The influence of wellness continues to bleed into other categories beyond supplements, fitness and health food, reaching particular resonance in skincare and beauty categories. Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more educated and empowered, demanding to know what’s in their products and why.
Billing its product range as “dynamic skincare,” Vancouver-based brand Vitruvi is quickly establishing itself within an increasingly crowded market for natural and organic beauty products. Key to Vitruvi’s retail strategy is an element of customization, allowing shoppers to tailor their own blend based on specific needs. The brand provides education when necessary, encouraging self-care above simply seeing physical results. On shelves and ecommerce storefronts with retail partners including Sephora, Anthropologie and Goop, Vitruvi is building its brand by simply being in the places its core demographic might already be shopping for skincare and personal care items.
PSFK spoke to Virtruvi co-founder Sara Panton about how she uses knowledge gained from medical work around the world to inspire a new kind of wellness brand, and how she keeps in touch with a customer base as it grows.
PSFK: Could you describe your background and how you came to found Vitruvi?
Sara Panton: Vitruvi was really a passion project. My co‑founder and brother, Sean, and I grew up in a really small farming community that didn’t even have a traffic light and was right on the water, with lots of farms and apples and fruit stands. Our parents were early adopters of the organic movement, way before it was cool, which we really took for granted.
It instilled in me an interest in wellness and different cultures. I went on to do a degree in Global Health with a focus on immunology and infectious disease, and took a lot of courses in medical anthropology, working abroad in Kenya and Morocco.
I was so fascinated by cultural practices from different places in the world and what we could learn from them. From there, I went on to medical school. My hope was to specialize in women’s wellness and preventative medicine, and work abroad. I helped set up a safe birthing center in Kenya.
I thought I was going to be working in a tiny town in the middle of east Africa. What ended up happening is that, in my first year, we were learning about the cranium and the olfactory nerve. It’s how you smell.
I became so fascinated by the senses. It’s so powerful how smell affects the brain, and so underutilized. Fast forward, I came home one day, and Sean had moved to Vancouver to go to business school. I had created a scent blend that helped me during studying, because I was having test anxiety. From there, we started creating our own product line.
It began as a blog. It was a website where I would write articles from my bathtub about different health and wellness practices in different cultures. I would interview people about their daily wellness rituals.
We created a super‑simple line of products, really just for our friends and family. Then we started getting interest, right around the time that the wellness movement was starting. We quickly got inbound interest from stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. It all compounded from there.
I never finished medical school. By my second year it was all that we were doing on our lunch hours. We were bottling products there by hand and mixing them. I still have dents in my left hand from assembling roller balls.
How do you see the wellness industry evolving?
I definitely see it evolving towards incorporating different practices—everything from acupuncture to scent and botanicals.
At Vitruvi, we think about taking traditional botanicals from around the world and repurposing them in a modern way. I think that our current North American society has lost a sense of ritual and ceremony, which is the basis for a lot of cultures around the world.
Whether that’s drinking chai together or making rice and having dinner as a family, or different bathing practices in Morocco with block soap and scrubbing, it’s really important for the brain and body to have ceremonies that help establish a sense of consistency.
We have such a frenetic life with alerts and our phones and travel schedules and time zones. What I’m seeing is an exploration of modern ceremonies that people are looking to create throughout their day that add smaller wellness moments. The former wellness movement was really focused on fitness and sweat and intensity. I’m seeing that softening in my experience.
How do you see wellness crossing into the beauty space? What was behind your decision to move into that category with skincare?
Look at some of the larger retailers, like Sephora launching wellness and bringing on some vitamin companies, and companies like us that talk more about managing stress and different ways to take care of yourself, as opposed to topical treatments with instant results.
People are applying that understanding of wellness, understanding that stress shows up on your face, and that there are ways to get to the root of some of those issues like blemishes or breakouts or that could be tied to diet, or weather.
For me I’ve always thought that it’s really important for a woman to take time to check in with herself and think about how the things that are happening in her life might be showing up on her face. I would feel relatively confident in saying that a lot of women put other people before them.
When we went to launch into skincare, I couldn’t think of just creating one product that could keep up with our community. The women of Vitruvi are dynamic, discerning, interesting, full‑force women who are smart. I thought, “Let’s create a system, instead of creating a product.”
Our face oil collection is the first under our dynamic skincare umbrella, and the idea is that a woman should have skincare as dynamic as her life, changing by the day and the time of month and what’s going on in her life.
We launched it because there was an interest from our community. We’re always talking to our fan base on Instagram and through our blog. We wanted a way for people to use essential oils, which at our core is the foundation of what Vitruvi is, and create a home apothecary for their skin.
How does the skincare line fit into the larger brand strategy for Vitruvi?
That practice of being able to create your own products really will be the foundation of it, much like how we launched our essential oils. The three‑step system that I designed is meant to be customized, but is also really simple. The first step is choosing a base oil, based on the moisture level that your skin needs. The second step is choosing complex oils. Those have a little more punch to them and have more targeted benefits, whether it be calming, or glowy skin. The third is adding one to three essential oils, for both the scent as well as the properties of those oils.
Was the customization aspect important for your consumers? What is your target market?
We know our customer really well because we talk to her every day. We ask questions and create two‑way conversations as often as we can. When we were building this line, we thought a lot about how much time our customer has. All of this should be able to be done in less than two minutes, and to happen in the palm of your hand.
It’s a Choose‑Your‑Own‑Adventure. We have products that customers can just buy and use if they want to start integrating essential oils and natural body products, and then we have things that are a little more customizable. It’s a two‑way conversation, with our influencers online and our customers. Having customers use and be curious, mixing our products in different ways, is really exciting for us.
Besides online, how else do you build engagement with customers?
It’s still early days for us. We do blending events and I’ll design a facial for someone. I think the customers are still used to being told what they should put on their face. We’ve seen that empowerment in the food movement with people being really discerning about what’s on the ingredient label and when to eat it. I haven’t seen that switch in beauty yet, and customers are still apprehensive if they’re using things correctly. They’re still looking for that guidance.
But if they’re using high-quality, pure, natural ingredients, they really can’t mess up. What’s exciting for us is people taking ownership of their skincare.
Our customer experience is incredibly unique. We’ve scaled it so that customers can call our team and have a conversation with them. We’re happy to help blend the oil on the phone with them or walk through the different set profiles of our essential oils.
It’s a digital first brand. Our website is our storefront. We interact with our customers as if they were just walking into our store. On social media, how we speak to them just like if we were talking face to face, and that extends to our customer experience and how we design products. We ask a lot of questions through our social channels as well as when we’re at an event. Then our customer experience team tracks data around things that are being asked for.
Finally, can you tell us about your partner strategy, and how it’s helping to build your future?
Because it was Sean and I just building it from the get‑go, it was really important for us to partner with retailers. We wanted to take a new approach that really understood our customers and what places she already shopped. We were discerning where Vitruvi would show up in real life. We thought about where she shopped for beauty, body and home, places that she’s already going to when she wants to try or smell a product.
We have partners at GOOP for over three years now. It’s exciting because they are willing to push the boundaries in terms of content and discovery, which is something that we feel passionately about. They’re an incredible team to work with. They’re outstanding at what they do and are some of the kindest people I work with professionally. They listen to their customer in a similar way that we do at Vitruvi.
Sephora had actually reached out to us about two and a half years ago for me to be part of the Sephora Accelerate program. They would invite 10 female CEOs and put them through a program where we were able to meet their whole executive team and learn from them.
Part of that was a lot of learning in focus groups and understanding how wellness is evolving for the Sephora customer. A lot of our products have been designed in talks with the Sephora team and understanding beauty trends on a North American and global scale.
We’ve been the first test kitchen and supplying a lot of information on our end as well around how the wellness and beauty space is evolving and even understanding projections and forecasts for how we plan accordingly for store experiences. It’s been definitely a two‑way learning experience.
Vitruvi is applying consumer interest in wellness to beauty, empowering consumers to take personal care into their own hands while also offering expert guidance. For more from similar innovative brands, see PSFK’s reports and newsletters.