78 - Sean Harrington, Elemis

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This is a podcast episode titled, 78 - Sean Harrington, Elemis. The summary for this episode is: <p>In Ep. 78 of Earned, Conor sits down with Sean Harrington, co-founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand Elemis. We start the episode by hearing how Sean’s relationship with his co-founders has evolved over the last three decades, and the unique skill set that each of them brings to the table. We then ask Sean about his core business learnings and tenets, and he explains why a positive mindset, talented people, and a willingness to take risks are all key factors in building a successful brand. Sean also emphasizes how the fear of failure “does not breed success,” and why he empowers his team to test and learn. Next, we talk about Elemis’ strategies to cut through the noise in today’s saturated beauty market. Sean shares why the brand invested heavily in influencer marketing early on, and how loosening up on the brand codes and giving influencers creative freedom helped Elemis establish an authentic community. To close the show, we discuss how being acquired by the L’Occitane Group has helped Elemis break into the APAC market, and hear the brand’s vision for worldwide domination (the good kind). </p><p><br></p><p><strong>In this episode, you will learn:</strong></p><ol><li>Why Sean empowers his team at Elemis to take risks and test and learn</li><li>How Elemis cut through the noise and found relevance in a saturated market</li><li>Why Elemis leaned into influencer marketing to evolve as a business</li></ol><p><br></p><p><strong>Key Takeaways: </strong></p><ul><li>3:35: How Sean's relationships with his co-founders Noella and Oriele have evolved over the last 30 years</li><li>8:26: Sean's core business learnings and philosophies</li><li>14:12 Why fear of failure does not breed success, and the importance of a test-and-learn culture</li><li>15:53: How Elemis cut through the noise and found relevance in a saturated market</li><li>26:09: Why Elemis leaned heavily into influencer marketing early on</li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Resources:</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://uk.elemis.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Elemis Website</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with the Guest(s):</strong></p><ul><li><a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sean-harrington-290a177b/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Sean Harrington’s LinkedIn</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Connect with Conor Begley &amp; CreatorIQ:</strong></p><ul><li>Conor’s LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/conormbegley/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @conormbegley</a></li><li>CreatorIQ LinkedIn -<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/company/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li></ul><p><br></p><p><strong>Follow us on social:</strong></p><ul><li>CreatorIQ YouTube -<a href="https://www.youtube.com/@TribeDynamics" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @TribeDynamics</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Instagram -<a href="https://www.instagram.com/creatoriq/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creatoriq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ TikTok -<a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@creator.iq" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @creator.iq</a></li><li>CreatorIQ Twitter -<a href="https://twitter.com/CreatorIQ" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> @CreatorIQ</a></li></ul>

Intro: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the creator economy with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Connor Begley.

Conor Begley: Hi everyone, welcome to Earned. Today I've got Sean Harrington on the show today. Welcome, Sean.

Sean Harrington: Hey, Connor, good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Conor Begley: And I can't believe we finally have you on. I feel like you're in the press, but you're not in the press, so it's like spotting a rare animal I think out in the wild.

Sean Harrington: Yeah, well, I've been in this chair a long time now, so I've had my moments and I've done it on different stages all over the world. So for me, it's all about a bit of a journey. And it's great to be sitting here and talking to you today. So we're here now.

Conor Begley: There you go. And for those that don't know you, I'll just brag for a second. So you are the co- founder and current CEO of ELEMIS, which you told me has been 32 years in. 900 million exit, so close to a billion if you squint. And before the show, you were saying, and you're just getting started, which is the right attitude to have I think.

Sean Harrington: Yeah, for sure. As I mentioned just then, it is a journey. For us, there's myself, Noella, and Oriele. The three of us, we're all co- founders. Genuinely, I don't know if we knew it would be a life career, but we certainly hoped and dreamt of what could be. And to be able to live the dream, that's what we're all here for, right?

Conor Begley: It's funny how it snowballs. I remember when you started the company and you were like, oh, we'll probably do this for five to seven years. And then it's another year, and now we're 11 years in. I'm like, well, I've got another at least two or three years. Is that how it happens? And all of a sudden you go, well, wow, we're 30 years in. This is crazy.

Sean Harrington: Yeah, I think you could break it down into different chapters nearly. And you could look back in hindsight and say it was all by design, or you could be totally honest and say it was completely by default. I'd like to say there was a mix of both. I think the first five years, 10 years were more about survival and learning, and trying to create something special. I think if you haven't created something really special that's winning in that first 10 year period, it's a tall order to really get to where you're heading and what your ambition and goals were. We didn't set out to create a billion dollar brand as such, but we did set out to build a skincare brand that could be a global phenomena, a success all over the world. We all enjoyed to travel. We loved to learn. We never wanted to stand still. We always wanted to create. So I think the business and the brand, which I talk about in strange ways separately, because we are learning more even about the brand today than we did in the beginning. What we were learning in the beginning was how to run a business, because fundamentally without a business you can't build a brand. So different chapters. I used to run it on five year business plans. We still do today. We update our five- year business plan continuously. So here we are 32 years later, so we're on our sixth, seventh business plan. And I wouldn't be telling the truth if we hadn't adjusted and adapted that business plan to suit the market, suit the world, and pivoted several times into different aspects of opportunity and marketplaces. But that's what enjoying it's about. It's about people and living. That's the main function.

Conor Begley: Yeah, I think people very much underrate long- term relationships as well as long- term thinking frankly. Like the people overestimate what you can do in a year and underestimate what you can do in a decade. And you guys are three decades in, that's three really big chunks of time. And so talk to me about those relationships a little bit. I've known John, my co- founder for 18 years, and we've been in business for 11 going on 12. How have those relationships evolved over time with you, Noella and Oriele?

Sean Harrington: That's the basis for the success of the business and the brand and of our lives, to be honest. We actually all knew each other before the business, but in the end, the business was the catalyst that brought us together and made us work and grow for our love for each other and our loyalty and our legacy together. We're very different. And yeah, there's been some interesting moments and some ups and downs. I won't qualify them too much, but each of us has a different talent, and that was one of the keys. Oriele was very much about the detail, she could put into reality and physical being what Noella and I could see. And that didn't mean she didn't have vision also, she had huge creativity, great vision with it, but she had a real knack for converting what we were thinking into what we could see, touch, and feel. Noella was very much about the passion and the commitment, and you'd be able to put Noella on a stage anywhere, in any country, in any language, anywhere in the world, and the entire audience would be raptured, captured, and loyal for life. And for me, it was about learning how to become a businessman, how to develop my ambition in business, and my hopes and my dreams in business. And over the years, that's become far more strategic. It's something you never stop learning. So I love the fact that one of my big strengths was the ability to learn and keep evolving. And I just think the three of us came together at the right time, the right moment, the right place. And that's fate. So it is about relationships. Our relationship today is as strong as it was the first day. And I think that's probably helped by the fact that we've all been on different sides of the world for a large part of it. So we all started in that little island in the UK, the British Isles, and built our business and dominated. And then I went to America, and then when I decided it was time to go to APAC, Noella came to America, took over America for me. And I went over to APAC. So from that point of view, we've been very healthy with our time together and the magic that we can create.

Conor Begley: You haven't been in the same room for 30 years.

Sean Harrington: Yeah, that's for sure. I'm not sure we'd be sitting having the same conversation. There's a deep love and a deep care, and our families all know each other and are at relative levels. Noella often takes care of my mom and Oriel will always pop in and see my dad when I'm not in the UK, all this sort of stuff. So it's very personal, but very professional.

Conor Begley: My co- founder and I, again, we've known each other for almost 20 years now. And it's similar. Our wives are friends, kids are friends, even though he's in LA, I'm in San Francisco now. We were roommates at one point for the first four years of the company, and his wife actually lived with us for a little bit too, which was eventually I got kicked out.

Sean Harrington: I think it should be looked out as a bit of a privilege really, because let's say, in all honesty, most people will spend more time at work than they ever would at home in the end. It may be different more with the work from home changes in life today, but fundamentally, you're still spending more time working. And to be able to do that with people you consider family or close friends is a very special place, because you're then sharing achievements with people that really matter and people you really care about. And that's the way I believe brands and businesses succeed.

Conor Begley: I loved this TikTok video where it was this guy talking about, and he had actually been divorced a couple of times. And he talked about the special part of long- term relationships is that you have somebody that has seen the totality of your life. You have a reference guide, somebody that has known you when you were this age and 20 and 30 and 40 and 50. And when you have disruption in those relationships, you don't have anybody that has that continuity or the full vision. And I had never thought about it in the context of business, but I think it's relevant. It's the same. My business partner and I, we know how flawed we were 10 years ago and how far we've come. And so you can actually start to project that out too. Go, oh, okay, well they're here. Imagine where they'll be in another 10 years. It's special.

Sean Harrington: No, for sure. And I think you have different aspects of special relationships in any development of a business or in your life. I've enjoyed the relationship with both Noelle and Oriele as co- founders. Through the journey, I've had different moments with many different mentors and good friends who have been my confidants and honestly, they have been my go- tos in all the different issues, challenges, ups and downs. So it's your life journey, isn't it? When you're building a business and a brand, and you're fortunate enough to be a co- founder or at the head of it, you got to be committed. And it takes that level of commitment.

Conor Begley: Yeah, 100%. So let's talk really quickly about your journey. So you mentioned specifically one of the things you're proudest of is the fact that you learned how to be a businessman. So what are the things that you've learned over that time that you now have... These are fundamental truths that at least you believe in. What are those for you?

Sean Harrington: I think they're never just said in stone, but for me, they're about positivity. You can't drive a business to success unless you continuously have that positivity within your own DNA and your own culture. People are critical. If only I understood earlier how important people were, how important the development of those people, and the commitment that they give you and the commitment you need to give back. And I think that's something we're getting better at all the time. And I think the world teaches us that as well. So you can't have a successful brand in business without the right people. And then I think as well, to be ahead of the curve and to be pioneering, you've got to be pretty brave. You've got to be bold. You've got to take some risks, and you've got to be decisive. Being able to pivot and move fast. All these attributes are so important, but it's the sum of all the parts. It's not just one thing, but if you think through our journey, we've had SARS, we've had global economic crisis, we've had bird flu, we've had pandemics with Coronavirus, we've had wars, Middle East Gulf War, we've had the Ukraine Russia War. Every single one of those moments, the more we became global, become more influential on the business and on the people. The pandemic was probably the most significant that affected everyone around us in every way. There was nobody who wasn't affected, and everybody's coming out of that differently. So you've got to really have all those strengths intact to be able to lead, and show people how you can succeed still, you can still win. Life is still positive, and also how you can win through those times. I would say we've been most successful during times of hardship and chaos, and I think that's because we're very close to our people and close to our business. And we make fast decisions and we move quick, and that's really the crux of it. That's where I try to live my zone.

Conor Begley: Yeah, it's interesting, because you look back at the stories that we tell ourselves and it's all the hard times. It's not the good times when we're reminiscing as a team, because we've got a good group of people now that have been with us for 6, 7, 8, 9 years. Basically they've been there since the beginning, the first employees really. You talk about Instagetting where we lost all the Instagram data, or we had this series of black Tuesdays that kept occurring for every other year for a while. And you end up coming out of it much stronger in those periods, I think. Not fun in the moment.

Sean Harrington: No, but I think as well that's where the key is, the people around you, because you can make all the decisions in the world, you can set the direction and you can put people into the right place for them to win. But fundamentally, they have to want to be winners too. And we're three people driving a brand across, we're now at what, 105 countries? We're worldwide. It doesn't succeed today because of us. It succeeds because of everybody else. And we may be able to give it direction and give it the opportunity and contribute, but it's everybody else that's really making this happen today. That's really rewarding. That's the most interesting thing. And I mentioned earlier there were different chapters, and the first one was very much creating, developing, and making sure you had something magic, and surviving. Survival was definitely in there, because we didn't have any cash or any investment behind it. It was purely out of our own cash flow that we built. And then the second one was more about dominating in our home market, and making sure we really could succeed in a place where we were living, based, with a customer we really understood. Then the third one is going out into the big bad wide world, and the scale of competition and the learnings and the pace at which you got to move. That's the incredible journey. This is, it's remarkable really. It's something special.

Conor Begley: We had our just don't die phase. We used to actually say that frequently. It's funny, I got asked to moderate this panel of CEOs, up and coming brands. And they did this really cool exercise where they gave you a book, and they said, " Hey, I want you to write something for the person next to you." It's a piece of advice in the book, and you write it down and you hand it over. And I wrote just don't die. And I wrote the short description of the story, and it was basically, we talked about early on, okay, businesses are mostly a binary outcome. Either they're successful and they make a lot of money and they exit, or they die. Those are really the only two ends of the spectrum. So if we just don't die, we'll probably be successful. We'll probably get there. So it became our rally check. There was several times where it was mighty close, we didn't die, and we'd sold for almost a hundred million dollars, which was great. Not as much as you again, but we're still building this thing like you.

Sean Harrington: I've actually written that down, because I think that's still relevant.

Conor Begley: Just don't die.

Sean Harrington: Don't die. I also think constantly believing that you're good enough and you're going to win is important. It's I think not dying, but at the end of the day, there's a lot of good stuff out there. There's a lot of good talented people and it's a competitive arena, and not everyone will win. Many won't die, but to win is another level. It really is.

Conor Begley: Yeah, I had a mentor that told me, we got started and weren't making a lot of money at first. We tried to figure it out, and he's like, " You know, sometimes it's okay to stop." I was like, " No way." I was like, " I'm going to drag this thing kicking and screaming into existence, whether it wants to exist or not." And I do think, like you said, having that conviction I think is actually quite critical.

Sean Harrington: And fear of failure is an insecurity that really doesn't breed success. And at the end of the day, you will have failures, you will have challenges, you will make wrong decisions. The key is what you gained from it, what you learned from it, and how quick you fix it. Particularly today's world, with the world of very fast moving social and digital marketing. It's all new, it's all pioneering. So test and learning is key. So you've got to be prepared to fail. In fact, fear of failure is some of the reasons why people don't make it work, because they're too fearful to try things that really would be a game changer. And the bigger you get, the harder that becomes because you got more to lose. So a bigger playing field, you have to really be pretty convicted. And that's why I think it's good for a brand and a business like ours to have a founded- led team still. To have us after 32 years, it means we have got all of those inner learnings. We do know what's worked and what hasn't during that entire period. It doesn't mean we know everything moving forward. And believe me, we learn more from our other team members and our other directors and executives than we do probably from our experience. But it's all relevant and it all contributes.

Conor Begley: Yeah, the guy named Toto, who's essentially the CMO at Benefit Cosmetics, he's like, " Yeah, we expect 75% of our digital content to flop." He's like, " That's our expectation. One out of a four will be good." And it's very intimidating to, especially when that's your job, to have that kind of a failure rate. But I think having a founder- led team that is long- term thinking and has seen what's worked and not worked makes the team a lot more comfortable taking those risks.

Sean Harrington: It's such an interesting time and it's an exciting time, but wow, is it fast? And the reality is in today's digital social marketing world, and it's no different around the world. It may be different levels, different scales, but there is so much noise today. Our lives are on this, no matter where you are in the world, this is dictating life. And if you imagine to create something beautiful or create something fantastic, it's one of thousands. And it just doesn't resonate, because there's so much noise hitting everybody. Whatever age you are, particularly the younger Gen Z, their incoming is beyond belief and their outbound is beyond belief. To really find relevance amongst all that noise is the eureka road. It's the road to success. Because without relevance, noise is noise. And it isn't enough to just buy noise or buy space or put your brand out there in front of people. Or create theater or video or content that just gets you EMV or gets you scoring points, you have to find relevance. Relevance doesn't come from doing the same thing everybody else does. Relevance comes from being significant, and it comes from being more pioneering, and it comes from taking risks. Because you've got to be carving a new path today in everything you do to find relevance, which means the speed and pace of this is so quick. So it isn't just about how much noise you can create, how much EMV you can score. It's about the quality of your content, it's about the authenticity of your content, your assets, and your product. And fundamentally, it comes down to your performance of your product. Because no matter what happens, if you are successful in converting noise to trying a product or a brand, at that point you still haven't won. You've got to have something that works and that's different. So there's a lot of newness out there, but when you try the products, when you challenge the formulations, when you look at the performance, if they fall short, which many do, it's a very expensive failure. So test and learn, test and failing is a hard ass marketing exercise to be honest. It really is. I'm sorry.

Conor Begley: No, it makes a ton of sense. And I think we talk about it all the time. The best description I heard of it was from Ian Rodgers. He was the chief digital officer at LVMH. Prior to that he was the CEO of Apple Music. Prior to that he was the CTO at Beats. The way he described it was the hyper- efficiency of quality. And he's like, today, it is easier than ever to discover whether or not a product is good. And so what that does is it increases the rate at which great products grow and increases the rate at which mediocre products fail. In the past, if you had good distribution and you had a lot of money and you could buy the airwaves and have it in store, you could have a mediocre product and be fairly successful. And you just can't do that today. And so I've always really liked that one. And also I think it's part of the reason I like the internet so much, is it just increases the rate at which good things succeed generally, on average. It's like the best restaurants get discovered because of Yelp and reviews, and the best products get discovered because of YouTube and Instagram and the reviews on websites and all these things.

Sean Harrington: That's why for us, when we were really wanting to take on this post- pandemic era, and we were looking for even a term of phrase for our own use and for our own reference, we went for truth and beauty. Because we genuinely feel that this is where the winners will be found out and the losers will be found out. This is where, quite frankly, there won't be time for non- authentic or real or performing based products competing in the market. And that's exciting. That's really exciting. But you've still got to navigate through the madness, which at the moment is still taking shape. You're hearing about trends, influencer marketing, deinfluencer marketing. There's a very big trend growing out there to deinfluence your brand. And then you've got authenticity, and then you've got topical. It's a lot of tick boxes, and you have to have, for us, we believe in having people that live it and breathe it and are of that generation and that thought process driving. So we're empowering our teams to really drive and be at the front of big budgets, big campaigns, big opportunity at a far younger age with far more control and risk that I ever would've wanted at that age. But they're just embracing that. And when you go through all the different generations, you have the baby boomers, the millennials, and all this stuff going on. And you go down through the generations and you see the confidence and the belief and the empowerment of this current generation is remarkable. And as a result, the capabilities and the belief that they just can't fail is fantastic. So we try to capture that. It's very interesting, because when you sit at my level and you're jumping into one of the, say the New York, US social digital marketing creative meetings, just because you want to, because it's the best part of your day, I'm purely an observer at these things. And when I listen to their ideas and what they're looking to do next, I just thrive on it. I think it's awesome. Terrifies me too, because you know that you have to now as a brand take your brand out and interact with your customer. You know that all of this journey for the last 10 years of this pivot into this digital social engagement world has really just led to that truth and beauty about being closer to your customer. Everyone spoke to being customer- led, customer- driven. In the old days, what did that mean? Well, it meant that you would do customer surveys to 50 of your customers and ask them what they thought about everything. And whether you really knew how to listen to them or not, I'm not sure. Different strokes for different folks, but today at your peril, do you not listen to your customers? And do you not enable, empower and embrace their input into what you're doing? Because if you don't, I don't think you can succeed. I really don't. I think they are so relevant and so influential in everything that happens to you as a brand. You get it wrong, you're really going to go down.

Conor Begley: And honestly, I think Elon Musk catches a lot of negative criticism for valid reasons. But I think one of the things he's tapped into is on Twitter, he'll say, what do you guys want to have worked on? And he'll actively interact with the people that are... People will leave a comment and he'll respond to it. Just some random person that's like a user of Tesla or a customer of Twitter, or whatever it is. And I think in a lot of ways, our big launch moment was like inaudible gets acquired for half a billion dollars. Our data was the only one showing it. L'Oreal reaches out, the investment bank reaches out and says, how did you guys know, whatever. So then I get invited to come speak at the L'Oreal post- acquisition, come speak on the topic. And they said, yeah, we thought we were acquiring this scale, digital ads, all these things. And they're like, we actually acquired the most human brand we'd ever acquired in inaudible. And I think what actually makes the internet special is that I can sit in my pajamas in Lafayette and communicate with somebody in the UK, and form a direct personal connection with that person in a way that you never could in the past. Because you went to a retailer, the retailer sold the product, and you couldn't have a direct conversation with your customers. And I think that's actually what makes it special, both from a consumer perspective as well as from an influencer perspective. I agree, it's not about chasing likes or chasing EMV. What you really should be doing if you're doing it right, is building deep long- term relationships that are authentic in nature with people that are genuine fans of the brand, and deepening that love over time. That's actually what works.

Sean Harrington: And you reference how the internet, you've studied it and made it so exciting for you. And how you see it in different lenses and different worlds. Tech in general, and the internet in general, we all know it's changed the world. I remember times before it, that's the scary thing. And when I think about how everything's changed. But what is interesting is you can still see what those changes are going to be and what they should be, if you actually give yourself the time to think and the time to reflect and the time to learn. So for example, if you had thought that 10, 15 years ago, iPhone and Apple were the first company that launched the same product all over the world simultaneously in the same second. And you realized what that would mean to people, and then you realized how that tool would then enhance that pace and that demand, you would've seen that your biggest challenge would be supply chain logistics and global distribution. Because servicing that demand, creating the demand is one thing, but servicing it is a much harder, if you like, challenge for a business. So you can if you will allow yourself to multi- think and get your thought process on multi- levels, and channel it into things that are relevant to your business in terms of your success, really use the learnings and use what's coming next to take care of areas that you know will be difficult and will be if you like, obstacles to success. Instead of waiting for them to hit you and then dominating your world for a number of years while you try to fix them. So I think that's where it's changed the game. I also think for us as three founders who are now 32 years in the same place, in the same career, it's definitely extended my career. Because we're on different parts of the world, we're still communicating just as we would if we're in the same room. And the pace of our communication is spot on. And I can be talking to anyone anywhere nearly as if we were in the same room. That's where the positivity came from the pandemic. I work from home, I work from anywhere. That capability has to be embraced and used to the advantage. I love it. It's made a totally difference for me. I can be on the road all the time. I think my wife's happier that way too.

Conor Begley: There you go. Oh my God. So let's talk about influencers and social media, because that is after all the business that we're in. And I think for you guys, you leaned into that really heavily early on. I think there has been, to your point, the deinfluencing topic that's gone around. My co- founder and I joke, and I actually found there's articles for the last seven years about the influencer bubble popping every year. So it's our running joke, but it does change in terms of how it works, what works. So talk to me about what made you decide to lean in early on to it, and then how have you guys seen it evolve as a business? Because right now in the numbers, LMS is growing very quickly in the data that we track from an influencer perspective.

Sean Harrington: I think first of all, you had to do it if you wanted to be relevant and competitive. Realizing that and then embracing that, and adjusting your culture so that you became part of it instead of just played within it, I think was the most important step. So we committed to it. We put all our eggs in one basket. We put our budgets into it, we pivoted out of all traditional media and really tried to focus. And we did that by employing people and putting management in place that understood the name of that game, who'd had experience and had a vision within that area. I also think for us it was really our move from the UK to the US that taught us how important that was. So I actually moved to America, because I could see that to try to manage that from a distance and compete and win was going to be a really tough ask. Because we had to not just change the culture of who we were and how we were, we had to change it all the way down through the business. So when I moved to the US, I took the brand to America, to New York, and I took with me product development. And I created this hub in the US that really fed back to the UK, but it was the driver. So we created the lead from America. So we went to the US and really used that customer base, used that competitive arena, and used that influencer marketing opportunity to pivot into a new way of thinking, a new way of being. If I'd stayed in the UK and we'd stayed just trying to manage a team in the US to do that, the decision making wouldn't have been as fast, the commitment wouldn't have been as strong, we wouldn't have invested as heavily. So I think that was an important moment for us. I also think we probably went too far in the beginning, and that probably helped us. It cost us, but we had our own photographic studios, we had our own photographers, we had our own video content, and that's going back five, seven years. So we were in there shooting everything. We thought you had to be completely self- sufficient in everything you did. And then we started employing our own influencers and trying to be our own machine. And I think we'd learned then that there was a level of authenticity, and you needed to embrace it but not own it. That was the other thing. I think the big change for us that was hardest to do was to allow our brand to be free in that environment. So instead of pushing our brand into that pipeline and into that world, we allowed that world to take our brand and interpret it in a way that it believed it was relevant. And that was the hardest moment, because a brand is very solid. If you imagine you would have your brand codes, your brand standards, you'd have your brand messaging, your brand copy, your brand images, and God forbid if you went outside of that, your brand was hurt, your brand was pained. And you get someone on TikTok that's turning the jar upside down, putting it on their head and talking about the best ways to use this that to tell you not to use it is the most popular video. That doesn't resonate with the brand codes. That's like chief marketing officer having heart failure in the corner, at least chief marketing officers don't exist anymore. So I think those moments were quite key to us to learning how to win. And we are far from winning. Look, we're achieving great performance, great results, but for me, we've worked hard to get there, and we've worked hard with a bit of a legacy brand to pivot and evolve. Now what we've got to do is lead. We've got to be more pioneering. We've got to push the boundaries. We've got to extend now to what's going to be hot in the next 10 years, not what's been hot in the last five. Or not what's hot now, we've got to find that next space. And I really challenge our teams to dig deep now. We are looking in the next year to two, three years at a huge playbook in both the USA and China to dominate and to own. We're not going to do that if we don't take some big risks, push the boundaries, and really come out with an edge and a point of difference the customers really believe in. And that is only going to happen if we understand our customers.

Conor Begley: Which again is a non- trivial investment. That's like sitting down, talking to them, building relationships with them, and not just for a week on customer week.

Sean Harrington: No, and it's getting out and living with them. It's having proper events, programs in every state. It's about being on the road. It's about resonating, engaging. It's not just about parking ice cream trucks and giving people ice cream. It's about getting proper tutorial, proper engagement, and really getting the interest, not just creating the moment. It's about really getting deep into that relationship. And that's key. The distance between a brand and a customer has to become one, because if it's just that brand pitching it down and using every gimmick or every relevant moment, it's just not resonating. It won't last. You got to be more authentic than that. You got to get deeper.

Conor Begley: So you're 29 years in, and you go, you know what? I really like all this freedom I have, but I want another boss. I want to work with L'Occitane. I'm just kidding. But what made you guys decide that that was the right time to bring on a partner and to start working with somebody else? Obviously there's a financial benefit, which is great, but what was it that made you guys decide that that was the time? Because again, I'm sure there were other opportunities over the last 30 years to make a similar decision. Tell me about that.

Sean Harrington: I've always enjoyed having a boss.

Conor Begley: You guys are all each other's bosses, right?

Sean Harrington: You still always have a boss, because whatever happens, you're answerable to someone somewhere. And when we went through the process of being part of Steiner Leisure, we had great learnings as a NASDAQ quoted company. It was just too early for us as a business to really build and invest heavily. We were being driven for our earnings, and that was taking something from the brand where it needed something given. But we learned a huge amount about being public, about short- term financial inaudible goals, about pressure on the frontline. We learned how to be genuine. We learned through Sarbanes Oxley about how to be a foreign risk, how to put processes in place that were good for the business as well as good for the people. And then the next step of our journey was with inaudible in private equity. That was the fastest, most explosive, amazing journey I've ever been on. Four years of high power, super bright, super smart people all over your business, giving you really laser focused objectives, teaching you about how to really focus on the things that matter, not everything that's happening. Really channeling you into enhancing enterprise value. And that's what we did. And because we listened and we learned, everyone thinks private equity will come in and write a check and you're suddenly going to be worth 10 times more. Forget it. They come in and they tell you what you should be doing. They give you guidance, and if you don't embrace it, you won't win. So embracing it and making it happen is the key to success. So there was real learnings for me and for Oriele and Noella because we learned how to pivot and how to take learnings and make them work in the business. The next step though was a lot tougher. We weren't looking to sell for a billion dollars. We weren't looking to exit. We didn't exit. We all reinvested, we all rolled over. And for that reason, our objective was to build a global success. We wanted, honestly, to build a brand that would be here forever, and something that would resonate and something we could be hugely proud of with our life careers, but something that was worldwide. I always wanted to travel. I always wanted to end up in Asia Pacific, learning how this marketplace that when I grew up was close. Remember, when I was young, people from China didn't travel out of China and no one traveled into China. And I wanted to learn and understand how this suddenly became the global dominant power in many ways from a consumer perspective, and how that pace would resonate and grow and develop. So for me, it was about learnings, for me, it was about global. And we looked at all the strategic opportunities and partnerships out there. The one that resonated with us the most was meeting Reinold Geiger and Andre Hoffman. It's all about people. And when they spoke of their vision for L'Occitane Group, it was exactly what we were looking for to partner ELEMIS on the next stage of the journey. And we need, and everybody needs a partner to develop that global opportunity. It's a big, huge challenge. And for me, both Reinold and Andre had been through that with L'Occitane. They won, they'd succeeded. They hadn't just succeeded, they did it their way. And that was to deliver clearly on brand, because they didn't really work with retailers in the main, they built their own stores. They decided to keep true to who they wanted to be wherever they were in the world. They were told fragrance wouldn't work in Japan, and they became number one in Japan. They were told they would never resonate with the Chinese consumer, and they were hugely successful. So for me, those learnings, that world and that vision was what I was after. To top it all, they'd built a very strong back of house structure around it globally. They had offices in every city around the world. They had resource working through logistics, supply chain, HR, accountancy, finance. So I could see how to accelerate our ambition quite dramatically by partnering with them, by being part of the group. They also didn't want just a plug in and play. They wanted a founder- driven brand. It was paramount and mandatory that the founders would stay with the brand, and would be committed and invest alongside them. They wanted us to be independent and to have our own autonomy and to keep our DNA and our culture, and to be in total control of our business, but to use the bits that we needed and take the parts that we wanted. And for me, I wanted to move to Asia Pacific. Andre Hoffman built the L'Occitane Group predominantly across Asia. And being based where he is and learning from him, it was the best thing I've done. Because quite frankly, I walk into meeting rooms with all the top power players overnight and immediately have a position of authority with which to discuss opportunity. Those doors don't open by themselves.

Conor Begley: Yeah, totally.

Sean Harrington: And they take a long time to open without that connections. And then Reinold is continuously this energy of entrepreneurs. He just wants us to succeed. And when you've got someone fueling your ambition that way, it's pretty exciting. It's the most incredible part of the journey so far. And I think recently you would've seen inaudible join the group for the very same reasons. And they had all the options and all the choices too, and they made the right one. Because right now they are absolutely on fire, and we're all learning from them and what they're doing. I think that's the fantastic thing about being part of an exciting group and an exciting place. So yeah, that's why we are where we are. And we're winning, we're really winning. Watch this space, because I know it's a bit cliche, but the best is still to come. And this next three years I think are going to be ELEMIS's big moment worldwide.

Conor Begley: That's exciting. Yeah, I've known inaudible since it was just her and her co- founder way back when, and it's fun to watch you guys all succeed in meaningful ways. Well, I'm realizing we're at the end of our time, so we'll have to do our fun end of show question for next time. But I really appreciate you taking out the time. And congratulations to all the success that you and Noella and Oriele have had.

Sean Harrington: Well, she's just brought us home as B Corp, so that's pretty special for us.

Conor Begley: Oh, there you go. There you go. But yeah, thanks again. This was awesome. I know I learned a ton, and I'm sure everybody else will too.

Sean Harrington: All right, great to see you, Connor. And thanks again.

Conor Begley: Of course. Bye, Sean.

Sean Harrington: Take it easy, man.

Speaker 1: Be a friend, tell a friend, and subscribe. Earned by CreatorIQ. CreatorIQ is your all- in- one solution to grow, manage, scale, and measure your influencer marketing program. Ready to unlock the power of the creator economy, get started with a demo today at creatoriq. com.


In Ep. 78 of Earned, Conor sits down with Sean Harrington, co-founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand Elemis. We start the episode by hearing how Sean’s relationship with his co-founders has evolved over the last three decades, and the unique skill set that each of them brings to the table. We then ask Sean about his core business learnings and tenets, and he explains why a positive mindset, talented people, and a willingness to take risks are all key factors in building a successful brand. Sean also emphasizes how the fear of failure “does not breed success,” and why he empowers his team to test and learn. Next, we talk about Elemis’ strategies to cut through the noise in today’s saturated beauty market. Sean shares why the brand invested heavily in influencer marketing early on, and how loosening up on the brand codes and giving influencers creative freedom helped Elemis establish an authentic community. To close the show, we discuss how being acquired by the L’Occitane Group has helped Elemis break into the APAC market, and hear the brand’s vision for worldwide domination (the good kind).

In this episode, you will learn:

  1. Why Sean empowers his team at Elemis to take risks and test and learn
  2. How Elemis cut through the noise and found relevance in a saturated market
  3. Why Elemis leaned into influencer marketing to evolve as a business

Key Takeaways:

  • 3:35: How Sean's relationships with his co-founders Noella and Oriele have evolved over the last 30 years
  • 8:26: Sean's core business learnings and philosophies
  • 14:12 Why fear of failure does not breed success, and the importance of a test-and-learn culture
  • 15:53: How Elemis cut through the noise and found relevance in a saturated market
  • 26:09: Why Elemis leaned heavily into influencer marketing early on


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