How Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary Is Making It In The Mass Market While Keeping Manufacturing In-House
About a decade ago, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary founder Donna Steinmann received a phone call from a Santa Barbara dermatologist’s office inquiring about Sweet Bee Magic, an all-purpose skincare product she’d been making from honey and propolis for a while without any intention of selling widely.
Steinmann was worried someone might have been complaining about it to the dermatologist, but the opposite was true. The office wanted to stock up on Sweet Bee Magic after discovering it helped a patient recovering from the removal of a skin cancer legion. Steinmann sent along more and took the order as a sign she should be thinking bigger about her brand’s future.
“I didn’t even know what consumer packaged goods meant at the time, but I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’ If I knew, I might have run the other way,” she says. “It has grown against all odds and through many difficulties, and ups and downs in the cosmetics market.”
In the years since that fortuitous call, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary went from spreading at doctor’s offices, clinics, pharmacies, mom-and-pop stores and natural grocers, including formidable ones like Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market, Mom’s Organic Market and Erewhon, to entering mass retailers. In 2018, the brand broke into CVS, Walmart, Target and Costco as its distribution network surged to roughly 8,000 doors and sales hit $4 million. This year, sales are expected to reach $6 million and, next year, they could cross $8 million.
Still, by a lot of measures, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary hasn’t changed significantly from the brand it was prior to launching at huge chains. The independent operator manufactures its products in-house at a 5,000-square-foot facility in Ojai, Calif., that has an office, shipping area and modest production space. It remains committed to its original Sweet Bee Magic recipe as it carefully expands its assortment and raises its retail profile.
“What I’m so proud of and happy to say is that we are a boutique manufacturer that has a unique and beautiful system that we can go to mass with, and every single person who grabs our product will not notice a dilution of its quality at mass,” says Steinmann. “Our product deserves to be purchased by anyone who finds it. Our product is so simple and so wonderful that, if I could take it globally, it would make me cry.”
“I didn’t even know what consumer packaged goods meant at the time, but I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’ If I knew, I might have run the other way. It has grown against all odds and through many difficulties, and ups and downs in the cosmetics market.”
Simplicity is a key ingredient in Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary’s scalability. Its selection contains less than 10 products–Steinmann is adamant about not releasing gratuitous merchandise–and product formulations don’t vary substantially. The brand dials up or down the waxes, oils, propolis and honey where appropriate. In a couple of hours, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary can generate up to 10,000 units of its VMagic Feminine Lips Stick. The brand is currently sending out 5,000 to 6,000 units of Sweet Bee Magic weekly to Costco stores in California.
“I have seen so many young companies go and buy from [contract] manufacturers, and have to store 20,000 to 30,000 units in some warehouse. They have to figure how to market those units and move them off the shelf before they expire,” says Steinmann. “We’ve never had those problems because we pour to order.”
Despite its relatively small selection, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary has enlarged its customer base by broadening from skincare to feminine care. Steinmann heard from retail buyers that women were using Sweet Bee Magic for vulvar skin, and developed the line VMagic to address vulvar skin issues with products designed for feminine care sections. The line netted a major boost as it was establishing itself in 2017 when Khloe Kardashian mentioned it as part of her vagina care routine.
Today, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary’s first product, Sweet Bee Magic, and VMagic Feminine Lips Stick are neck and neck in terms of sales volume. Target, Walmart and CVS carry VMagic products, which have been strong performers on Amazon, too. A Target buyer recommended VMagic revamp or, in Steinmann’s words, it would “die on the vine,” and VMagic Feminine Lips Stick was promptly put in packages with blush tones to draw Target shoppers.
“What I’m so proud of and happy to say is that we are a boutique manufacturer that has a unique and beautiful system that we can go to mass with, and every single person who grabs our product will not notice a dilution of its quality at mass.”
“Everything we do is made within a six-hour drive of Ojai. That makes it much easier for us,” says Steinmann. “We were able to very nimbly give Target something different.”
Mass distribution has given Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary a grander stage, but its business isn’t wholly dependent on it. Steinmann shares around 40% of its sales are from mass retailers, natural grocers contribute 15%, and medical accounts, Amazon and its website account for 45%, a percentage the brand is looking to escalate. Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary has relationships with the distributors UNFI and KeHE, but is trying to cultivate direct connections with grocers. It has a direct relationship with Sprouts, and sales at the natural grocer have increased 30% over the last year.
Early on, Steinmann learned the importance of sampling from Steve Johnson, a former buyer for the grocers Lazy Acres and Bristol Farms. She recounts, “He said, ‘Donna, if you give every single person in the store, even the guy in the meat section, a free product, go talk to them and meet them, I promise you will you be a big seller.’” At Lazy Acres, Medicine Mama’s Organic Apothecary would sell 100 to 150 units a month as it was getting off the ground. The brand now doles out tens of thousands of samples annually to editors, influencers, store associates and medical practitioners.
“We have to continually build our brand,” says Steinmann. “It’s one thing to be on the shelf, and it’s another thing to sell-through the products on the shelves. We are working our butts off with Costco to sell-through. It’s a constant push to maintain relevancy and brand visibility.”