Episode 38: Deanna Utroske, Editor of CosmeticsDesign.com

As a beauty writer, Deanna Utroske has a bird’s-eye view on the industry, one that’s even more unique as Editor for trade publication CosmeticsDesign.com. In this episode, find out her biggest surprise upon covering the beauty beat, why she considers the label “misfit” a good thing, and some valuable advice on networking.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi. I want to start today's podcast off with a story, a story about the woman who's sitting across the desk from me right now. One day, three years ago, I took a deep breath and walk into an industry event, I hate networking, I wasn't good at it. But on the train ride to the event, I Googled how to network at an event. It told me, do not go up to a group of people, like three or more, they'll never talk to you. It said look for the person in the room who's by themselves and say hello.
So I did that, it was a CEW event during the networking hour before the event, I got my glass of seltzer with lime and I looked around the room and I saw lots of little cliques, but then I saw one woman standing by herself. I went over and said hello, and it Deanna Utroske.
Deanna UtroskeI think I said hello back.
Jodi KatzYes, you did. Deanna is Senior Correspondent of Cosmetics Design. Deanna, welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty.
Deanna UtroskeThank you, I'm thrilled to be here.
Jodi KatzIt's so cool to sit across the table from you now, three years later. Tell me what networking has been like for you in our industry.
Deanna UtroskeOh, I like networking in beauty. That's a great question. As a writer, I make so many good connections for my articles, and really find trends by having conversations with new people all the time. I have to admit, the longer I've been in the industry, the easier it's getting, because I might still be standing alone, but now people recognize me. They know my picture from the website, or they have seen me speak at an event, and so we already feel like we know each other in some way. Now I can't go to an event without making 10 new contacts. It's good, networking is good.
Jodi KatzBack then, three years ago, I really had to force myself, and this is actually the time when you just entered the business, right?
Deanna UtroskeYes.
Jodi KatzCan you tell us about what life was before beauty for you, and why you came into the beauty industry?
Deanna UtroskeSure. I have always been a writer, I think I was writing before I could make letters on the page, I was drawing little lines to imitate letters or writing works. Most recently before I was in the beauty space, I did a bit of work in digital publishing, kind of similar to what I do for Cosmetics Design. A lot of breaking news, a lot of fast moving content, all digital. I've always really had a passion for the success of women, so a lot of my other jobs had that angle to them. Whether it was women studies, or something about film for women. I found the opportunity to come to Cosmetics Design, I did not have a beauty background, but I knew I was good at communicating to women, I knew I was good at writing for digital, it just worked out tremendously.
The industry has welcomed me terrifically. I was thrilled, even at the time you first met me, to be meeting other people who were just starting to read my articles and hear their feedback that I had a good sense, that I was the strong observer of the industry. It's just the sensibility of beauty is really magnificent, so it's a good place for me.
Jodi KatzIt's so awesome because you are so open and so kind. Back then I was really struggling with, I don't work at Lauder, I don't work at L'Oreal, where do I fit in this industry? I think I have an old world view of the way our industry works, so this is the world view of if you're at the [inaudible 00:03:58], if you're not, poo-poo for you. Obviously we know the tide has turned quite a bit, and independent brands, and entrepreneurial companies are really exciting now. But at that time, really in an emotional upheaval, where do I fit in this world, I didn't go to college with Jane Lauder, am I ever gonna have a place in this industry? It's weird to say that out loud, but it's totally the truth, that's how I thought.
That moment in time is really significant to me, because that's the time when I actually made an effort, I really tried to go out of my comfort zone, and I met you. And I just associate you now with all these beauty events, whenever I go to CEW or IBE or Founder Meet or any of these things, I think, "Oh, I'm gonna see Deanna." Hope that I'm gonna see you and assume I'm gonna see you, and guess what, I see you.
Deanna UtroskeWe often do see each other at events, I think that's a nice thing to hold in mind, is that you are going to see your friends and allies at the events, but you're also gonna see that new Deanna every time. There's still going to be someone who's coming into the industry, who might herself be a misfit, and it's a chance to find someone who's creative, find someone who is observing something fresh. I will be there, you can count on that, Jodi. But yeah, someone else cool's gonna be there too.
Jodi KatzYou use the word misfit, do you feel like you're a misfit?
Deanna UtroskeI think it's fair to say that I don't fit exactly anywhere, but I appreciate that perspective, more now than I used to. I used to feel very awkward about it, but I think it does give me a helpful perspective to come from. Just make my observations a little bit more broad, and a little bit more ... I don't know. When people talk to me about my writing, sometimes we all know what's breaking news in beauty, everyone was on social at 4:30 in the morning, scrolling through whatever to see what the headlines are going to be. But I think being sort of a misfit, if you will, makes sure that my angle on the topic is different, or the context I nest it into for my reader is a bit different. People respond very well to that, so I'm learning to love being a misfit.
Jodi KatzI use the word fringe for myself, I feel very, always have. Loner, any of these words. But I do think that there's a point of view that's really unique when you don't feel like you're part of that thing, whatever that thing is, to watch people move through that thing. It could be a business deal, it could be a friendship, it could be a romance, anything. Watch people move through these events, and wonder where's their handbook for this? How did they learn to do this? And that's how I used to move through the world, until really recently. I'll be 42 later in this week, I've been living my life really thinking that I was totally fringe and wouldn't fit in, for quite some time. Just in the past few years that's been unraveling itself, I feel at ease, and I feel really comfortable with who I am now. But it's taken a long time. I think that's probably influenced our work at Base Beauty, too. Always really striving for something different.
Deanna UtroskeI think I would connect your being on the fringe, I'll embrace that, you can be fringe Jodi. I think that is probably part of what makes you such a strong, creative professional. I think creativity is a fringe space, you necessarily exist without that guidebook because if you only had that rule book that everyone might be following, you wouldn't see things in a fresh way, you wouldn't be able to introduce new ideas. I think it's good.
Jodi KatzThat's cool, I never thought of it that way, but I really like that. I'm gonna latch onto that.
Deanna UtroskeSure.
Jodi KatzSo tell me, what were the surprising things you learned early into the beauty industry, and covering the beauty industry, that really surprised you?
Deanna UtroskeOne of the things that still surprises me is what I like to think of as misplaced cynicism. There are a lot of different players in the industry who are invested really strongly in being correct in their own footing, whether it's a founder who knows what business should look like, or a scientist who knows what the truth is. You could pick any position in the industry. People are a little to quick I think to dismiss the other players, and are missing some opportunities for, again creativity or innovation or collaboration, or even robust competition. I'm not suggesting that we should all share our secrets, but people are ... Yeah, I don't know, does that make sense?
Jodi KatzYeah. Are you suggesting that you've met people or brand founders, or brand spokespeople who are unwavering in the fact that they think they're the only ones, and are doing the best, and that there's no room for anybody else?
Deanna UtroskeIn a way, yeah. And I don't think I'm saying that confidence doesn't have a place. I think when I meet founders, especially with independent founders, I have to know that they believe their beauty brand 360 degrees every minute of the day. But you have to be open to other ideas, you have to at least be willing to consider them, and not just dismiss other perspectives. I'm shy to give an example, I don't want to call out any of my colleagues or people that we might know in common. I think misplaced cynicism is something that continues to surprise me in beauty.
Jodi KatzOn this topic, and maybe it's tied to what you're saying, I meet a lot of brand leaders who, especially the entrepreneurial ones, the very new ones, maybe they built their brand in the past three years, that really don't have a strong sense of the competition, in the competitive set. I'm wondering if some of that comes from what you're talking about, or if what you're talking about comes from this idea that, "I'm the only face scrub. I'm the only face scrub with whatever oil. Whatever oil harvested from wherever."
Our job at the agency is to identify who really has it. I feel like we have this sensibility, we can just tell the founder has it, maybe the product line isn't refined exactly yet, but there's really some sort of magic here. Then there's a lot of other brands that they just think that they're the only face scrub, face mud, whatever it is, and they don't even really consider the fact that the competitive landscape's really important here. Do you think there's something there, it's lack of education? Are you finding that the bigger brands who really know their competition are saying that there's no other way, we're the only ones?
Deanna UtroskeI don't think it translates out that far into company leadership, I think I see it more in different distinctive roles. I think brand founders, especially like you're saying in what we might think of as the more naïve level of independent beauty, I think it's fair to say I see this there. But I would say otherwise, I probably don't see it in leadership, I might see it in junior marketers, or junior chemists, people who want to be right.
Jodi KatzThey want to have swagger.
Deanna UtroskeI mention it as something that surprises me rather, because I do genuinely feel like it's tripping companies up, or slowing progress, and stunting innovation, when people hold really fast to their ideas. I wrote a piece recently about the fact that the terms natural and organic rarely have meaning, because it means so many different things to different people, and it's still really being defined by different regulatory bodies, and what have you. But there are some players in the industry who are only willing to listen to their own definition of organic, or their own definition of natural, they very much want there to be a consistent definition, but they're only willing to accept that if it's theirs. That's slowing progress. There has to be a community conversation and a discussion, and you're going to lose ground, and you might have to choose some new fancy terminology for part of something that's very important to your work.
Jodi KatzThat I'm-green-and-clean community, which we service quite a bit and have great success working with, it's a movement it's not just a brand or a product, right?
Deanna UtroskeAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzThen I see people on the outside of that, brand leaders I have talked to, not necessarily clients, who are really frustrated by the progress that the other side, it's become war, the other side. I don't think that anyone really set out to make this an us-versus-them, but there's resentment, I can hear it all the time. People are either straight up about it, or they just weave it into conversation that there's a resentment from conventional brands towards the green-and-clean community for trying to push things and make things more difficult for them. Then there's the green-and-clean people feeling resentment towards the conventional community because they're not willing to embrace change. In the middle of it is of course a really confused consumer.
Deanna UtroskeYes, yes. That's I think one of the things it really comes down to, is consumer education, especially with marketing and advertising as it exists today, it is so soundbite driven, it is so tiny, you really have to package your ideas in these little moments of words. There's just not enough language there to educate the consumer as to what the clean-and-green brands are trying to do, or what the more legacy brands have been doing. Everyone's interested in safety and well being and functional products, but there's just a lot of language that doesn't get to be articulated in our current environment.
Jodi KatzIt's interesting you bring this up, because a few weeks ago in my inbox was a PDF from some market research company about naturals, I'm like, "This is exciting." So I dove into it, I'm like, "Oh my god, my definition of naturals is so far from this company's that I don't see any of what I know represented in their work." It was so startling to be like, "Oh my god, I am in this place over here, and they're all the way over here." This is the problem that the consumer faces, that she just doesn't know what to do, she doesn't know, if she wants to make a healthy choice for herself, she doesn't know what to read, she doesn't know what brand to trust, she can only hope, she can ask a friend. But it's really infant level marketing in terms of how to reach her, because she is so confused with so many brands talking at her, with so many frustrating messages. And also, she has other things to do with her time. How is she gonna research all this?
I was really blow away the other day, and a friend of mine asked me, "Oh, send me that deck." I'm like, "It's not gonna be useful to you, it's so far away from where you are as a brand." Just the word natural doesn't mean anything that you know it to mean. I was really surprised by that. I thought that, as I'm learning everyone else is learning.
Deanna UtroskeRight, right. That we're on this curve together.
Jodi KatzAnd we're really not. It also just reinforces how huge this industry is, that I'm talking to 10 brands a day and yet there's so many more that I never talk to. They're using language in a different way. What do you see in the ways that these brands who are green-and-clean can do better in communicating their stories and their ingredient choices?
Deanna UtroskeThat's a good question. I want to just continue on the line I was going with earlier, which would be more language, and more transparency. And we think the word natural or naturally derived or bio based or extracted from XYZ flower, is really clear, and it is in those spaces where those are the only words you can use, when it is a really tight space. When you're writing your description on Amazon.com, or an eCommerce space, you need the consumer to keep clicking through. And being succinct really matters, but I think offering more information behind it is going to be most useful to the consumer who realizes that she's faced with this puzzle, and does have one hour sometime this month to do a little bit more research. Having those resources ready on your website I think is really useful.
And we're seeing that from big and small companies, and so consumers are expecting to see it more. Now that S.C. Johnson is listing all their ingredients, all their fragrance ingredients, and they just unveiled recently an ingredient index, so most of their products are in the home care space, but that consumer is shopping in beauty as well. She's going to expect those resources from big brands in the beauty space, as well as from the small brands, especially if she wants to make sure that their idea of natural resonates with her idea of natural.
Jodi KatzDo you mean, talk about not just the ingredient but the why, why you're choosing this?
Deanna UtroskeI think why you're choosing it, but I also think more about sourcing, more about supply chain. I think we're starting to see a leapfrog effect in this transparency idea, that yeah, we know it's natural and we know the ingredients came from this plant, and then there's a tendency to jump over the supply chain and get to this idea of a social well being brand, mission. And say, "Oh but look, the farmer's in Ghana are producing this." But I don't see the whole supply chain, I might see a little story about the women who are producing one of your ingredients, then I might see it on the store shelf, but what's going on in between, because I think that's where a lot of question marks about naturals come up. About how is it processed, how is it transported, how is it formulated? A lot of that matters in a way that the people don't know about.
Jodi KatzThe processing is really important. I just read that California is suggesting that aloe vera land on a dirty list, basically. I'm like, "That's so weird, why?" A friend of mine who's formulating products right now told me that, I'm like, "That doesn't make any sense, isn't this a very basic natural ingredient for hundreds of brands?" I reached out to a friend who's the master of green-and-clean formulating, and her thought was that the aloe vera might be processed or extracted using an ingredient that we've never heard of, that we probably don't want to consume. It just made it like, "Oh my god, this is so hard." Right?
Deanna UtroskeIt is, it's very hard. I think that's what a lot of brands come up against, especially the smaller brands that have really good intentions. Once they learn more about the ingredient supply chain, and what currently exists today, they see how much work there is to do. It can become quite daunting.
Jodi KatzRight. So as daunting as it is for me, somebody who gets a lot of free product, imagine how daunting it is for the consumer who has very limited time and interest, most of them have very little interest in becoming an expert in this, right?
Deanna UtroskeAbsolutely. We see a proliferation of different seals and different credentials that you can add, I think that just comes out of the fact that there is no right or wrong, we don't know what the consumer is going to respond really well to. The whole industry is still sorting it out.
Jodi KatzI'd love to shift gears. You are a senior correspondent, you're here to cover the news of beauty and beauty packaging and beauty ingredients. What is a regular day in your life like at work, what does it look like?
Deanna UtroskeSure. There's as much reading as there is writing. Because I do try to publish what feels like breaking news on Cosmeticsdesign.com, I will usually start my day by trying to pick some of the best topics. Often I will have written something the evening before, or the afternoon before, so that I don't have to create three or more stories before lunch, which might be impossible. I will be paying attention to what topics, and really trying to figure out what my reader wants to know or needs to know. There are articles that I choose to cover, topics really that I choose to cover that you could end up finding on any trade publication that day, or we'll eventually see in some of the glossy consumer magazines, because it's just so popular.
I wrote about Fenty Beauty the other day, it wasn't revolutionary, but I wrote about it a few days after the launch, and I found an angle that I thought would really resonate with my readership. And that's part of what I'm doing, is not only looking for the topics, but looking at things that need to be shared in this space. My readership, it's so wide, I think it's interesting to think about who's looking at Cosmetics Design every day. Because it's as much the scientists and marketers, as it is the brand leaders and founders, it's everyone in between. It's people adjacent to beauty, it's support communities, my readers just come from everywhere. I really try to offer a wide variety of news.
Jodi KatzWhat was your angle on Fenty that you thought this community would be interested in?
Deanna UtroskeI really took interest in the fact that for a celebrity brand, it launched such a full range of skews, and it launched in numerous countries, in thousands of doors simultaneously. It was an unprecedented launch, in terms of size, scope, and scale. And really rethinking what we think about as, not only entrepreneurial beauty, or a launch, because it was supported by the LVMH incubator Kendo Beauty, so it wasn't indie by any means. But just really rethinking what a beauty launch can look like, but also what a celebrity beauty launch can look like. I think we've spent enough years now dismissing celebrity fragrances, and celebrity color is really coming on strong, and the Fenty launch was ridiculously strong.
Jodi KatzYeah, when you're talking about it, it made me think immediately of a Jennifer Lopez fragrance, or a Jessica Simpson fragrance, or whatever the celebrity fragrances were when celebrity fragrances were a big, big deal. Maybe what we're seeing in color, with Kylie and Rihanna, I'm sure dozens others that I'm forgetting, will be formulas that are applied to fragrance to try to stimulate some growth and excitement there.
Deanna UtroskeSure, yeah. Because the consumer is looking for more variety in fragrance, there's a lot more layering, there's a lot more event specific. I think that's possible.
Jodi KatzA day in your life, you get to the office, or do you have to go to an event in the morning? What does this look like?
Deanna UtroskeYeah, it could be either/or. The first thing I need to make sure gets done is that the site gets published, so I usually will do a bit of writing, a bit of email checking, and I will publish the site generally around 11:00 here in New York City time. I have a bit of leeway, most of our readers come to the content through subscribing to our email newsletters, so those are paced out by my production team. My production team. My lovely colleagues, I should say. Once it's published, then I can take a deep breath.
I go to events pretty regularly, sometimes several a week, but always several a month. Those I usually would try to get to in the afternoon, if it's something that I need to be to in the morning, I'll publish super early. There's just a lot of writing. I do a fair amount of emailing, whether it's with brands or founders or PR folks. I run a weekly column called the Indie Beauty Profile, that takes a bit of legwork in terms of acquiring the content and the assets to have a photo accompany everything, keeping content coming in from, they're essentially contributors because it's an as-told-to piece, so I have to keep a running schedule of that, and that has a lot of reminding and nudging and keeping things on track. I think that's a good sense of it.
Jodi KatzAnd is this a job someone can have and have a nice balance between work and their personal life?
Deanna UtroskeI would say yeah, I think that's possible. I get caught up in it sometimes because I really love writing, it's a safe enjoyable place for me to be. My company had an office in New York City for the first year or so that I worked for Cosmetics Design, but they no longer do, so I work remotely. Which means I'm at a café, or sometimes I'm at my kitchen table. Sometimes I'm really good at shutting down at 6:00 on the button and going out and seeing my friends and going to the movies, or enjoying museums on weekends, what have you. Other times I just really get into it. I think it's not something that's so demanding that I'm compelled to reply to emails 24 hours a day, or that sort of thing, but sometimes events also take me beyond a typical nine-to-five day.
Jodi KatzLet's switch gears here a little bit. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being on your panel at a packaging conference here in New York, and we had a really lively Q&A after the panel presentations. And we were talking a lot about what suppliers can do to make innovation happen for small brands. I have no doubt that there's plenty of innovation happening at the large brands, CPG, large beauty, lots of innovation and money moving through those processes. But for small brands it's really hard, they're looking at stock components, they're looking at really short runs of whatever deck they're developing. What were your observations around that conversation and the questions in the room?
Deanna UtroskeYou're absolutely right, that especially the smaller brands really face challenges when it comes to packaging and what's available, and a lot of it has to do with the run size that packagers require, the number of jars, the number of lids, or the number of pieces that have to be decorated. And most brands, even if they're not launching, are running pretty small runs, or not warehousing a lot. I do feel like this conference that we were speaking at is the first time I've really started to feel like suppliers are responding to that. One of our audience members made a good point, that responding to that takes investment on their end.
I think it just really speaks to the potential of independent beauty in the marketplace, because the suppliers have now seen how well those brands are doing over the last several years, and are responding by making that investment, and now finally by making things available in smaller runs. Or companies that only offer luxury options to brands that could afford a phenomenal number of pieces, are now creating stock items, so it's an option to get product to market more quickly.
Jodi KatzI was feeling optimistic during the conversation, then afterwards a few different vendors came up to me and they're like, "We can do that." And I'm like, "Really, what's the minimum for you?" "Usually it's 200,000, but we could do 50,000." I think we really need to align expectations here that many of clients, some of them who do very well, they really order 1,000 at a time, that's their comfort zone, that's what their cashflow allows. It might be years until they increase that.
Deanna UtroskeRight. And I think that's a great point, because we do need to actually say numbers out loud, and 1,000 is really nothing for a lot of these suppliers. They wouldn't even entertain that, because when I talk to suppliers that I'm excited that they're offering smaller quantities, I probably heard two-and-a-half or three companies tell me 10,000. I felt very optimistic about that, but that's still an enormous stretch for a brand who is saying, "Let me produce 1,000 pieces of something."
Jodi KatzA lot of these smaller brands, these entrepreneurial brands, they're founded by people who are really looking to make choices outside of the way they used to live their lives. Maybe they worked in corporate America, maybe for a beauty brand, maybe not, and they start their own business because they want to feel differently about their work, which means that they don't want to be so overwhelmed by overhead. Maybe they don't have the take-over-the-world kind of attitude about their business, even if it's a healthy business. And they don't want to stretch their money, and they don't want to stress themselves out. They don't want 10,000 pieces sitting in a distribution center, hoping that everything just moves forward and that their retailers pick it up as promised, and that the POs move forward. They don't want that stress, that's a lot of anxiety.
I think when we think about the attitude of the founder, some of them are for sure take-over-the-world, but many of them really aren't.
Deanna UtroskeYes, right. They have no interest in scaling, like you said if they can create a sustainable business at a small scale, that's very much what they want to do.
Jodi KatzFor anyone listening who's a supplier, if you can be an alternative to mirror on glass for skincare, where you'll find many prestige independent beauty brands are using the mirror on glass. If you can be a supplier that has options at low quantities, with great deco abilities, different actuators and caps, you will have a nice steady business as indie beauty continues to explode.
Deanna UtroskeYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzSo Deanna, tell me on our last question what you do for fun?
Deanna UtroskeOh gosh, fun. That's a nice idea. I'm gonna go back to the museums on weekends idea, I do art galleries and museums.
Jodi KatzAre you an artist and a writer?
Deanna UtroskeNo, I wouldn't attach the word artist to my name. I might have dabbled here and there, but I'm certainly not a serious artist, I wouldn't call myself that. I'm very much a writer, I think that's very much a part of who I am. But I also, I think I called you a creative professional earlier in our conversation, and I very much identify with that idea. I think creativity, it's rewarding no matter how it comes, so it's nice to look at art and have some ideas and experiences. I'm sure it influences my writing, even when I'm not thinking in words.
Jodi KatzI spend a lot of my free time watching Bravo, Below Deck, Real Housewives, so I'm sure that influences my work. Well Deanna, this has been so amazing, I'm so glad that you're here. Thank you for sharing all your wisdom with us.
Deanna UtroskeYeah, thanks for inviting me, Jodi.
Jodi KatzFor our listeners, please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show please follow us on Instagram at Base Beauty Creative Agency. Thanks everybody.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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