This Indie Beauty Brand Made Hand Sanitizer Long Before It Was A Big Deal
Long before there were social media-savvy hand sanitizer brands like Touchland, Olika and Merci Handy, there was Jao Brand and Purell. Jao is the anti-Purell. Launched in 1997, it’s stylish hand sanitizer is upscale, multipurpose, designed not to be drying, and blended with the essential oils lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, geranium and sage. Jao has expanded from hand sanitizer to other niche products, including Goe Oil, a cult all-over body oil that Goop beauty director Jean Godrey-June has raved about, beard balm Beardscent, tinted mineral sunscreen Face Crème and moisturizing mist Patio Oil. The brand is available in 600 stores spanning more than 15 countries such as Credo, Beauty Collection, Botanica Bazaar, Anthropologie, Dover Street Market, Onda Beauty and Planet Beauty, and it opened its own store, Jao Social Club, in Brooklyn last year.
With an artist sensibility and rebellious streak, Gale Mayron has kept Jao special and small because she refuses to play the big beauty game. “I have stayed under the radar because I haven’t told my story. I haven’t had PR. I’m not somebody who married my wealthy boyfriend in finance. I didn’t get investors. We just make really good products,” she says, adding, “It’s hard to sell a product when you think everything’s bullshit. I have that problem all the time. I just find there’s a lot of bullshit. I know they have to figure their angle out.” With no angle in mind, we chatted with Mayron about the history of Jao, the pandemic’s impact on its hand sanitizer sales, the retail environment she’s creating, mispricing merchandise and turning down a major retail deal.
What led to the brand?
Back in the 1994, I was doing a lot of video production work with my husband. We were always in situations where you couldn’t wash your hands, and I wanted to be able to wash my hands when there wasn’t a sink. My father was a chemist who worked at Smith Kline for 30 years. He had a patent in the 1960s to make one of the first tablets that could be time-released in your body. He said, “If you want to wash your hands on the go, I would say try gelled alcohol.” Then, my cousin told me, “There’s this thing called Purell.” We went to the Woolworth’s on 23rd Street, and we found this little bottle of Purell tucked on the shelf. I was like, “I don’t like this, and I’m going to do this better.” Purell had launched, but no one really knew about hand sanitizer, and there was none from a small brand.
It took a long time to formulate our product. I wanted to use essential oils because I love herbal aromatherapy, and no one was doing that. We bought 5,000 bottles, and it was scary thinking about how to sell them because I didn’t know how to sell anything. My mom met someone in LA who had heard of the trade show Extracts, so I signed up for Extracts. So, I was there with this little booth and a bottle. People were like, “What is it?” I was explaining everything about it. Then, Ron Robinson Fred Segal, Bliss and Colette picked it up. Influential stores got it, so I knew I was onto something, but our sales were so small and slow. It was basically a hobby business, and I didn’t take a salary for years. We would do $1,000 a month or $12,000 a year. When I got to $40,000 a year, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, how much would I have to sell if I made $1 million? Over $80,000 a month? We will never get there.” We didn’t do $1 million until recently.
How did you come up with the name for the brand?
My father had old pharmaceutical books. We pulled one off the shelf in the garage. It was a book from the early 1900s, and there was a chapter in the book on Jewish mystics who studied the Kabbalah. They would use amulets inscribed with words that were believed to prevent disease. The first word was “abracadabra.” In Hebrew, it’s translated to “father, son and holy ghost,” which is fascinating because the Jews never say father, son and holy ghost. Then, I turned the page, and it said they used this word, “jao.” There wasn’t any translation for it. I have a feeling it’s a way of saying Yahweh or God. The Jews never say God. So, I thought it could mean God, but I don’t know what it means. I liked the sound of it. I wanted my product to be for travelers, and it seemed like it was for people in any country. Originally, we used Jao scripted in calligraphy like Arabic, and it was printed on the side of packaging. It was actually bad for sales that it looked Arabic. When 9/11 hit, I rebranded it to say Jao in English [script].
Jao was in the hand sanitizer segment early. What was that like?
I remember when Bath & Body Works came out, and it was one of the first mainstream retailers with hand sanitizers. They did it with sparkles and in fruity, sweet flavors. You don’t need to smell like candy canes or have sparkles. I don’t want to have all those flavors. I think it’s gross. I want to be like a classic Italian brand. It’s very American to have lots of products to fill shelf space. Our company was founded on the idea of being multipurpose. The less you buy, the less you throw away. We were green at the very beginning. That’s because we were living in the Bowery, and our living conditions were rough. I was using it as a toner with a cotton pad, and it was taking off all the grime. Then, I started to use it on my underarms. We rebranded it to tell people they could use it on their face, yoga mat and elsewhere.
Pivoting is something that people talk about all the time. I always use that term because you have to be able to pivot with hand sanitizer. When I introduced it, nobody knew what it was. Then, people got nervous about it being antibacterial. Sanitizer became this weird dirty word. So, I said, “It’s a refresher, and there’s a hundred ways to use it.” I kept educating the populous about it and how it doesn’t kill all bacteria. Since I print 15,000 tubes at a time, when I go through the tubes, it’s an opportunity to rethink the product. We are just about to redo our tubes again.
What prompted you to extend Jao beyond hand sanitizer?
I wanted a really great moisturizer. I wasn’t using anything that I was really happy with. Dad and I fucked around for a long time and came up with a really great moisturizer. With the lip balm, I came up with something incredibly complicated. My father is such a lovely man. He’s 93, and he’s the most patient, caring person you will ever meet. He’s dealt with me and did what I wanted. Our lip balm has 34% shea butter. That’s very difficult without using synthetics and petroleum. That’s just what I wanted to use on my lips.
What’s the bestseller?
Goē Oil. It’s a product that didn’t exist before. It’s a solid oil in a tube that you liquefy. I started formulating it with my father in 2000. My dad wouldn’t work on my products exclusively because I didn’t pay him, and it was in the mix for years as he worked other jobs. We finally got it to market in 2008. I thought of it because, in the Bowery, I was using sesame oil, and it would drip through my fingers and was messy. I wanted something easier to use. I started doing research on oils and butters, and I sent my dad 28 of them. It is really hard to make because it has 28 butters and oils with different melting points. It’s incredibly problematic, but it’s fabulous. It was a rock star from day one.
My third time being revolutionary after the sanitizer and Goē Oil is a plant-based body oil that keeps the bugs away. We call it the Bug Shy Blend. That launched in 2011. There weren’t any of them before. I remember looking for them, and the only thing I could find was Repel, which is hard core. Ours smells delicious, and it works. We had it tested by an entomologist in the South. I created that product because I’d use Goē Oil on my deck in Brooklyn and get attacked by mosquitos. So, I thought I had to make a Goē Oil that repels mosquitos.
The brand has a very distinct look. How did it come about?
I worked really closely with my graphic designer on every aspect of it. Each product has its own vibe. The hand sanitizer was the talisman to protect you from disease. I wanted the whole bottle to be a symbol, but that became too hard for people to understand. Goē Oil has the feeling of going on a holiday in Hawaii, and you just found it in some pharmacy there. It has a box that’s Asian-inspired. The Face Crème is really old school, almost like it’s Italian. There’s a simplicity and elegance that I’m always going for.
When did Jao cross $1 million in sales?
We had a big bump in hand sanitizer sales in 2008 due to SARS, but I don’t think we got there maybe until 2015. That’s when Goē Oil hit a number of stores. Hand sanitizers are relatively cheap. Ours is $10. I never wanted to be mass. Not being in mass, it’s hard to sell hundreds of thousands of units of a $10 item.
When we made the Goē Oil, I originally priced it way too cheap. It was $28, and our sales in the first year were slow. By the second year, sales were really good, but my accountant told me, “Yes, sales are good, but it’s not going to work.” I realized I had screwed myself because the product was so expensive to make. To make money, I had to charge $68. How was I going to raise the price from $28 to $68? Each six months, we raised it until we got to $40. We kept it at $40 for a while, then we pushed it to $42 and $46. After that, we hit a sweet spot of $49 for a couple of years. At $50 is when it started to make sense to manufacture and sell it to stores. It did really well and became a cult product.
Then, I got annoyed. All the stores just wanted Goē Oil. We had to be like, “No, we don’t want to sell just that. We want you to support us and really be a partner.” We never sell our products on Amazon. If I had gone on Amazon, I would have made $1 million early on, but I didn’t want to lose control of distribution. I sacrificed money to keep the brand unique and cool. We told the stores they could only order two cases at a time, and they had to pick up another product like the lip balm or hand sanitizer. That helped us keep our sales with people who really wanted to work with us. We were able to call the shots and didn’t just let the stores dictate everything. At one point, we were talking to Sephora Europe a couple of years ago, but we would have gone broke if we had done that deal because they wanted us to give them 500,000 free samples, and I didn’t have the money. We’ve just maintained slow growth, and I’ve been OK with it, but I also get angry sometimes. I often think I should go on panels, but I would say horrible things.
What was it like for Jao when the pandemic hit?
The sales were insane. In the month of March, we sold as much hand sanitizer as we sold all year the year before. That means our sales were up 120%. Luckily, we were on the high end with our stock. If we had been on the low end, we would have screwed ourselves. We have our own website, and we drove traffic to us. We were able to make much more money because we weren’t selling it half price at wholesale. We couldn’t trust how it would sell at wholesale because we had the price was raised to $44 on the 8-oz. size through wholesale. It normally retails for $18. We had to control it. There are just five of us, and we are able to monitor every sale. People were buying 10 bottles at a time, so we started to institute that you could only buy two bottles. If I had the ability, I could have probably made $50 million in hand sanitizer sales, but I’m too small.
Why did you want to open the Jao Social Club store?
I remember going to Kiehl’s when it had its very first store. You would go into this beautiful old pharmacy, and they would always give you samples when you bought something. I wanted Jao Social Club to be kind of like that. I wanted it to be like a pharmacy even though I wasn’t selling pharmaceutical goods. When you go into a pharmacy in Paris, they have all these really cool brushes from Italian brands. So, I wanted to bring in really cool brushes. I found a really cool solid shampoo that I wanted to bring in. I have a workwear line. Nothing is made in China or sold on Amazon. I despise Jeff Bezos. I’m constantly to customers in political ways about their shopping habits. I’m very opinionated, as you can tell.
When the pandemic hit, it really was like a pharmacy, but I was supplying hand sanitizer, soap and hand cream. We found a soap maker to make the most beautiful soap with our fragrance. One reason I opened the store is I really don’t want to make a ton of products. My dad is old, and I don’t have a chemist now to work with me. I want the products I have to be the products. It’s what it is. I don’t really see anything else I want or need. They are all so unique and unusual. I don’t need to make a shampoo.