The Interview: Walgreens Boots Alliance Global Category Director for Beauty, including Soap & Glory, Munnawar Chishty
With its tongue in cheek product names, candy-coloured packaging and quality formulations that really work, Soap & Glory has become one of the UK’s most iconic beauty brands and has found a home in bathroom cabinets and shower stalls around the world.
In fact, since its founding in 2006 and subsequent purchase by the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) in 2014, the Soap & Glory brand is now a key player in 15 different countries and what started out as a compact bath and body line now includes hundreds of top-selling beauty products including skincare, cosmetics and accessories.
However, despite its global success, Soap & Glory has not lost sight of its key founding principal: that luxury beauty can and should be accessible to all.
Unsurprisingly, recent months have seen locked down shoppers flock to the brand, drawn to its affordable, fun and effective products in a bid to deliver a bit of much needed light-heartedness and self-indulgence at a time that both have been sorely needed.
Here, WBA’s Munnawar Chishty, who heads up the Soap & Glory brand among others, talks about her relationship with the brand and its performance in a year like no other…
Tell us a bit about your career journey and relationship with the beauty category.
“I joined WBA back in February 2019 as Vice President, Global Category Director for Beauty which all sounds very fancy but in a nutshell I’m responsible for our main brands, including Soap & Glory, heading up the development of its strategy, content, and innovation globally.
Prior to that I spent six years at GSK and before that I was at Johnson and Johnson working on their beauty brands for around six years. I’ve done various other roles along the way but I’ve been in beauty since 2006 and its one of those industries that once you get into it you never leave!
It’s such a dynamic category with so many facets and it engages the consumer on a variety of different levels but particularly on an emotional one.
The impact that beauty has on women in terms of confidence, self-esteem and empowerment just can’t be overstated and as soon as you start to engage with the category you just get hooked - I certainly did! As soon as I entered beauty I thought, ‘wow, I want to be part of this industry and part of shaping it.’
Take us through the Soap & Glory brand’s founding…
The Soap & Glory brand was founded in 2006 with the belief that luxury, quality beauty should be affordable and fun.
Quite a lot of luxury beauty can be a bit serious and expensive but it doesn’t need to be and you can completely change that paradigm.
The brand actually started with a really tight range of bath and body products but it very quickly developed into a full top to toe offer. If you look at the range today, not only do we do bath and body but we also do skincare, cosmetics, accessories and gifts.
The brand went from strength to strength and in 2014 we saw an opportunity to bring it into the WBA portfolio and scale it even further. It has continued to perform excellently over the years and we’ve significantly expanded distribution and market access across the world – we are now in five continents and 19 countries.
In amongst all that success it’s been really important to me though that we retain that entrepreneurial spirit and keep the magic that was there at the brand’s founding alive.
Take us through the brand’s USPs
From its brilliant formulations to its joy-filled packaging and of course, affordable price, Soap & Glory is a brand with many USPs.
It’s a brand that is also really disruptive. When you look at the range on shelf all you see is a sea of pink, it’s full of personality. We’ve got the vintage imagery and the tongue in cheek names (take the lip plumping gloss ‘Sexy Mother Pucker’ for example!) All those elements really set the brand apart in what is still quite a serious beauty industry.
We’ve actually done quite a bit of work on packaging recently, with updates to some of our designs.
We’ve maintained the distinctiveness and vintage elements but we’ve refreshed them for today’s world.
Vintage ladies was probably appropriate when the brand first launched, but today it’s all about modern empowered women, so we have some new designs which retain all of that original magic but in a more culturally-relevant way.
Who is the brand’s core consumer?
We’ve been on a journey for the past couple of years to really get back to the heart of the brand and as part of that we’ve undertaken extensive consumer research to get a deeper-understanding of the brand’s consumer at an emotional level, rather than a demographic one.
What we’ve learned is that the Soap & Glory consumer is a beauty lover with a great sense of humour but she’s also a real jumble of juxtapositions, like so many women of today are.
She likes to talk about sunsets and flowers but also about world affairs. She has some mild chaos in her life but is also very organised, her life is a mixture and she celebrates that.
What products have experienced stellar sales in the past year?
The core products that the brand was originally founded with continue to be our best-sellers, so that’s The Righteous Butter, Clean On Me, Flake Away, Face Soap & Clarity and Sexy Mother Pucker. We call them our Champions and they just work really really well. They exceed expectations in terms of their performance, the fragrance is great, their lather is really luxurious, they have velvety textures and they give immediate and lasting results and people keep on coming back to them again and again, especially in recent times when they have played right into that self-care trend.
Interestingly and if not slightly oddly, given the wider category trend, our Soap & Glory lip glosses have also done really well in the past year! They currently hold the number one spot in Boots and the number two spot in the UK, so people obviously love the benefits and still see a very real reason to use them despite mask-wearing.
How has the pandemic changed purchasing behaviours?
The pandemic has led to a far greater focus on mental health and well-being. There's no doubt, it's taken a toll on people. At the same time, the virus has also led to a growing focus on hygiene.
When you put those two together, what we have seen has been a huge growth in the bath and body category, linked not only to the hygiene benefits of washing more, but also to the mental health and well-being benefits that can be achieved via that category.
After-all, a long soak in the bath, or a pamper me moment, can work wonders when it comes to improving well-being and giving a sense of calm in all this turmoil.
In response to that the Soap & Glory brand has actually started to bring out new products with real mood-boosting benefits.
In March for example, we brought out a new ‘Uplift Collection’ of three bath and shower products which have a unique fragrance that is scientifically proven to enhance happiness!
The range also includes some hard-working ingredients including avocado and cocoa seed butter and we do have plans to launch other mood-boosting products in the future which is incredibly exciting.
Have you changed how you communicate with customers?
Absolutely, we’ve changed quite a few things! If you think about that moment of calm, escape, and mental well-being that I mentioned earlier, then the bathroom is absolutely the best room in the house for achieving that. As a result we’ve carried out a large number of social campaigns around that belief in the past year
We’ve also done lots of light-hearted, distraction and relief social content for our consumers, including bingo, baking and DIY, just some fun stuff to help take minds off the pandemic.
We have also taken a much more data-driven approach to our marketing campaigns, using data for better targeting and reviewing the performance of our campaigns which has made quite a big difference.
Linked to that we’ve also upped the game on our content; we’ve got new claims, new story-telling such as ‘Best Room In The House’ and ‘Wake Up on The Bright Side’ and lots of other things that we’ve done from a digital perspective.
If you think about how consumer shopping behaviour has changed during the pandemic, with people buying more and more online; enhancing our presence on Boots.com and our digital content has worked really well for us.
How challenging has it been to launch new products during pandemic?
It’s absolutely fair to say that at the front end, our suppliers were impacted by the pandemic with factories closed.
However, one of the things that we have been brilliant at as a team is being super-agile and adopting a really entrepreneurial approach.
We pivoted really quickly to keep our pipeline on track and we found new ways to deliver most of our pipeline.
What key learnings have you made?
One of the best things we did very early on was to acknowledge that the new reality we were living in was very different and that many of the things we had put in place in the past were not necessarily right for the present.
Doing that required the team to adopt a really agile mindset. We also had to learn to understand that we couldn’t have all the data to answer everything at that moment. We had to pivot as the information came in.
One of the things I’ve really been struck by is the power of teamwork and just how flexible and entrepreneurial we can be when required. We have some great people in our business and they really pulled together to make the impossible happen.
One day we were all in the office and the next we were all at home, but the teams very quickly adapted to the change and working virtually.
Within a matter of weeks we were signing off product packaging prints online and I was getting samples posted to my house.
We even shot adverts remotely with models shooting from their own homes while we directed from ours!
Quite frankly it was amazing, but everyone just pulled together and adapted so fast creating solutions to problems that would have seemed impossible just months before.
What's next on the agenda?
We’re going to continue to roll out the new packaging updates that I mentioned earlier and we are also going to continue our great sustainability work.
We also have some new products launching, more data-driven marketing and importantly, our social purpose work will continue, which is something that I am so passionate about.
In 2020 we launched the “Better Bathtime Initiative,” which sought to bring hygiene and beauty products to those in need and champion everyone’s right to feel “gloriously clean.”
Shortly after we partnered with The Hygiene Bank, as we knew from our research that people who were self-employed or in low-income or unstable jobs were hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
The pandemic also hit women more disproportionally than men. By partnering with The Hygiene Bank we really tried to help those people and we did that in a few ways, via an array of different donation drives. We also partnered with Boots on a UK NHS donation.
We are so proud of the social purpose work that we’ve done and that we’ve been able to help people at such a challenging time and we will certainly to continue doing that going forward.