at medical research in terms of certain ingredients that had been trialled on skin. I then delved down deeper into seeing which ones had been trialled on infant skin.
The types of research I looked at were neonatal dermatology pieces around inflammation and the potential allergy triggers of fragrances and even possible hormone disruption links to some of the preservatives.
I was just flabbergasted no one had created a natural alternative.
Aromababy products are derived from natural ingredients. Image source: Aromababy.
Renée: What were some of the challenges getting Aromababy to fruition and how was the idea received?
Catherine: Access to raw materials was hard at the time and it took me close to 12 months to find a chemist willing to work on the concept with me. At the time there were only one or two Australian brands and probably only a couple more globally working with natural and organic ingredients.
Getting a team together that was both open to the research I'd done and willing to work on the project was challenging. It was a new concept, it hadn’t been done before and when you are the innovator and you're the first to do something, there is always hesitation - particularly from a manufacturing perspective.
In saying that, the retailers were not averse to it and nor were the health professionals.
So within a short amount of time, we got into a retail chain based in Adelaide and a Japanese retail giant based here in Melbourne called Daimaru, the original anchor tenant of Melbourne Central. They're both gone now but not long after that we got into Myer and still have that relationship to this day.
In addition, being involved in maternal child health with my newborn, I found the midwives, lactation consultants and health professionals were really open to the notion of a natural alternative, because according to various eczema support groups, some babies were developing sensitivities within their first six months of life and there was very limited choice of baby care.
Every brand, every product was a similar sort of offering with formulations that relied on water, preservative, emulsifier, petrochemical emollients and sulphates. So we had a lot of interest in the idea.
Catherine’s pick! AROMABABY Barrier Balm™- developed to help soothe nappy rash, cradle cap and other dry skin the soothing natural oils work to moisturise whilst providing a light barrier to protect the skin. The whole family can use it - ideal for sunburn, windburn, chafing, dry lips and cracked nipples during breastfeeding. Available in 10mg, 25mg or 100mg. Shop at aromababy.com
Renée: Being first to market, you opened the gates for competition. Where did this lead to for Aromababy?
Catherine: I guess I became a bit of a vigilante, really wanting to make a genuine difference in this space. That's always been at the heart of the business and I think that's why Aromababy will always be that little bit different.
Aromababy has definitely paved the way for other smaller businesses to emerge and encouraged mums in business, women in business, people pivoting and going in different directions, offering babies skin care. Having bought something new to the market and having it so widely accepted, Aromababy really did create the natural baby category. The biggest competitors to us have been the brands we've opened the gates for. That’s fine, that’s business.
As a result, there are now loads of brands in the market and yet only a very small potential for sales in Australia. Having a limited market forced us to look outside of Australia quite early on.
In the last few months especially, it’s been export that has really helped us, it’s been our saving grace – exporting and having that presence in a variety of markets.
Renée: Speaking of the last few months, how have you had to modify your business to adapt to the current environment that is COVID-19?
Catherine: Given we were a traditional manufacturer, with a core focus on wholesale business, there was not a really solid e-commerce component to our business. And because we were always trying to support the people that were supporting us, which are the retailers, it also meant we weren't overly experienced in e-commerce to the end consumer.
However, because our connection with our customers was always care-focused, we were able to adapt quickly to selling direct to consumers. At Aromababy it is always about how can we solve a problem and how can we support that person or this group or these midwives or whoever it is.
In order to pivot, we have had to come up with different things.
We are doing a lot more in the digital space and finding our Instagram story engagement, for example, has gone up 600 per cent. So there is a way to stay true to your values and still have a heart-centered business, which for me is particularly important in this category. And remain relevant and innovate. I think you can do all of those things and still stay true to your core.
I had a medical appointment a few months ago and I was thinking about social distancing during certain procedures which is impossible. My colleague made me a face mask out of fabric, and then we decided to produce them ourselves locally. So we've been able to add some different elements to what we do.
It's not a medical mask but it's a lovely way of minimising your breathing on to other people, especially health professionals - that's what I really loved about it.
We also have hand sanitiser coming, a pretty simple natural formula using Australian ingredients. Most of the options on offer in the market are highly chemical based, so a more ‘gentle’ offering will be our point of difference.
We didn't just want to do a sanitiser at any cost, we wanted to produce one that aligns with our core beliefs as a brand.
Face masks by Aromababy. Image source: aromababy.com
Renée: One of Aromababy’s key points of difference is that you run workshops to inform and educate your consumers. How have you been able to adapt those?
Catherine: Normally they are face-to-face with organised groups, but it's mostly overseas. Across Asia mothers seem to have a thirst for knowledge so that's where the workshops are normally done. Sometimes I might have 600 midwives in a room and present on the way we do things in Australia or around aromatherapy principles or infant massage, and other times could be with a smaller consumer group. For example, I’ve run one in Hong Kong with mum and baby clubs (parent groups) with around 20 mothers.
It's about sharing experiences and knowledge from the heart, what I’ve learnt about ingredients and self-care combined with the importance of mindfulness.
In light of COVID-19 and more interactions now going online, I'm looking at doing these workshops in a more virtual sense. It’s still in the planning stages but it's on the cards.
Renée: We hear a lot at the moment of business owners having to adapt to remain operational. It’s easy to talk about but as business owner who has had to do it, how have you found it mentally and emotionally?
Catherine: To be honest, I'm a very positive person but also very sensitive. I do fall in a heap at times but I'm quite quick to dust myself off and get back up.
When the world turned upside due to COVID, we had several months’ worth of lost sales. So for the first few weeks I was absolutely shattered. I wasn't sure what we were going to do. I had moments of thinking ‘how are we going to get through this?’.
But then I picked myself up and said ‘right, ok – what is it that we CAN do? Let’s get back to being positive. How can we do this?’
And you know what – it’s been so good to get really creative again, go back into your value set and see what can you pull out that's in line with why you started the business in the first place – back to your core. At the moment I’m so full of creativity, plans, ideas and putting things into motion.
The key ingredient
Aromababy combines the use of natural ingredients with neonatal research to provide a solution for all parents including those that have babies with sensitive skin, nappy rash, eczema and the like.
Serious about quality, the majority of ingredients are sourced locally, however a small portion of essential oils are sourced based on where the best variants are grown. The selection of particular oils and percentages used are what makes the brand and the efficacy what it they are.
Those essential oils are only used in some products and in a very small percent, so it means that the packaging is local, in a water-based product, the water is local. Labels are printed locally, made and filled locally.
‘Natural’ and ‘organic’ often get bundled together in marketing, however Catherine is quick to point out just because something is certified organic as a baby product doesn't mean it's not going to irritate your baby's skin. It doesn’t mean it is safe; it means it's produced using organic ingredients which is wonderful, but there could still be potential irritants in the formulation.
I am very passionate about ‘organic’ which is why I developed Aromababy in the first place; we do use up to 99% certified organic ingredients in some products and hope to be exploring organic certification of those products in the near future but for Aromababy, suitability to infant skin comes first.
Renée: Australia was an early adopter but now you’re well entrenched offshore, in Asia in particular. How are other markets evolving?
Catherine: So in the last few weeks, we've seen an enormous turnaround, thank goodness, which has meant we're getting new orders from online retailers both in Australia and overseas. We've picked up some new business in Hong Kong.
One order from one market can positively impact your annual turnover. It just depends on whether you're in position to scale up. We scaled Aromababy back some years ago and now we're at the stage where my sons both just finished school and I'm available to concentrate more on the business, scale back up and take advantage of the market acceptance of natural and organic, which didn't exist 20 years ago.
Aromababy is also well known for not being in mass-market stores. So if an overseas buyer comes in and sees everything in discount stores, it doesn't leave a lot of room for margin and mark-up of distributor discounts or things like that. We positioned ourselves as premium in the beginning because the ingredients selected and percentages used impacted the cost and as such, the retail price.
As our sales grew, production costs reduced a little so it meant we were able to factor in a second tier of distribution, for example in another country.
There is a lot of interest from China, from Hong Kong, from Singapore. We despatched an order to a long term retail chain in Singapore just before borders closed.
Catherine (middle, red shoes) with the August 2019 Opportunity Asia Delegation group, visiting Tencent in Shenzhen, China.
Renée: As an ANZ customer, you attended the ANZ Opportunity Asia delegation in August. How did you find that given you were already well established in Asian markets?
Catherine: I did participate as more of a mentor in the group given my experience in exporting to Asia. But at the same time, the exposure to things I wouldn't normally see and the connections and the learnings were enormous because I usually travel on my own. I was also able to gain a lot of insights because I just don't make the time to go traveling and learning in another country.
So I loved it. I just thought it was an absolutely wonderful way to connect with our banking team as well. The support and understanding of our business they now have as a result of having that sort of experience together over the course of the delegation is much stronger.
For me, it was such a great support mechanism and it gave me a chance to spend a week in cities I'd never been to learning and focusing on things I didn't know and making connections which I have kept to this day.
Renée: How are you feeling about the future?
Catherine: I do feel really positive. I can see things opening up again. Things will go on, whether it's in the way they were before or, you know, COVID has forced people to think differently and pivot and diversify.
Throughout this time, I believe we still need to be thinking about the future.
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