Behind the Brand: Burt's Bees
Ever wonder who the faces are behind the amazing beauty brands you know and love? Well, now's your chance!
We recently got the chance to visit the North Carolina headquarters of one of our favorite beauty brands, Burt's Bees. While there, we got the opportunity to tour the research lab, learn how the ingredients in our favorite lip balm are sourced, and yes, see some bees IRL. But as much as we loved our time with the bees—and trust us, we so did—we loved chatting with one of the top members of the Burt's Bees team, VP of Research and Development Celeste Lutrario, even more.
Celeste heads up the team Research and Development team responsible for product innovation and creation. (Basically, those new lipsticks Burt's Bees dropped last fall that have Influensters gushing? Yeah, Celeste and her team are behind those!) We got the chance to sit down with Celeste and learn about her robust past in the beauty industry, her love for product innovation, and her must-have Burt's Bees products.*
What was your first job in the beauty business?
"My first job in the beauty industry was with Avon products, and I started in 1985—so I've been around for a while. I was there for six years and I did formulation in color cosmetics and skincare. So I was at Avon for six years, and then I went to work for Unilever—for the Elizabeth Arden brand—and I was there for 11 years, and at that point I did more formulation and then that's when I got into management and I started directing innovation groups. And then Chanel. I went to Chanel for three years, doing the same thing: I managed innovation groups, discovery, new innovation in color cosmetics. And then I came to Burt's. I've been with Burt's for 12 years! So I've been in the industry for about 31 years."
So how does working at some of those bigger places compare to working at a place like Burt's?
"Completely different! It's in a good way. I had spent my whole career formulating synthetic products, so [when I came to Burt's] they basically gave me a free pass to do whatever I wanted to do, which never happens in someone's career. This was a dream come true. So I took the position, and I hired two chemists from the cosmetic industry. We really thought this was going to be easy because these [chemists] had done some of the biggest innovations in the industry, primarily [with] anti-aging in all different color products. We got here and we started to formulate and we thought, how hard can natural be? Well, we realized we couldn't do anything! Everything was falling apart, everything was a mess, so we ended up stopping everything and we spent six months doing research on how people used to formulate prior to all these new chemical ingredients we have. How they actually had to formulate with natural ingredients.
We looked at how Elizabeth Arden did her first lipstick, how Coco Chanel did her first color cosmetics. We looked at other countries and what other countries used and what they used on their skin and their hair. We did that for about six months. And we sat down and we had three principles by which we were going to formulate: 1) We couldn't use anything synthetic except a preservative because we couldn't find anything else 2) The products had to feel exactly like synthetic products and 3) They had to have a shelf life of three years.
So we started to do it and all of a sudden we cracked the code, and we started to make these beautiful emulsions and these beautiful products and they started to feel exactly like synthetic products! And that's where we started. In the first year that we were here, we did 20 new formulations that were completely state of the art in the industry that no one had done before. You know the cosmetic industry is a very small industry, and I started to have all my colleagues from my [past] jobs call me and say, "How are you doing this?" Well, it's like, I can't tell you, but we did it and we're doing it! And that started this progression of building on these formulations and just making it better and better every year. So it was really exciting to do that."
"Burt's Bees has been the best experience of my life because I got to do something that I wanted to do. And between R&D and marketing actually, we developed this new way of talking to women and this new way of formulation. We have a target of making sure people have a balance of healthy skin as opposed to just trying to fix a problem. And we've continued to grow on that. And that has become really how we talk to people, which has been extraordinary."
Did you always know you wanted to go into the beauty industry?
"I didn't! I didn't know the beauty industry existed. I was going to school to be a veterinarian, so I was really into biology and science and the chemistry of it. I really wanted to be a veterinarian, but I couldn't get into vet school. I came home and my mother had a stack of applications—my mother, I'm afraid of her—she had a stack of applications on the kitchen table and she said, "You will get a job. Fill out those applications." And one of those applications was for Avon. And I filled out the application and I got the job. Out of nine interviews, I got seven jobs and for some reason Avon was the one. I loved doing it! The reason I took it was because it was doing color cosmetics and there was the very analytical, scientific portion of it and this very creative piece of it where you're matching colors and doing beauty and fashion. I just fell into it. And then I fell in love—I fell in love doing it. I was sold."
What was your biggest challenge starting out as a young woman in the beauty business?
"When I started out, it really was run by men. It was a men-dominated industry, and it was very hard to get men to understand what women were looking for. It was very prescriptive. The men ran it, but most of the chemists were women—it was very interesting. And there was less focus on the consumer and there was less focus on the needs of women. It was more about we need to make more products, we need to make more products.
The difference was we were doing lotions and creams [when I first started] and now all of a sudden there were serums and all these things that just bombarded women with all these products, and in my opinion, with all those products on your skin, your skin isn't as healthy. It was really getting my superiors to understand this is serious.
But I will say, in my career, I've worked with some of the best formulators and the best managers in the industry. But that was one of the things that was really difficult in the beginning. But [it's] fixed now!"
What's the best business advice you've ever received?
"I know this! I worked with a gentleman, both at Avon and Elizabeth Arden. He was my director. He was my first boss and he was a technical guy with a marketing mind. And the best advice he gave me is: If you're looking for innovation and you're looking to do something new, never look in your own industry. Always look to see what everyone else is doing, because that's where you're going to find wonderful things. For example, he forced me to look to the food industry or the medical industry or pharmaceutical industry. He just said look at other industries because there's so many other things people are using elsewhere that you can use. So he really taught me how to think very wide and how to do innovation in a really different way than anyone else was doing. And by doing that it's made me very competitive with the things that our labs are doing.
He was the one that kind of directed me. And the second thing he did was say, when you make something, you have to tell the story. Most technical people don't know how to tell the story. They'll talk very scientifically, and he basically said do whatever you have to do to tell the story to a consumer because if you don't translate what you're doing, they're never going to understand all this work you put into it. To this day I still say he's the person who is responsible for my career!"
"This is not from the industry. It's more so from my mother and my grandmother. So I'm Italian, and I keep going back to what my mother and my grandmother did. In those days you were always busy: you were taking care of a family, you were cooking, but my grandmother would always in the morning, as she was cooking, she would always take olive oil and put it on her face. That was her routine. And at night she'd put a little cold cream on, but that was her routine! And I remember to this day her doing that. I remember thinking it was a strange thing but she always said, "There's so much in here that is good for you. Through my heritage, we used to use olive oil on our skin." And she had beautiful skin.
And my mother used to do very similar things. They were very natural things that they would put on [their skin]. And I [think] the connection I made with Burt's is going back to them. It doesn't have to be that hard. It can be very simple. They rooted me back to the fact that we were all brought up in nature and nature has supplied these things and we kind of forgot our way. We kind of got really scientific and really chemical, and we kind of lost our way. So every time I get stuck at Burt's, I kind of think back to them."
What has been the innovation you're most proud of?
"Every year it's different. Right now, today, my favorite innovation is our new lipstick for a couple of reasons. In most of my career, I did color cosmetics, so I know color cosmetics and it's a love of mine—and I love color. So when we ventured into trying to do a lipstick, I was very strict about how it was going to feel, the payoff, the finish, if it's on trend, the color palette. Everything. I was so focused on making sure we did it right.
We also have about 100 years of experience in color in our labs so we have a lot of people from the industry, but this lipstick was going to be our first entry into really serious color cosmetics. I mean a lipstick is the best thing! And women will look at color first: Is it the right color and then does it feel good and is it the right finish? And we kind of flipped it. So what I was most concerned about and what the chemists in the lab were most concerned about was: This has to provide health to your lips first—it's got to treat your lips really well just like all of our other products, and then it has to deliver color and payoff and all the things that the consumer expects. This product has to perform and it has to keep your lips healthy—a lot of lipsticks don't do that. They'll actually cause damage to the lips.
And the chemists nailed it [with these]. It couldn't have been better. They used these really cool things like raspberry seed oil and moringa oil and beeswax. They used all these great materials and not only did they do that, but they came out with this really incredible color palette. (Now keep in mind we can only use natural colors, so there's a lot of colors we can't use.) But they came out with this beautiful color palette, and on top of that, they made this package completely sustainable, completely recyclable! We had a packaging designer who had just come on staff at the time, and she developed that incredibly looking package. This was the first product that hit everything we wanted to hit. And we delivered something no one thought we could do. And in my opinion, that kind changed—hopefully it will change—how people get natural color. So that's by far my favorite. And I use it all the time."
Any hints as to what's up next for Burt's?
"I can't say. You could probably guess if you thought about it. It's big! It's big!"
Think fast: If you can only take three Burt's Bees products with you out the door, what would they be?
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
What are your favorite Burt's Bees products, Influensters? Share with us below!