By Jessica Yun
Exactly a week ago, Australian self-tanning brand Bondi Sands was sold to Japanese cosmetics company Kao Corporations. On the same day, Hunter Johnson recorded a podcast episode with Stu Gregor, co-founder of award-winning craft gin brewery Four Pillars that since July has been fully owned by beverages giant Lion.
Is Johnson hoping the same trajectory plays out for his new venture STUFF, a men’s skincare brand backed by Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe and Square Peg Capital co-founder Paul Bassat?
“It depends,” he said.
“I’m really drawn to the idea of creating a generational business that can exist in perpetuity as our core demographic grows up. There’s something about keeping the soul of the business; not many people talk about that. But if an opportunity comes that’s a strategic partnership that allows us to grow quicker, or a strategic investor that can accelerate our growth, fast-track our impact, I’m open to that.”
Hunter Johnson founded mental health charity The Man Cave and men’s skincare brand STUFF.
STUFF is Johnson’s second start-up after founding The Man Cave nearly a decade ago, a mental health charity aimed at increasing emotional intelligence and nipping toxic masculinity in the bud. The program, which has reached over 50,000 teenage boys, has earned kudos from the likes of the late Queen Elizabeth, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But it wasn’t enough for Johnson. During the pandemic, he decided to launch STUFF, making Man Cave a core stakeholder. It’s a crucial selling point of the for-profit brand that sells face wash, moisturiser, sunscreen, body wash and more: every $1000 in sales puts a boy through the mental health program.
STUFF was born from an observation that mainstream advertising geared towards men was still “super outdated” and perpetuating harmful stereotypes of toxic masculinity.
“Think about the ads that we grew up with, like Lynx Africa – spray yourself on the beach and a flock of gorgeous women come chasing, or the Old Spice ads. The subtle objectification that we do to a teenage boy’s belief system grows and compounds.”
He points to Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which encouraged women of all shapes and sizes to celebrate their bodies. “Well, what’s the masculinity version or the male version of that?”
Like other founders of the same millennial cohort as Thankyou Group and Who Gives A Crap, Johnson doesn’t think profit and social good are mutually exclusive, and sees today’s global consumer voting with their dollars.
“Products are quickly becoming a way that we can show our values,” he said.
“Supporting young men’s mental health is obviously good for him, but it’s great for his relationships. We’re seeing so many mums or significant others buying STUFF as a gift because [they] know it’s not just good for mental health, but good for equality at the same time.”
Hunter Johnson and STUFF investor Ian Thorpe.Credit: Renee Nowytarger
Product, purpose, and profits
Johnson quickly realised there were two things he had to nail to create a successful brand: the quality of the product itself, and to communicate its purpose effectively. On the product front, he has leaned on his book of extensive contacts, a network of high-profile Man Cave supporters with backgrounds in consumer goods including executives from Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Afterpay. STUFF’s formulation has been developed in consultation with a former head of product at Aesop.
The next step is to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and the brand has taken major strides on that front: STUFF is stocked in Woolworths, Priceline, The Shaver Shop, IGA and Terry White, with ambitions to conquer the rest.
STUFF also made headlines for being the first men’s brand to be stocked by global beauty retailer Sephora.”They came to us,” Johnson said. “To do the mass market and the premium channel is kind of unheard of.”
Now Johnson is asking the public to pitch in to help it achieve scale. With the goal of crowdfunding $3.5 million in total, more than $1.6 million of this has already been given by high net worth investors, and Johnson hopes mum and dad investors will make up the difference. STUFF, operating with a team of five, is aiming to hit profitability within two years.
The brand’s greatest challenge is competing with long-time industry stalwarts L’Or?al and Nivea. Their market incumbency is both an opportunity and an obstacle: while it means the men’s personal care space is ripe for disruption by a youthful new entrant, it also means getting the product in front of male consumers is one matter. Getting them to actually buy it is another.
“People have been buying the other conglomerate brands for years. There [are] years of trust, safety, reliability. To earn the right for them to switch is like a chasm they have to jump over.”
But conquering the domestic market first remains the key milestone, before Johnson takes the brand to the rest of the world. He’s already fielding interest from international distribution groups in Asia.
“You gotta prove you’re going to win on your own home turf before you earn the right to look elsewhere.”
As much as Johnson’s current focus is on turbocharging STUFF’s growth, the raison d’etre of the men’s skincare brand is really his first venture.
“If and when STUFF sells for $100 million, that kicks back many millions back into Man Cave in a way that would take years to fundraise for,” he said. “It’s like a charity business with a business mindset over the top.”
The first round of STUFF’s Birchal crowdfunding campaign closes on August 14.
The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.