Chief executive Q&A: Oliver Mennell of NEOM
In this latest chief executive interview, we speak to Oliver Mennell (left), the co-founder of fast-growing wellbeing brand NEOM.
You and Nicola set up NEOM Organics in 2005. How did the idea for the business come about?
The idea for NEOM was formed when Nicola (Elliott, NEOM’s co-founder and creative director, but then entertainment editor at Glamour Magazine) was looking for ways to help support her wellbeing through her fast-paced and stressful lifestyle.
In 2005 we teamed up to launch NEOM (the name was created by combining our initials). Nic had been blending products for family and friends for some time, using natural ingredients to support their wellbeing in the areas they needed it most, and we realised that there was a genuine gap in the market for natural, functional products that supported customers’ wellbeing in this way.
Initially, we launched with a focus on improving people’s wellbeing through products including candles and home fragrances. Since then, the brand has successfully expanded into new categories including bath, body and skincare, taking a 360 degree approach to enhancing wellbeing.
What were you both doing prior to that?
In terms of previous experience, neither of us had founded companies before. I worked in private equity and Nic was a journalist. We were both in our early 20’s when we founded NEOM. The seed money for starting the business came from Nic selling her car and some savings I won on a Chris Evans game show!
What were your main challenges at the time?
The main challenge in the early days of building our business centred around the fact that the wellbeing market was in its infancy. Wellbeing doesn’t fit into a neat box, and we had to educate the market and consumers on why it’s important to look after wellbeing, breaking it down into small manageable steps, and take a cross-category approach to provide a more holistic view to people. It’s difficult to imagine it now, but consumers’ understanding of wellbeing has grown exponentially over the past decade, or even the past five years. We’re proud to have played our part in that.
How have you funded the business?
Nic and I both put £15,000 in at the beginning. Since then, we have secured private investment, and in 2017 Piper private equity took a minority stake in the business. They are very supportive of our model, strategy and ethos.
It seems that you were very ahead of your time in selling wellbeing products when you set the business up; how has the wellbeing market developed since then?
We were well ahead of our time with the concept of a natural wellbeing brand in a market that was, and to a large extent still is, otherwise dominated by synthetic formulas and fragrances.
Since then, consumers have increasingly prioritised wellbeing, and COVID has only accelerated this trend. People are looking to strong D2C brands with a successful digital offer, and also brands that have sustainability at their core.
There is still no-one else like us in the market in the UK or US, and other brands generally find it hard to switch to natural when fragrances are 100% synthetic – they cannot get close to the smells and textures their customers are otherwise accustomed to.
Now that the market has well and truly taken off, what is your USP?
We are a disruptive brand, we invest a lot in product development and we’re proud that our products are often industry firsts.
We incorporate the purest possible aromatherapy blends and functional ingredients which are rigorously tested and put through consumer trials to maximise efficiency and really make a difference to our customers’ wellbeing. This is non-negotiable for us, forming the foundation of every product we create.
Our fragrances are 100% natural and where possible we use a high level of certified organic ingredients in our formulas. We are at the same time able to create fragrances and products which truly look, feel and smell amazing.
Most importantly, we are on a mission that is greater than just being about our products – we want to help people supercharge their wellbeing over the longer term, building small manageable steps into their routines every day.
Furthermore, sustainability is truly within our DNA. We are B Corp pending and on a journey to become zero waste by 2025, and climate positive by 2030. Being carbon neutral simply isn’t enough.
You’ve had great success in the UK and also launched into the US last year. How has the US business performed? How has growth been driven in the UK?
Our recent Christmas trading performance showed impressive growth internationally, against strong prior year comparatives, illustrating the strength of our brand and quality of our offer, our growing customer base and increasing consumer demand for wellbeing products.
Launching in the US in 2020 was a big moment for us. We now operate there through partnerships with Nordstrom and Amazon Prestige Beauty, and have recently expanded our presence via a new ecommerce partnership with Anthropologie and Goop. We will continue our growth expansion ambitions in the US. Brand awareness has reached extremely high levels, driving ecommerce revenues.
In the UK, as in the US, our growth has been driven through the extremely strong demand for our products, alongside our hard work in new product development and innovation.
You have also recently launched a Europe specific website; do you have any other plans for international expansion?
We remain focused on deepening our market share in the UK while also broadening our reach in new international markets like the US.
Our Europe website has continued to perform well since launch, and we have a lot of exciting new projects in the pipeline for further international expansion. We will continue to grow the business in line with our long-term strategy, both in the UK and our target international markets. China is next on our list for international expansion. We expect to launch there in 2022 following a period of testing and learning that is currently taking place.
The business seems to thrive on innovation; how is this achieved?
As a disruptive brand, new product development is at our core. We take existing concepts and apply our approach, as well as functional ingredients, to enhance our customers’ lifestyles. One example of this would be our magnesium body butter, which not only has a powerful 100% natural fragrance to support your wellbeing but also applies all the proven benefits of magnesium which the majority of people are deficient in.
Our innovative approach to NPD involves careful testing and customer trials, paying close attention to customer feedback to ensure our products are the perfect fit.
We are continually using the data available to us to ensure our existing product ranges are perfect for our customers and we can take advantage of new opportunities to successfully expand into complementary areas.
Finally, we create best-in-class content – educational, interactive and creative – to support, educate and inform our customers as part of a community, way beyond their purchases/our products.
What are your upcoming plans for new products? Are you going to expand into any new categories?
We’re constantly innovating and disrupting our product categories, as well as launching new ones. This year we’re also planning to enter haircare with a debut shampoo and conditioner range turning that morning shower to a super energising moment in your day.
You have small number of your own physical stores in the UK and Ireland. Do you see your retail footprint developing further in the future?
At the moment, we have five experiential ‘wellbeing hubs’ across the UK, which are an important part of our proposition as they enable us to show our customers the best experience possible in store and introduce people to/update them on our latest, beautiful products in the flesh. Our wholesale business is also performing strongly, both in stores and online, through our partnerships with department stores including John Lewis and Selfridges in the UK and ecommerce partners such as LookFantastic and Feelunique.
Nonetheless, we remain a digital-first D2C omnichannel business; ecommerce being at the heart of everything we do across our key markets.
Image: Oliver Mennell (left) and Nicola Elliot (right) courtesy of NEOM
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