A conversation with Stephen de Heinrich de Omorovicza on what it takes to build a cosmetics brand from scratch
One must be very brave to want to establish a new cosmetics brand in today’s saturated markets. The least you need is a good product and a good story.
Stephen de Heinrich de Omorovizca seems to have both. He was born in Lausanne and grew up between Switzerland, Africa and the UK. It was only in the late 80s when he first went to explore his Hungarian roots with his paternal grandmother and even later when he found out that his ancestors built one of the baths that are so popular in Hungary, „My family were steel people and typical local noblemen, so that was just weird and different that they had a bath.“
The water in Hungary has certain properties, which his wife Margaret experienced on her own skin, „The crust of the earth is thinner in Hungary than anywhere else and that has an impact on the minerals in the water. It has a rejuvenating effect on the skin. That’s when we realised that this is our moment.“ The idea for the brand Omorovizca was born and it was put into practice after a way was found to deliver the complex of active ingredients into the skin.
I talked to Stephen de Heinrich about their product and story and what else it takes to make yourself heard in a „Goliath-market“ as a „David-brand“. Refreshing: de Heinrich does not use slick marketing and PR euphemisms, he tells it like it is – in a true gentlemanly fashion.
You launched a shop and a spa in Budapest nearly ten years ago. In a comparatively short time you gained a respectable reputation.
We’re not Estée Lauder but we’re doing really well. We sell in 23 countries, we work profitably and we are growing fast. I think we were lucky with our timing. There was a time about ten or twelve years ago when people had moved on from purely wanting things from Paris and Switzerland and were happy to take an interest in new provenances and new stories.
You mentioned Estée Lauder. You have entered a highly competitive market with massive global players …
… wasn’t that intimidating?
The short answer is „ignorance is bliss“. We launched in this industry not knowing very much about it. We were both consumers and very keen on consumer goods and loved the idea of brands and branding. We lived in Budapest and we were completely in love with this project.
Because we launched in Hungary, not internationally, we were completely isolated from the big bad market out there, so initially it was about our passion to launch this product. Only then we started looking into the UK and then the US.
Obviously, the big players are out there and have been out there but they didn’t get in our way and we didn’t get in theirs. In Hungary we were on home ground and then we launched in the UK where there is an obsession with niche brands. It was only a year later when we launched in the US when we realised what kind of budgets these players have, which we obviously don’t. What works to our advantage is the idea of an actual living and breathing founder behind the brand. We may not have the budgets but we can go around and tell the story.
Do you think that your aristocratic background helps to position your product, especially in the UK?
I think not too much in the UK. The Brits are very cynical about everything coming from Europe. They’re very keen on their own royal family and aristocracy. What comes from the rest of Europe … they think it’s all quite amusing. In the US on the other hand they are very keen on the idea of lineage and heritage and that kind of inherited privilege. There, it definitely helps.
As a smaller brand, how do you make yourself heard?
It’s a combination of great distribution and PR. We’ve been lucky to position the brand with some of the world’s top retailers. That gives you a platform. And we were lucky to work together with a very good PR firm in the UK all along. That gave us more press in the UK than we’ve been warranted by the size of us. And I think it’s also partly word of mouth. An awful lot of Hollywood films have been filmed in Budapest over the years and people became aware of us through our spa there. That creates noise.
And then it’s making sure – from Brasil to Japan – that the premium consumer will spot the brand. You’re addressing a certain clientele and that clientele travels and they need to be reassured that your product is a bonafide premium product. The more luxury touchpoints you accumulate, the more established the brand seems.
We are present in a number of Four Seasons hotels, St. Regis, Park Hyatt, Waldorf Astoria … That lends the brand an aura of prestige and uniqueness which helps when people decide whether to invest in a new brand or not.
It’s not easy to get on the shelves of retailers like Neiman Marcus, Harvey Nichols or Lane Crawford. How did you do it?
I think it is fair to say that our story did most of the convincing. It is key to differentiate, and our story is different. The origin of our products, of course, but also the focus on the healing waters of Hungary and my family’s connection to those waters, not to mention the patented mineral delivery system which enables the absorption of minerals by the skin.
I must also credit luck. One of the earliest conversations we had was with Neiman Marcus in the USA and the head buyer took an instant shine to Margaret and the brand. Given how important Neiman Marcus is in the US retail landscape, this was very significant. Likewise, Joyce Beauty in Hong Kong came to us fairly early in our development and has been a steadfast supporter ever since.
You said the UK were obsessed with niche brands. Why do you think that is?
The UK is a small island with a huge history. I think their outlook on the world is slightly different. They have always been exposed to all sorts of things from all over the planet, through their history or through the fact that London is a platform for going from east to west. Also, if you look at fashion and music, they’re very keen on „street“, they tend to gravitate towards the small story that comes from the street.
Look at Paul Smith who is from Nottingham, all the music that comes from Bristol and Liverpool. And likewise, when it comes to skincare, they don’t worry about the endorsement of others in trying to make a decision whether to buy or not. They only care if it’s different or interesting, what are the merits of it? „We’ll give it a shot.“ They have an insatiable thirst for stories. They also like to get behind the little people, the upstarts, the small brands.
Do you think that’s lacking in other markets, the interest to get behind smaller brands?
I think in the US that is done pretty well. The consumers in the US are perfectly happy to give you a chance. That’s typical American. They give you a stage but then they expect you to tap dance. You gotta get up there and sing your story. In the beginning, it took me a while to get used to the idea. They do spend, but you better tell a good story. But it’s great, it opens opportunities. I think, continental Europe is probably more traditional in its buying patterns and maybe less easy to penetrate as a niche brand. As I’ve been taught in Switzerland, France, or Germany: go elsewhere, get a little bit more of a track record and come back.
In Berlin, Omorovicza is available at Wheadon.