In Episode 49 of Earned, Conor sits down with Shai Eisenman, founder and CEO of the affordable, Gen Z-tailored skincare brand Bubble, which launched in 2020 and entered over 3,800 Walmart doors last year.
We start by discussing the challenges of launching and scaling a business during the pandemic, and hear why Shai was inspired to disrupt the outdated mass skincare market and create a brand catering to today’s teens. Shai then explains how every decision the brand makes is rooted in research, and how Bubble invited over 10,000 teens and Gen Zers to provide insight and feedback about their product and shopping preferences. We explore how the brand’s mission to educate Gen Z consumers—without pushing products—inspired the creation of Bubble’s “Skin School,” and helped foster more genuine connection among its community.
We then take a step back to discuss Shai’s background, learning why she decided to attend university at 15 and graduate at 18, and how playing chess professionally was a hugely formative experience that contributed to her business savvy. Next, Shai reveals how she learned that every assumption she had about Gen Z was wrong, and why it became her top priority to listen to these young consumers and understand their unique needs in order to create the best possible brand for them. To close the show, we hear why Bubble entered a retail partnership with Walmart while still nurturing its community through DTC.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Our goal is to help you become an educated consumer that asks the right questions”: Why Bubble Prioritizes Consumer Education over Pushing Product
Conor Begley: From a communications and marketing perspective, you have gone all in on communicating with this particular group of people. One of the things that stood out to me was [your text messaging strategy], “If you have a skin problem, text us. Here's our number." I've never seen that before. But that's the magic of the internet—you can connect directly with your customers in a very personal way while they're in their pajamas in their bedroom and you're at your desk. Talk to me a little bit about what the inspiration was there—not necessarily for that specific tactic, but for all of your tactics, what has been the approach? And are there particular things that have stood out or performed better than others?
Shai Eisenman: Yeah, so over the last three years since we started working on Bubble, we spoke to over 10,000 teens and Gen Zers. The way we looked at it is: they are so different from us. I'm a millennial, and they're so different from me, so the only way to really make this brand right for them is to involve them in the conversation and get them to tell us what they really think and how they really feel. And if something sucks, we want them to tell us. So, research was rooted in everything we've done.
It started with focus groups. I personally conducted focus groups with 200 teens. It was in groups of eight, two hours at the time, so it's been a lot. I brought like 50 different products and I was like, “Do you like this? Do you like that? What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? What do you currently use?” It was hours and hours of just conducting research. And then after focus groups, we conducted quantitative research with 800 teens, and then we created a community with 4,600 teens, and ever since then, every two to three months, we research with at least 1,500 teens on various subjects that we're interested in. It can be retailers, it could be marketing strategies, it could be celebrities and influencers, it could be product discovery, it could be product innovation.
So, that has been a part of everything we've done, and I constantly try to explain to everyone— they're the decision makers. I don't think for a second that we know best. They know best, and we listen to them in every possible aspect. We listen to them for everything from product names to which products we should develop, and we have at least 50 community members testing our products before we approve them from a formulation perspective, because the way we approach it is, we're trying to cater to you. We need to ensure that it's truly something you're happy with. Countless times we’ve completely moved away from a certain formulation just because some community members didn't like it to the same extent that we thought they would.
So, that has been a big part of the text messaging strategy, that has been a huge part of Skin School on our website, because in our community, we had two rooms: a room for talking to our dermatologist, and a room for talking to our product developer. We still have it today, and we took all the questions that they've asked our experts and created the [Skin School] platform explaining all of that, because we suddenly understood how much fear mongering exists in this industry, and how much misinformation exists. So we wanted to really understand what [Gen Z’s] needs are, what they're looking for, what problems they're experiencing, and how we can solve it together with them to really give them the best possible solution. So, that has been a part of every strategy and every decision we made.
A big thing that is a part of our brand is the educational side, and we educate in a very different way than most brands, because the way that most skincare brands will educate is, “Oh, this is the problem that you have, these are the ingredients that we currently have in this product to help you tackle this problem." The way we approached it is, we educate you completely unrelated to our products. Our goal is not to push our products. Our goal is to help you become a very educated consumer that asks the right questions. We really want to bring the true scientific evidence to everything that consumers are looking to know and looking to see. So, our goal is really to make them much more educated consumers, and that’s something that has been very successful, and also has helped us create a much more genuine and authentic connection with our community and our consumers.
“Always assume you know nothing”: Shai’s Lightbulb Moment for Understanding Gen Z
Conor Begley: So in launching the brand, what have been some of the biggest lightbulb moments and times in which you saw the impact that you were having with the educational material?
Shai Eisenman: So it's been actually really, really interesting. I think it's been a combination of a lot of different things. I think it was in the first focus groups way before we launched the brand, so this was like 2018, 2019. I was sitting in a room with [teens and Gen Z] and I came to this focus group with so many assumptions. You come into this as a know-it-all entrepreneur, and you’re like, I know exactly what they think. I know exactly what they're using. I know exactly what they're excited about. I know exactly where they shop. Let's just ensure that we can just check the boxes.
And then I came into the first focus group and I remember calling one of our closest advisors after and I was like, “Everything I said was completely wrong. I had no idea what I was talking about. They're not using what I think. They're not shopping where I think.” We could start from scratch essentially from all of the assumptions I had, because it was completely different.
I had this perspective of being a millennial and knowing millennials. I was like, they have access to all the DTC brands, they're all about Glossier and Drunk Elephant. They're buying in Sephora. I had all these different assumptions of knowing exactly who they are and where they shop, because it's Gen Z, like they're the extreme version of millennials. But no, Gen Zers are the complete opposite of millennials, but I didn't know that. So I'm coming into these focus groups and I'm taking out a Drunk Elephant product from my bag, and they're like, “Oh this is really cool. I've never seen this before.” And I'm thinking, they don’t know Drunk Elephant? I thought they're all using Drunk Elephant." And then once I started to speak to them and understand what they think and what they're using, all I heard was Neutrogena and Cetaphil and Clean & Clear, and a little bit of Proactive, but Neutrogena was like the biggest one [at the time]. Now it's CeraVe.
[It didn’t make sense to me], there are all these beautiful indie brands and there are so many different options.
Conor Begley: And they're all for us. They're for people with disposable income that can drive themselves to Sephora and Ulta.
Shai Eisenman: Exactly. They're made for people over the age of 25 that can spend X amount of money for products and are looking for anti-aging products. And that's when I realized, this entire industry has been focused in the last four to five years solely on millennials. Nobody even thought for a second that there's a generation, a huge category of consumers, that are still buying in Walmart and Target and CVS and don’t have a disposable income, and they don't know much about skincare. They definitely don't have it accessible to them. When I started researching, I found that like 24% of teens were using Neutrogena—24%!
So that was a major lightbulb moment of understanding it's a whole other category. And then in talking to our community and understanding where they shop, they said that they feel intimidated in Sephora. They feel like they're being judged, like it's too expensive for them. And then when you talk to them about where they actually shop, 41% of them are actually in Walmart three to four times a month. They love buying in Target.
Conor Begley: And they often don't have credit cards to buy online, right? So they go with their parents on the trip to Target and it’s like, “Okay, pick out some stuff that you want," right?
Shai Eisenman: Exactly. They don't have a driver’s license. And then, it was really interesting because we had our community throughout, so we saw how they went from knowing nothing about skincare and being extremely focused on makeup, because 2019 was all about makeup and cosmetics and beauty tutorials, to now when every teen is like, “Oh, there’s niacinamide in this? I'm so excited." So throughout the pandemic, we saw how the narrative was changed to skincare and how everyone became extremely educated in skincare. And now that has shifted again in the last six to 12 months, because makeup is getting a lot of attention again.
So I had a lot of different lightbulb moments of understanding how much I don't understand about Gen Z. How much their shopping behavior and their shopping patterns are completely different. And when we started this, we knew that there wasn’t a brand like this out there. Even brands that are affordable and are selling in big box retailers are still very much targeted towards millennials and Gen X. They're not necessarily Gen Z-focused. So we saw this as a really amazing opportunity to create something that is so much better for Gen Z. And the point that I understood in a big way is that in order to keep up with them, we have to listen to them, and we have to make them a part of the brand and the conversation in the biggest way possible.
We talk about it with them, we constantly have Zoom calls with them, and I constantly say, “Every piece of feedback you have, please share with me because we honestly think that you know best, so I want to listen to everything you have to say.” We see how the world is shifting and how with Gen Zers, what was relevant a year ago is no longer relevant. What was relevant six months ago or three months ago is no longer relevant. So the only way to keep up with what's happening is to listen. The biggest learning for me was, always assume you know nothing, because that's the only way you're truly going to understand your consumers.
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 48 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Milk Makeup, Gymshark, Gucci, and Summer Fridays, visit our Earned Podcast page.