Corpus Plays The Long Game To Create A Lasting Luxury Brand

In the story of Baxter of California, the grooming brand’s 2013 sale to L’Oréal is a huge plot line, but founder J.P. Mastey, who launched personal care brand Corpus five years after the sale, thinks there’s a lot more that can be told about turning it into a strong acquirable business with dedicated customers. “Baxter was not built overnight,” he says. “It took me a little over 10 years to really find success, and we did that organically off of cash flow without investment. Not saying that investment is the wrong approach, but there’s so many brands that get highlighted for their ability to raise capital.”

Now leading Corpus, Mastey is adhering to a similar playbook to carefully maneuver the brand to legacy status. “Bottom line and top line are equally important to me, where companies of our size that are out raising large sums of money, it’s all top-line growth,” says Mastey. “We want to be cash flow positive. I don’t want to be relying on outside finance to keep the company going. I want the company to pay for its own inventory, its own needs as we move along and grow.”

Corpus is on track for top-line growth in 2024, likely a repeat of the double-digit percentage sales increases it’s notched in recent years as it’s been assembling an enticing roster of 300-plus global retail doors, including at Nordstrom, Credo, Bluemercury and most recent stockist Erewhon. The brand’s star product is its $26 natural deodorant, which comes in six scents: Nº Green, Third Rose, Santalum, Cedar Flora, Neroli and California.


Maren Giuliano, VP of health and wellness at Erewhon, says, “We love their packaging, the scents are amazing, and they are meticulously formulated and made in California, which we always appreciate. In particular what I like the about the deodorants is they use a plant-based propylene glycol to achieve that nice smooth glide.”

Beauty Independent caught up with Mastey to discuss Corpus’s distribution strategy, embrace of Amazon, luxury positioning, long-term vision and the questions entrepreneurs should be asking themselves if they’re trying to follow in its footsteps.

Maren Giuliano

What’s the latest with Corpus?

We have two new channels. One is HABA [health and beauty aids], so Erewhon. We find that younger consumers find luxury in the everyday, where in my generation, luxury was more traditional and defined by automobiles, handbags.

It’s something about gen Z that I’m quite proud of that they seem to focus on the simple pleasures of a better experience, that could be a deodorant, body wash, smoothie or latte, and it really makes sense to me. Our demographic is an older gen Z, younger millennial. The sweet spot for us at 25 to 35, and we’re roughly 70% female, 30% male.

In hospitality, we just launched at the Hotel Bardo in Savannah. It’s absolutely beautiful. We have others in the pipeline. It’s really about alignment and brand awareness, and it will pay dividends in the form of sales at some point. Our hospitality partner is Vanderlyn.

The brand launched in 2018. What goals did you have then, and what’s changed about them?

We were steadfast on this idea we were going to build a strong direct consumer business. I wanted some anchor retail partners, so right out the gate we launched with Violet Grey. We were soon in Goop and Credo. So, you had luxury and clean in Violet Grey and Credo, and Goop was a hybrid of the two. They were foundational partners that would help to bring us awareness and, of course, generate sales.

We found that direct consumer brands were popping up like mushrooms, especially in health and beauty, and the cost to acquire customers in a digital world became very challenging. So many consumers were moving to digital that brick-and-mortar resellers were struggling to find brands. Everybody was so focused on selling direct that it created this sort of influx and demand.

We went from proactively trying to find consumers through Facebook and Google ads to reacting to inbounds of independent and international retailers saying we love your brand. We were like, OK, we will open up to wholesale. When you look at the wholesale business and you look at profitability of direct, they’re not that far off when you combine acquisition cost.

So, slowly we’ve been blending our business to a point where year one we were high 80% direct, and now we’re 45% direct, and we expect that trend to continue. However, we still try to operate internally as a direct consumer brand. We want to own the narrative. We want to be engaged with community. So, even if direct dips to let’s say 20% of our business, we will still operate as a direct consumer brand, and that will ultimately help us on the wholesale front as well.

Deodorant is the bestseller at Corpus, but the brand has expanded into other product categories. How much business do you expect from your non-deodorant products?

It was always part of the plan to launch more than just deodorants. The idea was to come out of the gate with a product where there was a high intent for consumers to switch to something more natural and clean. Once we got that trust from the consumer, they would give us permission to enter their bathroom and household with more and more clean products.

It’ll take time for us to define how big those markets can be. We’ve been quite successful with body wash, which was second, so it has the most history and that’s been gaining traction quarter-over-quarter. Then, we moved into more body care with the launch of the body butter and body scrub and most recently haircare in the form of shampoo and conditioner.

Some of our faster growing competitors are in a rush to produce products because they are VC-backed, and they’re chasing top line growth. They have mandates to grow at a certain speed that we don’t being self-funded, privately owned. We spend an enormous amount of time perfecting our formulas. We don’t get into this compromise mode of NPD requires five new launches this year. The product launches when it’s ready.

Corpus founder J.P. Mastey

How do you make sure you have success at retail?

We brought on an independent sales agency that will help us on all fronts domestic. Internationally, we have a distributor in Europe, Canada, Japan and Ukraine. They take a lot of the heavy lifting off of us.

We are in Mecca in Australia, and baby steps is our approach. We launched online only, and this year we will roll out with 11 physical doors, which we can manage and hopefully earn more and more business. We don’t like this approach of, how quickly can we get to all doors?

One recent success is in Europe we just got into Oh My Cream in a perfect partnership for a brand like us. How do we measure success? It’s small wins like that. Maybe at some point we should be in a large retailer, but before we get there, we want to build the foundation through great partners like On My Cream. They have a great reputation and a good number of doors. We’re trying to avoid a fast track to the 1,000-door philosophy.

Corpus is in many independent boutiques, but those sorts of stores have been under pressure. Are there ways that brands can support them?

Mom-and-pop business has struggled, especially coming out of the pandemic. There’s a high cost to doing business now. They’re operating under smaller margins. Employee costs have risen in many markets, and it’s highly competitive. You’re up against large retailers that can discount or offer rewards.

There’s going to be a purge I think of both brands and retailers that maybe don’t warrant staying in business any longer, but I’m always encouraged to see that there are still very good merchants out there and retailers that really know what they’re doing. These are usually the independents where the owner is part of operations and is on the floor involved on a daily basis choosing the brands they sell and exiting those that don’t do well.

There is still a lot of consumers that believe in supporting mom-and-pop businesses. What can we do as a brand? We can avoid being competitive with these retailers. We can support them as much as possible on their collateral needs. We’ll help with event or gifting opportunities, but maybe one of the things that really is helping them is that we’re not in big-box retail, so we’re not giving consumers a reason not to support them.

What are your thoughts on Amazon?

We’re on Amazon. I was resistant. We’re building luxury brand. When luxury started to deal with this dilemma of avoiding or embracing Amazon, I was on a phone call with a third-party seller who was trying to pitch us on the idea of working with them to be our exclusive agent, and they put Corpus in the search engine, and all my competitors pop up.

It was at that moment where I said, “If the intent is there, if the consumer is there looking for our product and we’re not available, the algorithm is going to present them an opportunity to buy something else, and we might lose high intent customers.” It was obvious we must go, but let’s do it the best way.

We work with Carbon Beauty, and they’re a very strong partner. They work closely with us on building out our brand pages, dealing with any problems that may pop up as a small reseller on Amazon. That can be very difficult.

We’ve had a couple times where our products were taken down because of some weird glitch in the algorithm. For example, I think we say we are “aluminum-free,” and the algorithm picked up the word “aluminum” and pulled us down saying this is a drug product. As a small brand, it would’ve taken us weeks to get back up, but Carbon got us back up in 24 hours.

I think Amazon’s unavoidable. We fully embraced it. It does create an unknown of how much of our marketing ends up benefiting that channel versus our direct channel, but we feel confident and know that every step that we’re making in marketing and digital ads is paying dividends to all partnerships, including our dot-com, independent retailers, resellers online or Amazon.

Corpus is available in 300-plus retail doors worldwide, including at Credo, Nordstrom, Bluemercury, Oh My Cream, Mecca and Erewhon.

If I’m an entrepreneur wanting to get a personal care off the brand, what’s different today from when you started Corpus?

The barrier is much lower for finding a CM and packaging suppliers. The minimums are much lower, and there are capabilities when it comes to creating something that looks unique and custom at much, much lower minimums. I was doing business at a time where crazy fees for custom molds and super high minimums would scare you away.

Today, the real challenge is, how are you going to build awareness? The news cycle is super fast, and an Instagram story stays up for just hours and you’re competing with so many different things. How many dollars are you willing to put behind it?

The questions young entrepreneurs are unprepared to answer are: Where are you going to sell your product, and how are you going to gain awareness? There’s just an assumption of, oh, I’ll sell this at Sephora, I’ll sell this at Target, I’ll blow it up on TikTok. That’s the naive part. You don’t just will it. You need to earn that spot on the shelf. You need to have the operational capabilities to make it happen.

How do you define luxury today?

I don’t really love the term “accessible luxury,” but that’s clearly what we are. You’re not taking out a loan to buy our product. We are a higher price point than most of our competitors, but it’s really about no compromise on formula, ingredients, packaging, art direction, photography, the way we approach our brand.

It’s also about where weren’t not available, where we don’t sell more than where we do sell. We’re not available in mass market. We’re not available in discounters. We don’t discount the brand besides a once-a-year sale. With some exceptions, we don’t do promos.

We invest a lot in photography and strong visuals behind the brand. We’re showing a lifestyle of wellness and health. I think that’s really one of the things that separates us. It’s not all about a value play, it’s more about how this product may make me feel.

Your body wash is in aluminum, right?

Yes, but we’re shifting to 100% PCR locally made bottles. We went to aluminum because it seemed like the natural place to go to be anti-plastic and as sustainable as possible. Glass is not for the shower, so that’s out of the picture. It’s good for jars, and we do use it for body butter and body scrub.

There are no domestic manufacturers for aluminum bottles. If you look at it from a climate perspective, importing virgin aluminum bottles from Europe or Asia versus the environmental impact of using locally made 100% PCR plastic is a huge difference. There’s a mass reduction in the energy used to produce it and transit.

We’re producing a 100% PCR bottle that is 17 miles from our CM. I think standard PCR is coming in at 20% or 30%, but we could do 100%, and I’m going to pay for it because it’s the right thing to do. Plastic’s not going away. It’s here to stay. We want it to ultimately be treated the same way that aluminum cans and glass bottles are and be collected and put it back into the stream.

If you subsidize or there’s a requirement that all plastic must contain X percentage of PCR, then it will happen. This is where government needs to step in, and hopefully they do it in a more educated way and not in a political way to create mandates and maybe attach a CRV so the consumer will be involved.

Corpus has extended its product reach beyond its signature deodorant to body wash, candles, body butter, body scrub, shampoo, conditioner and cleansing bars.

Where do you envision Corpus Naturals in 10 years?

I’m in it for the long haul. I’m in it so that my kids inherit this company, and they continue to run it. If I do that well, acquisition will probably be on the table for me if I want it. If I go for rapid growth and I screw up this brand’s vision and nobody wants to buy it, I don’t really know what I do at that point. What am I left holding?

So, I’m building the brand the way I want to. I’m going to adhere to my vision for the brand of using clean, sustainable manufacturing processes, quality over quantity. I think I’m making a company that a lot of people will want to buy, and it will be up to me to decide whether or not I want to do that.

Ten years from now, I do expect to be leading the ship as part of day-to-day operations and for us to be a much larger company than we are today. As big as Byredo or Aesop? Probably not, but we look at those brands and how they’ve been successful at doing it their own way and not looking at how everyone else is building a brand. They’re great case studies for success.

Aesop and Byredo have opened their own stores. Would you?

Building the Baxter Finley barbershop and retail environment for my last brand was instrumental in our success. That’ll never be lost on me. I love architecture and design, so that would be a joy for me, and if it’s a joy, it’ll probably represent well for the brand.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.