Breaking Retail Taboos with Sally Mueller | EP37
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In this episode:
Wendy Liebmann talks with Sally Mueller, CEO and co-founder of Womaness, a brand that is changing not only the conversation around menopause and women’s sexual health but also breaking taboos in branding, retail distribution and merchandising.
- How to build a brand through continuous consumer and shopper research
- How to identify gaps in the marketplace that lead to new whitespace and growth opportunities
- Creating a distinctive brand voice and how to deliver it through packaging, ecommerce, and the retail shelf
- How small disruptor brands can take advantage of unique, distribution opportunities, from ecommerce and marketplaces to traditional retail
- The challenges of traditional retail merchandising when selling cross category solutions that shoppers want, and
- Emerging opportunities around wellness and aging
Don’t miss upcoming episodes, stay up-to-date by visiting the WSL Shopper Insights Library, or our Podcast page.
Hello, I'm Wendy Liebmann, the CEO and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail and this is Future Shop. This is where I talk to innovators disruptors and iconoclasts, about the future of retail. My guest today fills all those bills. She is Sally Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Womaness, a brand that is changing the conversation around menopause through innovative products that offer as she says “solutions from head to toe and everything in between” told us she was an iconoclast, I first met Sally, she was one of the leaders in brand and innovation at Target was heavily involved in the Design for All program which integrated well known global designers into the Target mix. I don't know if you know this, Sally, but one of my favorite pieces of clothing remains to this day my Isaac Mizrachi navy suit. Today we're going to discuss how to break retail taboos. Welcome Sally.
Thanks, Wendy. It's such an honor to be here and catch up with you.
I must tell you, I have been stalking you and this brand, since you and your co-founder developed it and thinking, Is it just me, just my age? but whatever it is, it feels very timely with a unique vernacular and, and an extraordinary, really rule breaking approach.
I've always thought of you as someone who challenges retail orthodoxy. After all, bringing designer brands into Target. How did you then? And how do you now continue to train your eye and brain and your heart as much as anything else to think about what comes next?
Well, I think Target really taught me how to be really guest-centric or consumer focused. And they train all of their employees to really think and be empathetic with the consumer. So we spent a lot of time doing research when I was at Target, talking to customers, watching videos, being in the stores, watching how they shop, we spent so much time really understanding guest behavior, and how we could solve their problems. I've carried some of those same techniques into my role as the CEO and co-founder of Womaness. When Michelle and I decided to do this together, we started interviewing women all over the United States. And we learned a lot about women in their 40s and 50s, and 60s, and what were their pain points, and what would they want from a brand, especially our brand that we knew we wanted to focus on menopause. So we knew a lot from these women about what we had to focus on. The brand had to be accessible, the brand had to have efficacy as a major priority because this woman has bought a lot of product in her life. And if she isn't satisfied with the product efficacy, she's not going to buy another piece, even before a woman asked you know, I spent about 10 years running my own business, I ended up being the Chief Brand Officer at Clique Brands. And that was also an incredible learning experience because we had a community of well over 10 million women and mainly Millennial and Gen Z women. But I learned a lot about how to build a community and how to leverage that community on an ongoing basis to get feedback on concepts and brands and products. So all the way through a brand development process or even a product development process We were constantly co-developing and co-creating with the community.
You're preaching to the converted as you know, we're always talking about shopper centricity. If the shopper is not in the room, then all bets are off. So tell me obviously there's a personal story behind Womaness. Was there a moment one hot flash too many?
Well, it's funny you asked that and there was definitely a hot flash moment. So obviously, there's kind of, I would say two paths that led me to Womaness, one was my own personal journey through menopause, and then my professional journey on developing brands for women. But I'll start with my personal journey. So I knew I was in menopause, but I didn't realize that menopause was more than hot flashes. This gets to obviously the lack of education around menopause and women really feeling like they're struggling to come to grips with it, too. It's obviously a topic that's really pushed under the rug, so to speak. Obviously that's starting to change. But five years ago when I knew I was in menopause, and I had a lot of kind of annoying symptoms. I lacked energy. I lacked libido. I just didn't feel like myself. And after meeting with a few different doctors, as well as talking to friends, I decided to really take it upon myself. And I signed up for a physical at the Mayo Clinic, which isn't too far from my house in Minnesota. And it's, as you know, a renowned institution, they have a whole women's clinic there, and I thought, I'm gonna go to the best. And I'm going to try to get a better understanding of menopause, as well as just a whole checkup. And I found myself in this really interesting conversation with a female doctor who knew a lot about menopause. And she really reassured me that I was not alone, there were a lot of women like me that were experiencing some of the same symptoms. And she recommended that I try some products that I could buy online. So I went home that night and checked out the products on Amazon. And I was aghast, I was shocked at the selection of products. And this is not, you know, to say that she didn't have good taste, it was the best that she could find out there. But these products, I just didn't feel like they spoke to me, they looked really outdated, they had not been reinvented in decades, the names were really off-putting, and most importantly, I didn't think that they were really made with clean formulations, I just come off of building a skincare brand that was all about clean skincare that was affordable. And I knew that there were options. We deserve options like that we deserve clean formulations. And so that was really my aha, or as you say, my hot flash moment of thinking, why am I not disrupting this, this has to be a huge industry. And then I started doing research and found out that 50 million women are going through menopause just in the US at any given time. And it's a huge market, a lot of women spend a tremendous amount of money trying to find, perhaps over the counter solutions seeking out doctors and Female Founders Fund actually said it's a $600 billion industry because of all of the not only the medical costs, but all of the other costs that go into it. my business brain really kicked in. And I thought when you really think about all these industries that have been disrupted, five to eight years ago, in our was the deodorant space, it was the period space, it was all of these different kind of CPG industries that were disrupted, but no one seemed to have tackled menopause. And so that was really what I felt like was my calling. And since I could personally relate to it so much, it's been really rewarding.
I think it's so interesting, because you know while we've all been so focused, the industry is the CPG industries, the retail industries, the fashion industry is everybody on this younger consumer and shopper and this extraordinary opportunity in this category and others who've seen in men now you know, everything from erectile dysfunction to hair loss, where we've tended to go, “Oh, I'm not comfortable there. That's not my space”. And yet it's a massive commercial opportunity. We see it in all our in our research data, our How America Shops® data, as we look at the size the boomer, the older millennial, the Gen X. And what is interesting to me about menopause and women's sexual health is that you've got this huge audience from period to menopause and on and then you've got menopause, which is a very long period of time, literally, I often think about these opportunities that we leave on the shelf as marketers, as business people, as retailers, which I find quite extraordinary. So again, as always, you're preaching to the converted here. Why do you think this moment in time has been this openness of discussion? I mean, we've seen Midol come out with a new campaign around period pain. I think the last time I saw this was growing up in Australia when there was a campaign for tampons, and the ad campaign was “Mother Nature drop dead”.
Well, I think the sweet spot is probably a Gen X woman. Although we know our customers range from Millennials all the way to Baby Boomers. She was really the first generation to post her baby photos on Facebook. She really grew up on the internet, not as much you know, on social media, but she's definitely very savvy when it comes to social media. So we just think of her as the first generation that was paving the way, that was primarily working, you know, a full time job out of the house, all of these things. And I think she is realizing that she has a lot of buying power. And yet advertisers are not necessarily spending money marketing to her. So you're right, they're leaving so much money on the table, because she is such a valuable consumer segment. And she's influencing the purchasing decisions and the wellness decisions for her entire family. I think coupled with most likely she has Millennials and even maybe Gen Z children, people in her life that are influencing and breaking these taboos one by one. And so I think that's a huge factor of what's going on here. As these younger consumers are influencing the taboo-breaking and influencing upwards and telling their moms, you don't have to suffer through this. And why aren't you talking about menopause? I mean, what do you have to be ashamed about? So I think it's those two factors really playing into it. And then even there's a factor of or a trend of, you know, celebrities starting to open up about this. Like JLo, and Michelle Obama and Tamron Hall and all of these cool women that are thriving, they're in their 50s. And they look amazing. And so that's another factor as people realizing, as the consumer just ages, that you're not old, you know, when you go into menopause, doesn't mean you're old and washed up and tired. And so we're really here to celebrate this woman.
The other thing I find really interesting about what you've done, you and Michelle have created this, this, really, it's a different way of thinking about the needs of this consumer. And so it's very holistic in the range of products that you offer. You've thought about her needs from nutritional vitamin mineral supplements, to to creams, I mean, the variety of things that you're offering there is really extraordinary, and comes with its own innate challenges, right? When you think about retail, and what that is. So can you just talk a little bit about the range of products within the Womaness range, and then some of the issues that when you think about where the heck to put it in the store, and based on this old world thinking
right now? Absolutely. When we set out to design, the brand and the product strategy, we knew that we wanted to address the major symptoms of menopause. And so changing skin is a major symptom, your estrogen drops dramatically. And it really causes skin to dry out and skin dries out all over your body, not just your facial skin. So it's super important to address that whole category of skin and body hair. So we do that through about eight products currently. And that's been really successful for us. And then we have three supplements that address everything from the major symptoms of menopause to sleep, as well as to the hair, skin and nails, because so much of your hair texture, even changes during menopause, and even joints. Those are there. Currently those three supplements and then we have a whole category of sexual wellness because libido is really impacted by the drop in estrogen. So we have two vaginal moisturizers, we offer a vibrator. And we're gonna have more products in that space overall. So again, there's over 40 symptoms of menopause. And we probably address at least 15 to 20 of those symptoms. And what you touched on is very correct that when we're merchandising in store because our mission is really to be accessible to consumers, not just through a good price point or good value so that she can buy multiple products, but also be available in her favorite retail stores. What's been challenging is how do you shop a cross-category brand when a brick and mortar store think about how a lot of these stores are merchandised and organized. They're really organized by category or maybe a problem you know, like you can see kind of like all the sleep supplements together or you can see all the pain supplements together. But it's difficult to merchandise really, really different categories together like skincare to supplements to sexual wellness. Those are usually in three separate areas. But when we did research early on with our customers and follow up research with over 300 women recently, the majority of those women do want to see the whole brand pulled together. And the reason is, is because in the case of menopause, they don't always think about all their symptoms and seeing the brand together, really prompts them to think, oh my gosh, you're right. I do have libido issues, not just skin changes, but I have these other issues. And by seeing it together, they're really thinking about a total solution. And so I think there's going to be more trends around and more products and brands coming out that are really dressing these cross categories and in providing a total solution. And it's really going to be imperative for these retailers to think about how do we merchandise these brands and a brick and mortar store and still make it easy, right?
And I do think again, it talks to that shopper-centricity, customer-centricity. I mean, I do recall in the day when Target and a couple of other retailers decided that baby had to be all together because poor mom with a baby was running between the diaper aisle and the formula aisle and pram aisle. And it was a huge issue. I remember the work we did around it to help them understand that yes, you have to cross buyers, and you had to cross aisles, and you had to do all of those things. And it really was a very good example of want to save mum time, she's already stressed. How do we bring it all together? And I think what you're addressing here, too, is particularly with some of these emerging solutions in different categories, that that becomes something. Not everybody has the opportunity to go to the Mayo Clinic. And so how do you let people know, that's another symptom that maybe you didn't know about at all. And there are products to help you. So I think you're right. And a lot of the work we see it talks about how retail has to rethink its operational focus for efficiency. It's interesting, because we were talking internally the other day about, on the one hand, you know, shoppers tell us in all our research that they want the experience to be faster and more efficient. All of that. A retailer traditionally thinks about that is oh, okay, they used to shopping this way. And so we'll keep it this way. But I think there's much more nuance to all of that moving forward. And I think you're just seeing that reflected in the in the work you're doing and the the challenges that you have. So when I think about that, when you began, you took a what I would call a very modern approach to distribution with the brand right DTC, and I love the voice of the brand on your website. I love the fact that it's a “News flash, I'm still hot”. I love that. But you took that quite modern, what I call a contemporary approach to distribution, right. So DTC first and then moving into the Amazon, QVC and then more traditional retail, what have you learned by doing that along the way?
So hold that thought before we continue our conversation. You know, Sally raised a critical issue here that we've addressed in lots of our latest How America Shops® research about the solutions and experiences shoppers expect today. It's not always what you might think. So go to our website WSLstrategicretail.com, you'll find our latest research on what we call Retail 5.0. And what makes for happy stores. In this digital age, you can sign up for our trend alerts and see examples of how retailers around the world are rethinking how they design their stores to accommodate new categories like Sally's and new needs of shoppers. Now let's go back to my chat with Sally.
We launched in March of 2021. So launched in the pandemic. And 30 days later, we started to set product at Target. And then we had multiple sets at Target. And then you know later in the fall, we started the set on Amazon. And then this year, we've launched at Ulta Beauty. And then we've got our supplements at GNC. And we're so proud of our retail partners because we think we're really in the right stores. We can see it obviously in our results. But I think what we've learned is you really have to think about everything, like the packaging is so so critical to being successful on a shelf. And it's less important for your online business because you obviously have an opportunity for education online, but you don't in the store. And so and you only have a little bit of space on the packaging because you obviously can't over package. I mean we're in the era and it's not going away of sustainability. So we have to be super mindful of how much packaging we have. I do think there is an opportunity at some point of figuring out the opportunity for more education in the store and I don't know what the solution is, we've used QR codes. Not a lot of people are obviously clicking on those yet. But there's such a difference, I guess is what I'm saying and the shopping experience that you can deliver online, as well as in the store. And what we have found is that our woman loves to shop online, and she shops online target.com, ulta.com extremely well. And she obviously loves to shop on Amazon and the womaness.com site. So she really likes that convenience, I think she wants obviously, to see the full solution together. We also think she wants to really do the research on the ingredients, the formulas, the brand, she wants to feel this personal connection to a brand. And that's why I think she's so much more comfortable than ever before of shopping online. I think the pandemic obviously perpetuated that tendency. But I think I think even without the pandemic, I think our woman would feel comfortable shopping online, because it's just so easy for her. And just the connection of the education and the product is really working.
I think you've raised another challenge laying down the gauntlet for our traditional retail friends, how do we think about education in different kinds of ways? How do we think about services, I think about the drugstores now talking about all the services they want to add and being less product driven and more service driven. And you think about how do you tell those stories? How do you connect those stories in ways that are both efficient and immersive? So I think that you talking about what are the tools that enable people to do all that, I think your comment about packaging, and the logic and presentation in different places. That's why I really appreciate the naming of the products. If I see a product on the shelf, that's called Let's Neck, then as long as I it's prominent enough that ability, whether it's online or in store to go well,
you know, it catches your attention, doesn't it?
It does. And it also feels like it's the voice of the shopper. Sometimes I think we underrate the value of that when we create a package which has got potentially so much small type on it, that it doesn't tell the story effectively.
Thank you for acknowledging that because we really wanted our packaging to feel approachable and a little irreverent. And you know, there's a serious side to the packaging as well, we really get into our ingredients and what they do for you and other things. But you have to force yourself to say as much as you possibly can with the fewest words possible. Because the consumer can only take in so much as well. That's why I think she does like she still loves shopping in store. Don't get me wrong, but she does like the process of doing research at home online. Because she can really take it all in. And what we've learned is are we knew this going into this, that she's so smart, she's so savvy, she knows her ingredients, and she's very discerning. So we have to be transparent about all that information. And we want to be
Yeah. And as you've looked in, obviously, you have this community and I love again, the concept of “After Party”. I mean, this whole, it feels very, very intimate. That seems the wrong word or right word, intimate community that you can be part of. It does feel like it's something that's very approachable. When you look at your research now, are you seeing diversity in terms of ethnicity and income level? Are you seeing that across the the usage?
Yes, we are. I mean, we because I talk to a lot of customers. I mean, that's, that's what gets me up in the morning is to speak, and my team always laughs because I'm constantly saying, I'll reach out to her, you know, if someone has a question or feedback, and what we found is you're right, it is a huge spectrum, not only of ages, but of race, geography. I mean, we're seeing customers all over the United States, in little towns and big cities. And then income levels are Let’s Neck because it is a top selling product. It's $24.99 it's an incredible value. And for a lot of women, that's still a big investment. And we respect that. I mean, especially now we think we're in really well positioned to succeed you know, if there is a recession, because we're giving such a good value, and but we respect the fact that it's an investment for someone, even $24.99 is an investment and we want her to be happy and see the success of the product and feel like it's making a difference for her.
Yeah, I that was the thing, you know, again, talking about just the pure commerciality if that's the word of this business model, is that it does it goes across so many demographic and life stage and lifestyle areas. I'm glad to know Let's Neck that rhe one that I ordered? Well, that was the one that got me this is a voice here that I really like it. This notion of small brands disrupting the landscape. How do you see that playing out in more categories as we think about the sort of big CPGs, or big fashion brands or all the world that you've lived in? Where do you see that headed next ? Is that that's what we're going to see more and more of these days?
I do think we will see more, I think the consumer is definitely in a cycle of less is more she wants or, and he wants to feel like they've bought into the mission of the brand. They want the brand to feel like it has a soul a real purpose. They want to know, where's the product made? Where am I sending my dollars to? So I think these smaller brands are going to disrupt every industry. And I think it will only get bigger, especially with Ecommerce being just a much more pleasant experience, more accepted experience. And obviously, it's crossing all age demographics as well. So I think the accessibility of a product, and even these marketplaces that are popping up, oh, my gosh, there's been so many marketplaces popping up. And they're like curated hubs, right? different products, depending on names or themes. And I just think the online piece is really going to continue to explode. And then retailers, they still only have so much space, right? And they're all trying to reduce number of SKUs. And, you know, make sure they're not creating like the paradox of choice, right? So they really want to see brands prove themselves first, you know, as an Ecommerce brand, potentially, and then they're going to be more willing to take a calculated risk to bring them into their assortment. So I do think sometimes that cycle is really fast. And sometimes it takes longer to build those brands. But I do think that it will only continue. I'm hoping that over time, there's more opportunity for smaller brands to succeed with an omni channel approach, because I think it will make the shopping experience a lot more interesting.
I think that's really true. And I think it's, it is interesting to see even some of the retailers who are incubating new businesses, bringing in more diverse brands from different ethnic groups to support that and in everything, fashion, home, food, beverage, all of those areas, and you're right, otherwise, this sort of commoditization of retail, it's boring. Oh, there's exactly definitely boring and a reason not to run into a physical store if I can order online and pick it up at the curb. Although we know that then people sometimes park their car and go in to immerse themselves in some wonderfulness if it's there, You know, you've been a serial entrepreneur, I think, even though you spent 20 years at Target, or maybe because you spent 20 years or so at Target. What's the next taboo, you're going to break Ms. Serial Entrepreneur?
you're so kind, And there's just so much opportunity with the woman that we're servicing today, there's still so much taboo yet to break with menopause, and midlife, it's going to change to as the Millennials age into this, it's going to look different in the next five years. So it's super exciting. So there's still so much whitespace just in within Womaness. And that's what we loved about creating the brand is just the potential to service this woman. I'm really also intrigued with the older population, Wendy, you know, as I take care of, or I'm involved in taking care of my parents that are in their 80s. And I just see so much opportunity to better service, an older demographic, you know, mainly through services, but obviously leaning into healthcare and wellness, fitness food, there's so much whitespace in that. And it's not the sexiest, but it's just a massive opportunity.
I thought maybe you're going to say men because I feel sometimes we're a we're a company of women, right. And I often feel like we leave the fellows out of this, and they have a lot of their own issues. But I do agree in terms of aging and successful and wonderful enriched aging when we think about our parents and, and older siblings, and there's just so much gracious opportunity there that if we pay attention to that, so I knew I wouldn't be disappointed when I asked you about what's next. I know you got a lot on your plate with Womaness. So I know there's so much excitement.
Yes, I'm focused on Womaness right now. But I'm always looking around watching the consumer, reading your reports. I mean, all of that's really goes into just inspiration. And I'd love to think about what's next and what those white spaces are.
Well, it's a thrill to have you And for those of us in this phase of our lives, I thank you for that. And those who are anticipating that they know that it's a safe place to be on that side of the world. So thank you for joining me. It's been a terrific pleasure.
Oh, thank you, Wendy. It was such a joy to be together with you and I think so highly of you and the business you've built so we'll have to keep comparing notes.
Yes, by now next time, I will wear my Isaac Mizrachi suit. Oh. Thanks, Sally. Cheers.
So here's the thing. What Sally made abundantly clear is that if you are shopper centric, if you stay close to shoppers every day, you will see gaps in the marketplace, white spaces, opportunities for disrupting categories that will lead to significant growth. Menopause is just one of many categories for a large segment of shoppers that has been underserved for generations. Sally listened to herself to friends, medical community, then she conducted research to understand the issues to hone the story and build a shopper-centric brand accessible to all, you know, she's challenged traditional distribution approaches. She's challenged traditional branding and messaging, and now she's taking on merchandising strategies. And that's what you need to do. You know, when you want to break taboos you have to be bold, and that's what seeing the future of retail requires and shoppers demand. See you in the future.