For Donda Mullis and Ronnie Shugar, founders of SoCal’s natural lifestyle brand Raw Sugar Living, making premium-quality and vegan-friendly personal care products was an act of love. For each other. And for others.
“The premise of Raw Sugar really is love and – specifically — the love of us,” says Mullis of their Sherman Oaks-based business, which was listed this year in Inc. Magazine’s Annual Fastest-Growing Private Companies in the U.S.
Shugar’s background in manufacturing and logistics, and Mullis’ in brand building, marketing & design created a vibrant combination. “We had a separation and when we reconnected, by complete happenstance, we wanted to build something new together from our expertise, which was in retail, but taking everything we had learned independently and make it something bigger.”
Zeroing in on the natural products sector, they felt it was missing clean, healthy and “affordable options” and they developed Raw Sugar Living – personal care products covering hair, skin, and lip care, and bath and body products, made with plant-derived ingredients, easily recognized thanks to their signature sustainable bamboo top and eco-friendly white bottle packaging, wrapped with the body positive message of ‘Living Purely Unfiltered.’
Their unique selling proposition though lay in the process they adopted as a first in beauty — ColdPress Technology, a similar process used for healthy juices found in the natural food aisle at grocery stores. This method helps preserve more of the nutrients, enzymes and extracts of the fruit and vegetable ingredients used in the products to benefit the skin.
“We said, if cold-pressed products, which have their own formulation process, are really that good for your body, why couldn’t they be used in beauty,” Mullis says. So the couple went to work developing products “that smell amazing naturally and feel great on the skin.”
All manufacturing is done in the company’s facilities in downtown Los Angeles and all ingredients are sourced locally.
Shugar’s expertise was integral in the R&D process of launching the first few offerings, having in-depth knowledge of formulations and product development, courtesy of an upbringing in the personal care and cosmetics world. His father started a personal care company 60 years ago, which his brother still operates today.
Plant-derived formulations without sulfates, parabens or synthetic bases are used, and though that increases price points, it is much better for the skin.
The product is so robust that Target features it in its stories. “When we started with Target four and a half years ago, we were losing money the first two years. We knew that if and when the product line was successful, we would be able to scale it,” Shugar says.
The company had all of nine items at the time – three bar soaps, three body washes and three hand washes for the test run of 111 Target stores. Interestingly, the brand wasn’t placed in the natural section, but rather segmented into the everyday positioning next to household names such as Dove, Dial, and Irish Spring. Target wanted to raise the bar for consumers and Raw Sugar was its testing ground.
“We didn’t receive any special treatment from Target – Raw Sugar was held to the same performance benchmarks, having to sell just as much as the well-established multi-billion dollar companies its brand new products were placed adjacent,” Mullis says.
Within five years, Raw Sugar became one of the largest beauty vendors at Target, going from three test SKUs to chain-wide. Shugar and Mullis leveraged the success at Target to get to other stores. “Any category we now approach, we are in the mainstream to elevate, to let people know that you can now have clean, healthy products that are also as affordable,” Mullis says.
As a unisex brand for all people and genders, Raw Sugar is an aspirational line. All products have what is called a ‘sugar’ note, which is the couple’s version of a love note, with messages like ‘treat yourself with love and grace’ and other such self-care affirmations. It’s become huge on social media.
Try finding the products online though, even on the company’s website, and you will be redirected to a retailer such as Target, Meijer or Walgreens, all by design. “We are big believers in brick and mortar. That being our strategy, we design, develop and procure all of our advertising and social media to go to our retailers,” Shugar says. “We drive all traffic to all of our retailers.”
The couple also launched the Raw Sugar Initiative as the philanthropic arm of the company, where every product purchased results in a bar of soap being donated to a family in need. To date, the company has donated over five million bars via their nonprofit partner Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization located in San Francisco, with operations across the country and many locations globally.
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