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Earned Ep. 25: How Versed’s Commitment to Transparency and Accountability Restored Trust in Drugstore Skincare

Melanie Bender Versed Skincare

In our 25th episode of Earned, Conor sits down with Melanie Bender, president of Versed, the “cleanest drugstore skincare brand out there”—and one of the fastest-growing, too. Versed collected $18.2M EMV between March 2020 and March 2021, a 144% year-over-year surge.

In the episode, we hear about Melanie’s non-linear path to the beauty world—from earning a degree in aerospace engineering, to sustainability consulting, to co-founding her own marketing agency—before diving into how she became the founding GM of Versed in 2018. We learn about Versed’s runaway success, and Melanie shares how the brand’s community-first approach, along with its commitment to transparency and accountability, resonates with consumers and helps foster connections that are otherwise missing in mass skincare. Conor asks about the challenges that come with hypergrowth, and Melanie emphasizes the importance of growing “in the right way”—with purpose and longevity in mind. We then switch gears to marketing, as Melanie explains why Versed prioritizes its DTC channel despite boasting a significant retail footprint (unlike its net zero carbon emissions), and reveals a few of the brand’s innovative marketing strategies. Finally, we explore Versed’s organic approach to influencer marketing, and the rise of its affiliate program. 

We’ve included a few discussion highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, listen to the podcast below, or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!

The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.

“It’s not what can we say, but what can we do”: The Community-First Pillars of Versed’s Rapid Success

Conor: Obviously, Versed has been growing really quickly. I would love to hear some high-level stats. And secondly, what do you think are the elements that have made it really successful?

Melanie: We're not even two years old, and according to Forbes and IRI, we are the fastest growing clean skincare brand within mass in the U.S., which is just incredible. Last year, we shipped over two million products. We have a top five moisturizer, a top five cleanser, a top five SPF within where we're sold. And ultimately our mission has been to not just create a huge, high-performing, super fast-growing brand, but to create the clean brand that lets people shop into products that are good for them, products that are good for their planet, really for the first time. I think last year we grew over 200% year-over-year, our DTC is growing 500% YoY. So it's kind of wild and crazy. 

But I think other really important stats that I look at, that I think ultimately are responsible for our success, are that we have the most stringent no-list in all of drugstore skincare, to formulate safe for your body, your skin, and your planet. We are, I believe, the largest beauty brand to be carbon-neutral, net zero emissions, in the present—not saying, “hey, five years from now,” but saying, “no, now,” and going all the way back to launch. We definitely put the community at the center of everything we do. That was how we came to be, by tapping into this community at Who What Wear, and talking to them about beauty and what was working for them and the laundry list of things that weren't. Over 50,000 of those people have actively participated in the development of our brand with things like testing formulas, doing online surveys with us, doing focus groups. 

I think it's those things that have made us the powerhouse that we are. We had an incredible strategy coming out. We saw an opportunity to leverage specifically mass retail, which had felt more stagnant certainly than direct-to-consumer, also than prestige retail. We saw the opportunity that mass clean skincare was going to become. There was a huge amount of consumer appetite. And every brand leverages data, but for us, that became our DNA. It became not about what Melanie wants, or what [Katherine Power, CEO & Founder of Versed] wants, or what our product development director wants, but what does the community want? How do we put them at the center and how do we give them a voice in a way that they haven't been listened to? And it translates into eight different types of proprietary data that we leverage, some that are qualitative, some that are quantitative, and really that power us at every single part of the decision journey. But it's also become our culture to really be transparent to that community, to be accountable to them. 

I do feel that that is one of the best marketing decisions we've made, to walk the walk. For us, the focus is always on authenticity, and not what can we say, but what can we do, knowing that building trust with our consumer and committing to being accountable to them and being straight about, “hey, here's where we are, here's where we're not yet, but we’re going to be,” has really brought a lot more of that connection to mass skincare that was missing. [When we created Versed], we talked to our community about mass skincare, and they said, “it's airbrushing, it's hyped-up ingredients, none of it works for me.” Ultimately, that was what we wanted to solve. We wanted to bring that trust and that soul back to an industry that touches basically everyone because we all have skin.

“We needed to build the brand through authentic excitement around the formulas, what we stood for, and what we created”: Versed’s Organic Approach to Influencer Marketing 

Conor: Let's talk about influencers. In our data, you're shooting up the rankings, so I'd love to hear about what your general philosophies are there. How have you approached the space, and what do you think has contributed to your winning there? 

Melanie: Yeah, it was easy to see three years ago, as we were developing the brand, that influencer was the channel to create a new brand, to drive that first-time awareness, to reach new people, to reach qualified customers. But we also saw that it was losing its trust. It was losing its strength, particularly with the advent of #ad and that becoming so much more of what the influencers were posting. So when we set out, recognizing that trust and authenticity are what's missing from mass skincare, we can't build that on the back of #ad. 

So we started with a completely organic strategy and said, we're not going to pay anyone. That was a strategy that was met with skepticism by some outside of the organization. But ultimately, we really believed that we needed to build the brand through authentic excitement around the formulas, around what we stood for and what we created, and that it was on us to make the products that good, to make the experience that good. So we were really thoughtful about who we went out to first, starting with people who we already know are already familiar with us and are going to be primed to support. And then once we had that early momentum and excitement, we were able to cascade down and start to reach out to new folks. 

That was really the pure play for influencer for our first year to year and a half. It built this incredible foundation of people that were authentically excited about us and wanted to share us. It also set us up as a brand that influencers didn't expect to be paid by with every interaction. If the first interaction you have with a partner is to say, “Hey, I'm going to pay you to do this post,” that's probably going to be the extent of your interaction with them. Whereas when you approach them in a way of, “Hey, let us tell you about what we're doing,” and really put a lot of thought into the seeding packages, and doing events with them, and sharing education with them, that really sets up the relationship differently. 

So that's very much been the foundation, but we also recognize that to keep scaling and growing, we need to be reaching new people, reaching new channels. And also, it is a business for many of these influencers that are creating amazing content, that are reaching their sizable communities, [so we also want] to be a good partner to them back. So affiliate has been a bigger and bigger part of how we approach influencer, with tiered commission structures that help them share in the success that they're creating with us. And then also, we do now have paid partnerships that are focused around specific areas of expertise like content—when we need assets around a new item launch, or we have a piece of education that we want to do and we want a specific person to do it, we pay them for it. 

It always needs to be authentic first, with someone that has supported the brand, someone that is a really natural fit with the audience. Is this person a true connection for who we are and what we stand for, are they pushing us forward, pushing us closer to who we are and who we want to reach? It comes down to trust, to shared values, and being able to have those constructive conversations to talk about, is this the right thing for us to do? How do we do this in a way that's brand-forward? 


You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 24 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, Gymshark, Huda Beauty, and Ulta Beauty, visit our Earned Podcast page.

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