I interviewed JP Mastey, the owner of Baxter of California, recently for my day job at the menswear trade magazine MR; Baxter is a grooming brand that has gone out its way to court independent men’s specialty stores as its primary distribution. There was a lot of good stuff that I couldn’t fit into that story (which was already pretty long at about 1,200 words), so I’m running a separate piece about Baxter here, covering some of the issues that interest me as a consumer.
The story of Baxter starts in 1964 when a New York advertising executive named Baxter Finley moved to California. He wasn’t prepared for the change of climate, and needed a moisturizer. Everything he found was marketed to women, and that gave him an idea. The next year he launched Baxter with a skin conditioner/moisturizer called Super Shape. By the 1970s he had a full line of men’s skincare and grooming products.
“Other companies were making shaving creams and aftershaves for men for centuries but this is really the first business that brought the whole skincare category to men,” Mastey told me.
Mastey bought the company from Finley, a family friend, in 2000. He redesigned the packaging and reformulated much of the line in 2004.
What I like about Baxter is that it’s firmly a men’s brand, not unisex, not “metrosexual.” The prices are reasonable—typically between $15 and $20 for most skincare, deodorant, shaving, and hair products. I also like that not everything is scented. The products that are, like the shampoo (minty) and the after shave balm (a fantastic citrus), are scented simply. I should mention that Baxter was kind enough to send me samples after the interview.
Here’s a bit of my interview with Mastey, some of which appears in the original story at MRketplace.com.
When you took over the company, did change the formulas much?
Absolutely—everything was dated, from packaging to product formulations. There was a lot of mineral oil and lanolin in the products, components that were used in the 70s and early 80s. When I came on in 2000, there were very few botanicals being used. A lot of things have changed in skincare over the last 25 years, so we were able to modernize every single product that we put out. We really worked hard to have a nice balance between natural botanicals and scientific ingredients that really perform well. There’s a big misconception that all natural is best. It’s nearly impossible to produce something authentically all natural that performs well. Many companies claim to be all natural, but it’s mostly marketing.
How do you convince customers to try out things like night creams, masks and other products traditionally associated with women?
That’s an excellent question. When I first came on board, I said, okay, we’re not making under-eye and night creams; these are not products that guys buy. But over the first year, as I studied our sales, night creams and under-eye creams were some of the most consistent sellers to slightly more mature men, Baby Boom-generation guys who don’t want to look old. Unlike a shaving cream, it’s not a product that a guy will go into his office and say, hey, I found the best night cream, you should all try this! It’s something he’ll put in his drawer and not talk about. It comes down to function. If they see a product that’s a solution to a problem, they’re going to buy it. A night cream, for a man who is starting to see fine lines on his face, is a potential solution. He’s going to read up about it or learn from a woman in his life.
Guys my age—I’m 37—grew up with Oxy and Stridex. We know what masks and scrubs do. It’s not something we want to go shopping for with clear plastic bags, but we know what these products do for our skin. There’s a lot of vanity in American men.
It’s common wisdom that men will pay much less for skincare and cosmetic products than women will. What is the threshold and how do you price your products?
We understand that for the most part, we’re grabbing guys that buy products at the drug store. They’re used to spending $4.99 on a face wash or moisturizer from Neutrogena or Nivea. So we’re asking them to take a leap from that price point to something premium, and we have to be conservative when we do that. We also want to make sure that guys, if they’re are jumping up in price, can afford to buy three to four products to get the results that they need: a face wash, toner, moisturizer, a scrub, maybe a better shaving cream. So we need to make sure the price is low enough for a guy to adopt a regimen and second, we need to make sure that the price isn’t such a huge leap that they’re scared off by it. If we charged $60 for a moisturizer, then the average guy probably can’t buy anything else from us, and he’s probably not going to get the results that he should.
So we try to be as fair as possible. We know we need to make a certain margin to grow and continue to put out good products, putting an emphasis on quality and research and development. We can’t price product so low that we’re just churning it out in a numbers game, but we also can’t price it so high that we’re limiting our audience.
Baxter has two fragrances, Bravado 2 and 3. What about the original?
When I came on in 2000, there was literally one case of the original Bravado cologne left. My dad used to wear it. He would cut Mr. Finley’s hair in exchange for product, so my dad always had this Bravado cologne around. And to be honest, it was your dad’s cologne. That’s not a compliment. It was developed in the 70s and needs to stay in the 70s! To answer your question, that’s why it’s not coming back. The reason we called the new colognes Bravado 2 and 3 is so people have the response you had: where is Bravado 1? It’s a good way to lead the conversation back to the company’s history. Not everyone understands that we’ve been around for 50 years. The original Bravado is something we’ve retired, and it’s now part of the company archives.
Will you expand the fragrance line?
We’re torn on that. I’d like to do something different in men’s fragrances. There’s definitely a market for fine fragrances, but I think there’s something solid on between that and a body spray. There’s a price, a scent, a delivery system, and packaging that could straddle both. Do we want to compete with the very large fragrance companies, or is there an opportunity for us to do something a little bit different? It’s something I’ve put a lot of thought into.
Guys are very brand loyal when it comes to cologne. They’re not into the idea of spending a hundred bucks to try something new. And there’s a ton of competition in that marketplace. A lot of it is fueled by having support systems at the counter to demo the product, which is why we’re not in the department store business. As a consumer, I absolutely hate being bombarded by cosmetics support people, and every guy I talk to has the same response. I want to know what’s going on in department stores—it’s my business—but the pressure is so high and it’s so annoying that I’ll go the long way around the counter to avoid the men’s grooming gauntlet. It’s just the wrong way to sell products to guys, and all the brands that are endorsing that method are alienating customers. This was one of the major reasons we decided to go into the men’s lifestyle arena instead.
Tell me about your barber shop in L.A.
For years, people would say we should open a Baxter of California store. We’re a product line that has 20-30 SKUs, so it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, unless we’re leasing a small closet somewhere. We figured this is all about men, and men don’t want to visit apothecaries all the time. Barbering really fits into my heritage: my grandfather in Morocco was doing hair, my father was doing hair—he was one of ten children and six of them ended up in the hair care business, so I grew up around it.
Mr. Finley passed away in 2008, and he was always dear to me. Calling the barber shop Baxter Finley was sort of an homage to him. We hadn’t had a face to go with the Baxter brand—it was always about the product—but now the face is the barber shop and its aesthetic. Los Angeles has nothing like that right now. There are barber shops, but they’re mostly hair salons: they don’t offer shaves, they don’t have that classic appeal or that quality standard.
The day we opened, we had a line out the door, and since then it’s been fantastic. That tells me two things: that we’re doing it right and that the Los Angeles customer really wanted it. And I think the country as a whole wants it. There’s a barber shop revival going on. Yes, a man can stand in front of a mirror and shave himself, but going to a barber shop for it is a perk. It’s about relaxation.
Guys these days want their own stuff and I think this is because women are now on a more equal playing field. We have women doctors, CEOs, police officers and firefighters. We’re sharing the traditionally male jobs with women now. Men have to compete with women, so they care more about how they look, whether it’s their suits or their hair cuts. I think women have unintentionally raised the bar for men, and this has caused men to say, ‘we want our own now.’
Read the first part of my interview with JP Mastey here.