Interview: Blair James – Creator of Bondi Sands

Originally published on Fennec and Friends.

Bondi Sands sells a bottle of its self-tanning foam every three seconds. Named for one of the world’s most iconic beaches, the brand has grown over the past six years into a household name with 70 percent of the self-tan market. Blair James is one of the masterminds behind the company, which has produced an incredible 37 products since its establishment. Part marketing wizard, part mad scientist, James doesn’t see Bondi Sands’ growth slowing down any time soon.

First thing’s first – where did you start?

I used to own a tanning salon in Melbourne – we opened that in 2006. Spray tans were a big part of the business, and in 2010 we were doing about 300 spray tans a week. There was an opportunity to produce our own spray, so we did, and people started coming in and asking for this mystery, no-name product – so we knew the product was good. We started thinking, “why can’t you do this at home?”

Did it always smell this good?

Yes! We always wanted that coconut, tropical smell! We tested a lot of different fragrances because DHA is a hard chemical to mask the smell of. It’s also the thing people really hate about self-tanners.

A lot of innovation comes from what people complain about. We look at the problems people are having and ask, “how do we fix that?” Smell was obviously one of the first things on the list.

What else was on the list?

The Tan Eraser was our first globally-patented product, and that came about because as long as people have been using self-tan, they’ve been dealing with exfoliation issues. We approached the tan removal process a different way – trying to scrub your skin off to remove a tan is a bit raw. We worked with a company that specialises in drug delivery through the skin, and understood the interaction of DHA with the skin. Once we understood it, we could reverse it.

When you apply DHA it creates a reaction on the skin. People think it dyes the skin, but it doesn’t – it changes the PH level of your skin, and that creates a reaction causing the brown colour. We looked into changing the PH back, and once we did that we found the tan basically fell off the skin. You just have to wipe it with a wet towel.

That process of learning about skin didn’t just create the Tan Eraser, it also helped develop Express – because we understood how the skin reacts with DHA.

That’s what we do as brand. We ask a lot of questions and push a lot of boundaries, and learn things along the way.

Do you consider yourself a scientist?

The rest of the staff think I’m a mad scientist, to be honest. I have this theory that if you come up with an idea for a product and it’s not as mental as it could possibly be, then by the time it gets dulled down and put on a shelf it’s going to be a very boring product.

The first bit is always seeing if the product works, and if it does then it has to go through stability to make sure it can sit on a shelf for two years. Then it goes through regulations, and price points, and reducing active ingredients, and all of that.

How many more of these mad ideas have you got?

We’ve got a big one next year! Launching in April, on the same day all around the world. It’s another patented product, so that will be exciting. We’ll probably push out close to 15 products in the next three years – that’s not just self-tan, it’s also sun care.

How did you get Kylie Jenner on-side?

We have a great social media team, and they get all the credit for that. We worked with some talent that was managed by the same agent as her, and it came across our table. It probably took about three or four months to get that agreement done, and it was done with her Mum – she literally does run everything for Kylie!

What’s exciting as that Kylie doesn’t post a lot of brands, particularly ones that are so close to her own category. For her to choose Bondi was a massive achievement for us. She’s now come back and said she wants to work with Bondi ongoing, which is exciting.

Does the Bondi image work as well in America?

It’s funny, I played basketball in America growing up and the bronzed Aussie is a very strong image that all Americans related to. Even 20 years after Crocodile Dundee, people are still talking about it. That stuck in my mind, so when we made this product an Australian brand made sense. We wanted to create something iconically Australian, that made sense to Australians. Bondi is the most iconic beach in the world, so that made sense.

Now, the UK picked up the Bondi thing straight away. They pick it up, they say it the right way. In the US, they pick it up and call it “Bon-dee.” Thankfully, they know what Australia is so the ‘Made In Australia’ tagline works.

In the beginning, before we marketed it in the US, 70 percent of our Instagram followers were in the US, and 60 percent of our online sales were from there – so we had a good base.

Is being cruelty-free and sustainable important to you?

When we first launched we had three products, and it was done on a shoestring budget. We’ve always had that direction of being cruelty-free, and have never tested on animals. As the brand grows and we become more financially stable there are opportunities to be more eco-friendly. Next year we’re looking at new, innovative packaging, which will be based around a reduced impact on the environment.

All our packaging is recyclable anyway, but not everyone does that. If we can take the work out of it, and have the ability to invest in new ways of packaging our product, that’s what we’ll do.

What’s the self-tan market like for men?

Well, I use the gradual tanning milk. It’s one of the first products we launched, and a lot of guys use it – that’s why I brought the men’s gradual tanning line out. I struggle to find time to do the full tan process, so I’d rather just use this every day.

A lot of people say their husbands and boyfriends use their tanning products, so we’re going to keep building that range. The men’s market is interesting. Their products are in silver packaging, and have more of an aftershave smell to them. To look at our packaging, it’s not overly feminine anyway – it’s pretty unisex, and I think that’s worked well.

There’s a big push now for products to be gender neutral, so it’s time, really. It’s a changing category. You’ll definitely see more men’s products coming through in tanning and cosmetics.

Where else are you launching?

We launched in the UK in 2015, and the goal there was to be the number one brand; which we are now, at 35 percent of the market share. We knocked off St Tropez in their home territory, which – well, we’re very competitive, so we like that.

We launched in the US a year and a half ago, just through some smaller retailers. We have a big announcement in the next couple of weeks about the US, so that’s still building. We’re also moving into Germany and the Nordic countries as well – Sweden, Norway, Denmark. Switzerland, too.

We’re looking at expanding into Southeast Asia for sun care. With the different products coming through, we have different avenues opening up. There’s so much going on!

What’s the next product on the New Zealand market?

We have two Aloe Vera products coming out. One’s a normal after-sun, and the other is another world first – an aloe and an SPF in the same product. If you’ve been burned the day before, you can wear it knowing you’ve got protection as well as a healing factor.

Liquid Gold’s just come through here as well. New Zealand gets products as close to the Australian launch as any country. The growth here in New Zealand has been amazing since day one. We try to push our products over here as quickly as possible.

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