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Beauty, Branding

It All Started With A Deodorant: Sam Farmer’s Unisex Personal Care Brand

Beautiful Thinker: Sam Farmer

For the latest in our Beautiful Thinker lunches, we were absolutely delighted to welcome Sam Farmer – long a friend of the agency – to our Roost, to hear about his eponymous teenage personal care brand. But, as we were soon to find out, making fantastic deodorants, shampoos and shower gels, was just the start of his mission…

Sam was an unlikely person to get involved in the beauty biz. After a varied and busy career in TV production and PR, he was happily ensconced as a stay-at-home dad to a daughter and son in Devon.

And for about a decade, it was pretty much all the usual school runs and soft play parties. Until one day, his kids hit adolescence and the issue of body odour needed to be dealt with. And so off to the supermarket to get deodorant. Where he was met with a display of products that simply horrified him. Instead of finding products split by function, he found them segregated by gender in the most sexualised and stereotypical way.

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As Sam put it: “I couldn’t believe the products targeted at my 11-year old daughter. This is the first time the beauty industry really engages with her, and what was there? All pink, sticky sweet-smelling and called names like Minx, Tease or Play it Sexy. I thought, this can’t be right and went off to see the men’s aisle. And everything there was steel grey and about power, control, force and strong as hell. Both of them sending the worst possible messages, subliminally forcing kids into deeply gendered boxes. I was furious.”

Sam was so angry that he decided to make his own deodorant. Literally at the kitchen table, which was “all a bit hokey and gross, to be honest”. So he persuaded the Society of Cosmetic Chemists to let him join a distance diploma, even without the necessary science A-levels, he was that determined. And managed a distinction in a year, at the same kitchen table, in between school runs.

He started the brand in 2013, just with one deodorant. The name? Sam Farmer, because he couldn’t think of one, it was unisex and even if someone copied the content, they couldn’t copy him. It was just at the start of the conversation about more fluid gender identification and sexual orientation — now a mainstay of Gen Z — the product and packaging designed focused on function for any teenage armpit.

Initially it was hard. All that passion saw Sam ending up with an articulated lorry full of 80,000 units of product and nowhere to place it. Until, in a series of fortunate events, Sam was introduced to Caroline Hirons, the force-of-nature beauty vlogger, who featured it on her social platforms.

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Sam admits he didn’t have a grand master plan: “If I’d been driven by building a business for profit, rather than doing something to change things, or if I’d taken any advice from an industry professional, I would never have launched a thing! But it worked. Largely because of word of mouth from amazing influencers like Caroline, Nadine Baggott and Sali Hughes. Some who’ve similarly aged kids themselves and all who hated the traditional teen stuff. They basically helped me because they were angry too!”

From one deodorant grew a whole cross-functional range of lightly scented, colourful yet simply packaged personal care products. All focused on dealing with the teenage issue at hand – greasy hair, skin oiliness, blemishes – in a functional way. Interestingly, as the rise of gender-neutral beauty started to happen and was featured in magazines, the brand often didn’t feature because it was all monochrome and a bit same same. Something that Sam felt wasn’t right for his younger consumer brand.

But word of mouth helped the brand achieve momentum, helping Sam in his wider ambition to change the world through campaigning and education. Sam got to know the work of acclaimed professor in cognitive neuroscience Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who authored a book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, which talks about brain development during adolescence. Basically teenage brains are incredibly plastic and the development of self-image is at a critical phase. And all those pink and steel grey and sexually-focused messages? Quite literally making teens in their own image.

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So as part of his position now as a council member of SCS, Sam goes into schools to talk about the beauty and personal care industry. Covering everything from formulation and manufacturing through to marketing and packaging. And it’s the latter where he really goes into full campaign mode, noting that the kids are really receptive to analysing and expressing their discomfort with the over-sexualisation and stereotyping in the things being sold to them.

As to future ambitions? Well, Sam, is committed to his initial mission of social change. To let functional products be functional products, and in doing so break down some really unpleasant social beliefs and behaviours about how boys and girls should look and behave.

Sam concluded by telling us his big aim: “People laugh off the beauty and personal care industry, but then ask them what they’ve actually used that day, nearly all will’ve used toothpaste, body wash, shave cream, deodorant, a basic moisturiser. Snapchat, Instagram, is all around us and these products can either be incredibly powerful, like showing actual body hair in a shaving ad, or incredibly damaging. We’re in a great position to change things for the better. And for me that means wanting my products, and hopefully others like them, to be stocked on the shelf between Lynx and Impulse. Today, there is literally no space on the shelf, there is no shelf. And that is what I’m here to change.”

Hear hear.