Using empathy and education to build the next generation of teen acne brands.

Regardless of the generation someone is born into, the realities and struggles of being a teen with acne are evergreen. Curious about how skin care companies are innovating with the next generation of teenagers in mind, Caroline Fletcher, Vice President and The Sound’s Head of Beauty & Fashion sat down with Ginny Friedman.

Ginny, an executive marketer and brand leader with over 15 years of experience working with high impact teen acne brands like Neutrogena and Clean & Clear shared some of her deep insights on the changing ideals of perfection, the need for teen-directed unbiased education, and empathy.

Here are highlights from their conversation, lightly edited for length.

“I think being inclusive and showing that the face of your brand isn’t that one perfect person, that being perfect isn’t the endgame. Teen acne is now about acceptance and taking care of yourself and being your best self – whatever that is – and taking care of your skin.”

CF: You’ve been working in skincare for close to two decades. Share with me a little more about your professional background.

GF: I have been working in marketing for 20 years. I started in food, and it was for a really fun, very authentic Italian brand. Then I decided that I loved marketing but, I wanted to work in beauty. I turned to beauty and started working for Neutrogena and I spent 15 years there and at Clean & Clear, all focused on face and facial care. 

I spent a lot of time working with teens, understanding dermatologists, scientists and how that all comes together. When I first started working at Neutrogena, I thought makeup and the non-acne business would be more glamorous and fun to work on, but I actually really appreciate working on acne. I felt it was a place where you could really make a difference in someone’s skin. It’s all linked to self-esteem – not that you have to have good skin to have good self-esteem – but there are a lot of people that suffer and really wish their skin were better. 


Is there any one moment of innovation or messaging over your time working within acne that you can point to as being the most significant?

There have been a few times where things have come and created a splash and a change in the marketplace, but the acne space is just constantly evolving. There’s still not a cure for acne and I think one of the things that really exploded in the last ten years was Proactiv. A lot of that was swung by their business model, which helped consumers learn how to use skincare. 

Kits were really prolific in teaching people how to use regimens to clear their skin, transforming the experience of treating acne, which used to be very medicinal. If you think back to Stridex and Clearasil, it was a lot of heavy hitting, highly medicated products, teeming with the smell of alcohol.

I actually lead the development of focusing on that acne-treating experience – transforming it to still be about efficacy, but without having to sacrifice the more pleasant, non-medicinal experience that comes with non-acne products. In order to clear your skin with these products you have to actually use them, so that space just grew tremendously. It became a growth-driver for Neutrogena. 


It sounds like the innovation arc has been steps on top of steps on top of steps. It hasn’t been a light-switch moment. It’s been a slow and steady progress

Another area is customization. It’s probably been over the past decade that it’s really started and now you have companies built on that. It’s a difficult business model to crack. There hasn’t been something that has fully transformed the industry yet. Acne is not a one product fits all, and there’s not any cure, so it’s still an issue. 


One of the particularly unique and unfair challenges of teen acne is that it happens to people at a point in their life where they’re also the most vulnerable. They’re gaining independence, they’re figuring out who they are, they’re stepping outside and away from their parents, they’re identifying their preferred sex. I’d love to know how knowing the context of teenager’s lives impacts the way that brands think about acne solutions. 

It’s true, it’s hard to keep acne in perspective, especially when it flares up in its most awful form, which often happens in your teenage years. I think that not all brands do consider it, and I think that’s the sad thing. 

Working in the industry, you see things and think ‘what were they thinking?’ It’s critical to understand what’s going on in a teen’s life. Not every teen wants to do a five-step regimen two times a day, for example. 

The other thing is figuring out how you connect with teens so they know how to use the product. With acne, it’s important to comply with a regimen, and it’s a simple story, but it hasn’t been communicated over time very relevantly. So, reaching teens and figuring out what’s the best way to educate them, where do you speak to them, where do you find them, what are they open to learning and sharing about acne, is key. 

The teens today are very different from the teens 20 years ago. It’s easy through the development of a product and its communication to come across plenty of people who don’t understand teens, don’t exactly know who they are or how to attract them. It’s important because how you show up could come across as extremely irrelevant, or it could come across as trying to be cool, which is the worst thing you can try to do. 


Now there’s been a couple of years since your roles at J&J, who do you see really being very successful in empathetic messaging to teens that hits the spot?

I think Curology is interesting. It’s creating an understanding that everyone is different, an appreciation for diversity, and being there to help in a way that’s personalized. I think teens believe they’re not the same as everyone else, so I think that’s an interesting brand. 

Clean & Clear has done so much interesting work recently, transforming who they are and how they’re communicating. The brand used to be about showing the two cute girl best friends and it’s evolved a lot to show who teens are and their meaningful relationships today. It’s more of the smaller, indie brands that are doing a good job, and they’re doing it online more so than the bigger companies. 


Getting ready for our conversation, I went down a YouTube hole watching decades of teen acne commercials. The messaging from brands in the 80s and 90s was about attracting the opposite sex, fitting in, and aligning with the “popular” kids. Today we know that Gen Z kids are a lot more woke when it comes to their identity, their sexual preferences, how they see inclusion. Those older heteronormative messages would be wrong. How do you see that generational shift impacting teen acne marketing?

It used to be about this perfect outer self and that was portrayed. That was the aspiration, and if you weren’t that it was harder to be in that in-crowd. Versus now where it’s a totally different acceptance level in terms of who people are, their identities, it’s a completely different vernacular, a completely different way of relating and we’re starting to understand that. 

Proactiv was one of the first brands showing real people. That wasn’t aspirational years ago, but it was a way to show real results. I think being inclusive and showing that the face of your brand isn’t that one perfect person and that being perfect isn’t the endgame, it’s about acceptance and taking care of yourself and being your best self – whatever that is – and taking care of your skin. It’s more about empowerment and support than it is about perfection. 


When I think about teenagers who are suffering with acne today, while there are seemingly endless resources, and a lot more openness that everyone is imperfect, at the same time there have also never been more images of perfection. Has that impacted any of the work that you’ve done in the acne space? 

What I’ve seen is not everyone wants to show their acne, but there are people who are willing to share their story and their vulnerability and be honest about what works and what doesn’t work. The end state is not perfection. It is a fine balance in terms of…you want to show efficacy, but you also want to embrace that perfection is not the end goal. 


That’s really interesting, and something I hadn’t thought about. That the idea of the ‘before and after’ feels less reasonable. That there isn’t a binary state where skin was once bad and now it’s great. That’s not a reality that exists.

Yes, it’s more about the journey, giving hope, and offering some level of comfort. Because when you’re experiencing acne it feels out of control and you feel helpless if you don’t know what you’re doing and there’s so much information out there that what works for one person may not work for someone else as well. The key is feeling like you’re offering hope, support and guidance. 


Let’s talk a little bit about information, or education, about acne solutions. Even a decade ago, certainly a few decades ago, there were really specific resources like teen magazines, television commercials on youth networks like MTV. Even cruising the skincare aisle in your local drugstore felt like a way to learn. Now, information is everywhere, which feels like a blessing and a curse. What platforms do you see today as being the most valuable for teens to learn about acne?

There is so much information out there, but teens are looking for education and they’re looking for unbiased information. They’re looking for peer recommendations or what they consider expert recommendations, but they want them to be unbiased. So, Google search is critical because they are going and searching there first, but also Amazon. They’re looking a little bit further down the decision path. They’re searching on Amazon because they view those as more unbiased reviews of the product. YouTube reviews and ratings are huge.

Education-wise, it’s hard to say people are ‘looking for education’ so they’ll Google and they go from there. Video is a platform that still draws teens in. YouTube is still relevant. In principal, they go to places where they can hear experts and where they’ll find a connection and be able to talk about products. 

Instagram, Snapchat, those have been good for engagement, learning, some awareness building but they don’t necessarily offer as much in terms of the education. Getting people to the right place in order to truly learn from a credible source in a teen space is still a challenge.


What are your thoughts on some emerging skincare lines? Those that are not specifically about treating acne but positioned as skincare for teens by teens, like Florence by Mills or Kylie Jenner. What are your impressions of these younger creative skincare lines? 

I think they’re really interesting. There are so many teens and young people who are doing things and making things. It shows the power of someone younger, who you can relate to, who makes things happen, and is highly respected. I think that part is great from a relevance perspective, connecting with someone you think knows you better than an older person who’s creating a line. 

I think Florence by Mills is interesting, it comes across as a little bit more authentic, a little bit more approachable. Not acne per se, but I like the way that she’s created it – it’s fun, and she’s still someone who people look up to. There’s an element of integrating other things that are important to a teen: the cruelty-free, the giving back. There’s a personal element to it. Also, she’s taking the more clean beauty route. Her price points are also fairly approachable. 

Overall I think it’s great. I think that teens are so much more educated today than they were years ago in terms of skincare. Years ago, teens wouldn’t even use a moisturizer and today they will. They’re educating each other about sunscreen and knowing different steps. 


When I was a teenager, getting Proactiv mailed to you every month felt unbelievable. It required a parent to dish out their credit card, and from a price perspective it was much, much higher. Now with shopping online being the daily way, how is that changing the acne aisle? What are the big impacts there?

There is a lot of pre-shopping. It’s a combination; the online space is growing tremendously but brick and mortar still has a space. There’s pre-shopping, research that happens before going down the aisle, then going down the aisle to actually purchase or see or get more information there. There’s also going down the aisle because you’re in the store and then using your phone to check a rating or review, not just a simple look at the shelf.

There’s a lot of checking products digitally and there are teens today who could not believe if you told them the way we used to shop. They’re baffled that you could shop in aisle and make a decision without doing research or looking at your phone. 

There’s still a mom dynamic that happens as well. There are teens who know more than their moms, there are teens who don’t know more than their moms and they couldn’t care less, and so those moms play a bigger role in terms of guiding or gently providing or buying for their teen. There’s also the flipside of the teen researching, shopping, convincing their mom to buy. 


Would it be a fair statement to say that more of the change is upfront education, information assurance, and negotiation with parents, but purchase is somewhat more of the same over the years? 

I think the purchase is somewhat the same, it’s still more brick and mortar than it is online. I think that it’s shifting. It’s the pre-research. The parent dynamic has always been there, but the teen has more power today through more access to research. It’s that pre- and while in the aisle education empowerment. And there’s this whole social thing that has happened with skincare, less so with acne than other skincare and makeup. I was at a Bar Mitzvah recently and I overheard this conversation amongst kids, all about these products and this and that and I think the level of sophistication today is off the charts compared to where it was. 


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