Susteau’s Kailey Bradt on Waterless Beauty’s Future

·6 min read

Kailey Bradt is ready for waterless beauty’s tipping point.

The founder and chief executive officer of Susteau, a waterless hair care brand that nabbed a Beauty Inc award last year, has seen an uptick in adoption of her brand’s offerings, and she’s just getting started.

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Bradt is a beauty newcomer, parlaying her chemical engineering degree into her passions for beauty and sustainability when the brand launched in 2017. Susteau sells four powdered hair care stock keeping units on its own website and online with Sephora (Bradt was a 2020 participant of the retail giant’s 2020 Accelerate program) — all powdered and mixed with water upon application, housed in recyclable plastic bottles fashioned after those that house liquid formulas.

“If you’re developing a product that already exists, make it seem really innovative and cool. If you’re developing a product that is really innovative and different, make it feel more familiar,” Bradt told WWD. “I’ve tried to keep as much of the experience exactly the same. When you see the bottle, it’s a bottle just like liquid shampoo, you flip open the top. You’re just squeezing out a powder instead of a liquid.”

The brand’s proposition — efficacious, sulfate-free formulas without water — seems to be resonating, especially with Millennials and Gen Z. Industry sources expect the brand to pass the $10 million mark next year. Here, the entrepreneur talks driving adoption of new formats, where the brand is headed and how waterless products are expected to impact the industry.

How and why did you start Susteau?

Kailey Bradt: I was working at a start-up in Los Angeles, I wasn’t even a whole year out of college. I was traveling a lot, constantly putting little plastic bottles into a ziplock bag. I kept seeing water at the top of the ingredient lists, and, at the same time, my roommate was a beauty editor, so I was going to all of these events seeing the trend rising around “clean” beauty, but nothing around sustainability. I’ve always been interested in sustainability, I studied chemical engineering and I just wanted to make the world a better place. The concept of going waterless in personal care was like everything I was passionate about and interested in coming together.

How are consumers responding to a waterless product format?

K.B.: We’re still getting early adopters and beauty enthusiasts — we’re really at the beginning of the curve of customer acquisition. Not everyone even knows what waterless is, but if you follow beauty, and you’re in this space, you know our brand already.

In terms of customer experience and understanding the product, we’ve seen a lot more traction in the last year, especially since the Sephora.com launch. The biggest thing has been people curious to try it. I don’t think sustainability is the driving purchase behavior as much as we’d like to think — every brand needs a sustainability mission. We go back to product performance, and our reviews are really positive. Sampling programs are the biggest conversion tool we have, and we focus heavily on sampling.

How easy or difficult is it to really get people to adopt a new behavior?

K.B.: If you’re developing a product that already exists, make it seem really innovative and cool. If you’re developing a product that is really innovative and different, make it feel more familiar. I’ve tried to keep as much of the experience exactly the same. When you see the bottle, it’s a bottle just like liquid shampoo, you flip open the top. You’re just squeezing out a powder instead of a liquid.

When the shampoo lathers, it’s a really rich, creamy lather. People describe it as velvety or silky. That’s part of the experience people really buy into. Once they experience that, and they go back to a liquid, they’re missing the lather. The whole experience is really nice with our product.

Where do you see the most opportunity for Susteau? Where have the challenges been?

K.B.: The easiest way to get someone to purchase it without trying is the travel aspect. It’s an easy way for us to get people to buy it for the first time. Then, people end up continuing to use it. A lot of our reviews are people saying, “I bought this for vacation.”

The most challenging aspect has been getting people to try it who have very specific hair concerns. For example, if they’re used to being prescribed for a psoriasis issue or keratin-treated hair, they want something that says it’s specifically for keratin-treated hair or colored hair. If you have highlighted hair, it’s best to use a moisturizing, sulfate-free formula, which we are, but we don’t market ours that way.

Where do you see the most room for expansion?

K.B.: In hair care, shampoo and conditioner are 80 percent of the market, but that’s not necessarily true of prestige. I really have been focused on solids that are matte. Brands do shampoo, conditioner, body wash, maybe a face wash. We are solely focused on hair care at the moment, but we want to expand into treatment, and hopefully by the end of next year, go into styling.

Right now, we only have powdered formulas, but our formulas won’t only be powders. It’s going to be concentrated, everything’s going to be waterless. The mindset right now around what waterless looks like is a bar or powder. That’s not necessarily true of what we’ll be doing. With all of the concepts I have, I’d launch 200 products tomorrow. But I literally can only launch two this year.

How are you thinking about raising brand awareness?

K.B.: I incorporated Owa Haircare in 2017 and had been working on it for about a year. We launched our shampoo in June of 2019, which was just a soft launch to raise money. We rebranded to Susteau in March of 2021, and now this year, we’re launching more main skus.

On social, for us, what we do organically works if I’m on there telling my founder story. If I’m on TikTok, it does better than random trending sounds or influencers that we’ve hired to work with. It’s still so founder-driven. I’ve been trying to invest more in the founder story and sharing my vision, because that’s really what we’re going off of right now. We’re still really early, we don’t have that many products, which is why I’m still on camera for the brand.

As the industry talks about waterless beauty more and more, how does beauty’s footprint change?

K.B.: In my own routine, I’m not paring things down, but I’m investing more in things that last longer. We’ll be producing less volume and hopefully less waste, but really have products that do more for us. We saw it with makeup, these multifunctional products where your concealer starts to clear up your acne. With waterless, the products definitely last longer, and you realize you get the same performance.

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