When Jessica Iclisoy was pregnant with her first child in 1990, she did what many new mothers do: looked long and hard at the ingredients labels on everything from household cleaning products to her own bed sheets. She was not impressed, learning that baby products themselves often contained harmful chemicals. She then embarked on a three-year research journey to learn more about what actually goes into consumer products and offer something better: a 16-ounce, all-natural, no-sodium, no-sulfate baby shampoo that would sell for a pricey $15.75. Convincing retail buyers to stock a premium-priced baby shampoo was a struggle initially, but her Los Angeles-based California Baby company now generates $80 million in annual revenue. She's still not done educating American consumers about what they put in (and on) their bodies. --As told to Diana Ransom
When I first started, I was effectively a demo girl. I would specifically pick my times between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., right after moms would drop their kids off at school and do their grocery shopping. I would routinely be at the end of the aisle. I loved it. When you talked to moms, they'd just get it.
Store buyers, on the other hand, were another matter. Even when I went to Whole Foods or other stores, they'd say: "People don't care about baby products. They'll spend for themselves; they won't spend for their child." In fact, it was the opposite. When you become a mother, your worldview shifts. I don't think buyers got that. All of a sudden, this child is the most important thing in your life.
Plus, "natural" was just in its infancy. This was 20 years ago; "organic" wasn't really even on the radar. Meanwhile, you could get 22 ounces of whatever brand for $3.99. I was asking consumers to really pay a lot more. But I wasn't giving them the same product with a different label. I was giving them pure essential oils from France or sustainably grown vegetable-derived ingredients.
Moms appreciated it, and they just really wanted to support the brand. We were the only ones around for about 15 years. These days, I have to do a little bit of remedial education to bring them back, because the bigger companies and newer players in the market--who really just want to make a buck, hit the lottery and IPO--have tried to change the conversation. So now consumers don't really even know what natural is anymore. I have to go back and reeducate them.
In October last year, I started a nonprofit called the Natural Advisory Council. Our mission is to educate the consumer and educate our colleagues. Everybody sees that there's a need--retailers, manufacturers, consumers--but nobody is stepping up. I'm not talking about guidelines. I'm actually talking about federal law. It's like organic. If you buy organic broccoli, you are pretty much guaranteed it'll be organic. If that farmer breaks the rules, there are severe penalties. In natural, that doesn't exist. I'm not interested in what someone's idea of natural is if there is no enforcement. We really need to have a law for natural, the way we do for organic.
Sometimes, people don't think it's important. I think it's important. I think that if I don't do it, who will? If I don't make this baby shampoo with nontoxic ingredients, then no one else will be interested. I like to think that you don't have to trick your customers into buying new products. You can be transparent and trust the customer to make the right decision.