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The Blame Game – Who Cops a bashing when the S**T hits the fan?

May 15, 2017

If you stick around this industry long enough something will go wrong.  It’s inevitable really given the complexity of the task at hand. But who is to blame when things go very wrong, when batches spoil, clients get boils,  launch dates get foiled or work mates get covered in hot oil?

Let’s have a look from start to finish.

The ingredients.

Lots of things can go wrong with ingredients and most of the time there is very little you can do about it actually, especially if you have no guaranteed supply contract in place, something that rarely gets implemented at the small end of town as it requires the type of volumes that a multi-national might commit to.

Scenario 1: Material not available when you need it.

Basically multinational companies will usually have two to three approved sources for all raw materials unless they are specific materials that only one manufacturer supplier. In that case they usually place a blanket order covering their projected supply for a period of time and a set volume.  They work this out via forecasting – something that most small to medium-sized brands find next to impossible to do and hence getting caught short is a common problem.

Sometimes materials are campaign manufactured which means the manufacturer will only produce that ingredient when they have sufficient orders to do so. This is particularly true of retinol but other short shelf-life materials are dealt with in a similar way.  Basically if you don’t have your orders in early you are unlikely to find stock when you rock up with your unscheduled demand.

Scenario 2: Material not available anymore EVER.

OK so this sucks and yes, it does happen. Sometimes ingredient manufacturers have a closet clean out and discontinue items that maybe you love but others don’t.  This can be  a pain, especially if it is a specific active that you’ve based that product around. It does happen and it pays for brands who are in this position to keep their supply chain relationships tight so at least they can buy themselves some stock and time to re-formulate.

Scenario 3: Materials are held up in a war zone or natural disaster or they are just out of season.

This is VERY common, especially with natural extracts, oils and butters.  Do make sure you think through what would happen if you got caught short or if your chosen amazing botanical suddenly became very popular and demand outstripped supply. This scenario happens regularly with things like Rose hip oil and vanilla but I’ve also seen it with glycerin of all things.  Odd indeed!

Scenario 4: Your material supplier changed ingredient manufacturer source and now the stuff doesn’t work.

Ok so remember how I said that multinationals have a few approved sources? These are usually PRIMARY sources and the multinational will have spent considerable time and money in testing them out – nothing is taken for granted at the big end of town.  Sadly for many small brands they can’t buy bulk from the large suppliers and are often served (and served well I might add) by the smaller re-packers.  Small re-packers may source from a number of approved suppliers rather like the multinationals or they might buy on spec, taking whatever meets their needs at the right price and right time.  At other times it can be a combination of the two depending on the ingredient.  Then of course there is the reality that the small re-packer has to compete with the big guys for supply so they may well fall foul of the ‘its in short supply globally’ issue.

So what can you do about all of this?

Well basically the answer is to try to forecast your demand as best you can and keep stocks to buy you time.  The amount and storage conditions required will differ for each brand but chances are you will need a decent sized store if you are a brand owner with 5 or so products that you regularly manufacture 20Kg batches of.  Is it time you moved into a manufacturing unit?

OK so next there is the manufacturing, who’s to blame when that goes wrong????

  1. You formulated and you manufacture.

OK so this sucks but sadly if it is your formula and you are the manufacturer you do need to look within for the answer to what went wrong.  I often talk to people in this situation who tell me that they have been making this cream for 10 years without an issue then BAM it exploded all over the place and it must be someone else’s fault.  Sad but true.

All sorts of things can go wrong in manufacturing, I know because I’ve experienced most of them myself.  Sometimes we can forget something simple like adjusting the pH at the right time and that can stuff things up. At other times we might mistake one ingredient for another,  our scales might be faulty and we didn’t notice,  we might even forget to add an ingredient altogether OR add it twice!  The trouble with mistakes is that we wouldn’t make them if we were concentrating 100% – we all think we were but were we really?

Even if you did do everything right there can still be other things at play. The outside temperature can really screw things up sometimes – too hot or too cold – that could speed up or slow down emulsification or setting.  If it is too hot (weather wise) as you are in the middle of a long heat wave there is always the chance that some of your ingredients have perished. Cocoa butter blooms in hot weather, Decyl Glucoside solidifies in cold weather.

In these cases when things go very wrong I suggest that people take a step back, stop looking for someone else to blame (as that just has the effect of making you blind to the situation) and formulate a plan.  My favourite plan in these situations is to carefully re-visit the recipe, ingredient by ingredient – check them, do they look, smell and feel the same as normal, did you buy them from the same place, are they in date and spec? Then check your manufacturing equipment to make sure nothing is broken or faulty, then slowly remake a small batch and test it to see if that works. Sometimes you will never get to the bottom of what happened that day but hopefully you will at least get back on track by doing this.

2. You had the product formulated but you manufacture.

When you first get hold of a formula that you’ve purchased you should get to know it by making small batches – 500g to 1Kg is about right depending on what it is.  It is important that you test it out and get to know how to handle it and how to manufacture before going straight to a 100Kg batch.  This lab work also allows you to go through the process ahead of the critical time so you can get clarification from the formulator for any questions you might have.  If you stuff up here it is usually because you have either not invested in your own scale-up testing or you have but other problems have reared their head.

  •  Stability testing and PET.
  •  As the brand owner you are responsible for the stability of the product you put onto the market. Your formulator may have agreed to do the testing for you but that is not always the case, plus if you haven’t organised packaging you should keep in mind that different packaging can affect product stability by making the product more or less stable.  If in doubt ask the question before you scale up big. I would never recommend batches larger than 20Kg for products that haven’t been stability tested JUST IN CASE.

3. You had the product formulated and manufactured elsewhere.

If something goes wrong in this position it is usually down to the manufacturer to compensate for any loss but the degree to which that compensation runs is debatable and usually only covers the bulk.    If the client won’t or can’t pay for stability and/or micro before making a big batch it is a bit rough to expect the manufacturer (me in some cases) to cover the costs if the batch is found wanting although if the manufacturer hasn’t agreed on the limits to their liability in writing they could still be legally liable to compensate (which sucks for the manufacturer).  What actually happens in these situations will depend on the relationship with the client, the costs involved and the ease in which the problem can be rectified but needless to say things go much more smoothly when both parties work as a team and give the testing the investment and time required.

4. You formulated the product but got it manufactured elsewhere. 

I have had plenty of occasions where clients want me to manufacture something for them that they haven’t tested themselves, they just have a basic formula that they have made in their kitchen and now they want 20Kg made and packaged.  This always makes me nervous as essentially I am taking the risk that this formula is as good as the client says and it will stand up.  Now I personally won’t take that risk without first doing some lab work (what I call a lab session) to get my head around the formula, try it out, do some basic stability on it and make sure it works.  Basic stability is not full stability though and neither is it micro stability (PET) so things can (and do) go wrong when it comes to scale up so the best way to tackle this is when both the manufacturer and the formulator accept there is a shared responsibility (however they decide to share it) to pull together for a good outcome.

But that’s not all that can go wrong. Sometimes you just don’t like the finished product as much as you thought you would. Maybe it looks or smells a bit different to what you make.  This can be a huge grey area for people, especially newbies who really don’t have much experience to fall back on.  The general rule of thumb is this – the more natural and complex a product, the more likely there is to be some batch-to-batch variation, the key is in knowing how much variation is enough.

So what can you do about all of this?

I recommend brand owners take a slightly relaxed view about their first few product batches if they are making a natural or organically certified product – this is always easier if the packaging hides the product a bit – don’t go for clear packaging straight off the bat.   Over a few batches variations in aroma, colour and viscosity should work their way out and you can set a product specification based on these experiments.  A spec should include a description of how the product looks, smells, it’s viscosity, pH (if relevant) and its general form (gel, liquid, cream etc).  This helps you work out if that slightly different batch is out of spec (and therefore unsellable) or not.

I also recommend that brand owners invest in as much product testing as they can afford as soon as they can afford it and keep on with regular testing (micro, viscosity, colour, aroma etc) throughout the products saleable life.  This way you keep a check on your quality.

What about when your product safety is called into question?

OK so safety can cover stability and as we have touched on that before I’ll not mention it again only to say that yes, you need to do it!

Beyond physical stability we have chemical stability and microbial stability and these can sometimes be overlooked – the ‘as long as the cream doesn’t split it is OK’ attitude.

I’ve come across a few products in my time, some of which shift their pH down quite dramatically over their shelf life.  This isn’t safe.  I also regularly see products that discolour on ageing or have their aroma change, these things can both be due to oxidation and in some cases they can mean the product has become more irritating and less able to do the job it is trying to do.

Brand owners should be aware that if their product does change colour or pH during its usable shelf life it could become more irritating and that might be the reason people start to react to what started off as a very well tolerated product.

By far the biggest and most dramatic fail though is with micro.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep up your micro testing if you are a manufacturer or a responsible brand owner (even if someone else manufactures for you).  You should have micro test results for every saleable batch of anything you make that presents a risk to the consumer – usually that’s all your water containing products.  Micro counts are your way of proving the product was manufactured in adherence to GMP (good manufacturing practice) standards.  Your insurance company will probably assume you do this so don’t let them down!  Over and above that PET (Preservative Efficacy Testing) is essential for all new formulations and ideally you should test at the beginning and towards the end of the products shelf life.  Now before you say ‘yes but that would make my business unviable, it is all too expensive’  I know.  However, if you want to sell safe cosmetics you should appreciate that safety isn’t just about avoiding whatever chemicals are on the hit list this week.  Micro contamination is a safety issue and it is arguably the biggest one there is.

If you are unlucky enough to find yourself with a micro issue as a brand owner you will have to trace back the steps to find out where the contamination came from.  If you have micro results for each batch that’s going to be helpful.  The manufacturers I work with most often carry out micro checks on their water, their packaging, their filling line samples, the manufactured bulk and the packed goods.  A lot of testing BUT it does insure everybody that what ends up on the market is clean.  If you don’t have that data how do you know where the contamination came from?   It is also worth keeping in mind that if you are a manufacturer, using one preservative only can spell trouble.  House microbes tend to take hold when only one preservative is used as it is unlikely that any preservative will kill everything straight out so over time the bits that get missed develop resistance to the preservative and you can end up with endless rounds of contamination where before there was none.  This can be complex and expensive to fix so don’t let it happen to you!

Fixing oxidation issues. 

Stability testing should help you pinpoint where the issue is coming from – air only, heat, UV light or a combination.  An assay of your product sample might be in order to identify which components are oxidising. This is particularly helpful if you are making claims about specific simple ingredients (retinol, vitamin C etc) and want to know if they are still active in the product over time). Once you have identified the problem you can beef up your anti-oxidants to help you stabilise the formula and/ or select packaging that minimises environmental stressors.

The bottom line here is that as a brand owner it is up to you to put safe and effective products on the market. If you don’t understand what might go wrong with your product, ask a professional.

Finally who is to blame when your launch date is missed?

Oh how I love this little beauty.  So this is a big one.  Obviously brands have plans and plans need time lines that people try their best to meet.  But when you are putting together something new there is always that unknown factor, the devil in the detail, that turns up and slaps your plan right out of your hands.  The blame often lies in the fact that those involved in the project don’t set aside enough time to plan contingency strategies before the project starts.

I’ve had projects that I’ve worked on where a formula is created and signed over within a month.  I’ve also had projects get abandoned after we’ve slugged away on and off for nearly 2 years.  Again in multinational world a 12-18 month project timeline is pretty normal but for start-up no-clue enthusiasts I’ve seen people want to walk out with a fully functioning and customised brand within 1 week of saying hello.  Something’s gotta give!

All I can say here is this.  Life can be very complicated and frustrating. If you as the brand owner want to create something amazing, unique and truly innovative be sure to give yourself time – potentially 12-18 months to achieve that.  If you just want a simple variant on what is already available give yourself at least 6 months and that’s for the R&D, you’ll still have to queue for your manufacturing which could be another 4-16 weeks AND then there’s the ingredient sourcing which to Australia could take forever.

I get that when you get started you want everything yesterday but if that is you then do consider white labelling existing formulations with no changes so all you have to wait for is the packaging (and that can take its sweet time to get to you).   Once you start getting a rhythm to your business you might find that you can slowly start working on your own unique formulations which you integrate into your product offering as they become ready. This is the lowest stress way of operating and is suitable for all but the very highest of fashion type brands.  If you are high fashion then make sure people know that straight up but do listen when the people you employ to help you voice their concerns – if they say the cocoa has a 12 week lead time don’t book in the launch for 4 weeks time and then blame them.  This isn’t ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

So let’s wrap this little post up shall we?

Who is to blame?

Who can I sue?

Who can I harass with phone calls and emails?

Well my dear, this is the cosmetic industry. It is complex, scientific, experimental, fashionable and fun and if you want it and your relationships within it and your brand vibe to stay positive and beautiful then you have to accept that you are a part of it. We all are and together we will get there.

Blame isn’t a fun game so just do what you can to play your part and try to partner with people who you trust to do theirs.  After all it is not what goes wrong that should define us, it is how we try to fix it.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pamela permalink
    May 20, 2017 4:00 am

    I love this blog post! People think the margins are so high in the beauty industry and they can be good; however, the time required to properly bring a beauty product to market seems to defy logic for those not in the trenches or just starting their beauty brand journey. You have outlined in detail many of the indirect costs that are all too easy to overlook during the business analysis phase. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      May 20, 2017 7:21 am

      And thanks for your feedback Pamela. I have had start-up’s get quite angry with me when I explain testing costs as if it is me trying to prevent them from getting their thing to market. Those costs and barriers tend to find everyone in their own time whether people listen to me or not. I’ve known of good brands go under right at the time they could have took off big time because their systems weren’t up to it.

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