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the challenge

Six years ago, Lisa Walsh launched Indigena Skincare.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

On the Rock, Lisa Walsh finds herself in a hard place.

Six years ago, Ms. Walsh launched Indigena Skincare, whose products contain botanical extracts derived from plants native to Newfoundland and Labrador. As the formulator, she makes most of Indigena's offerings, which range from face creams to body treatments and exfoliating soaps.

Indigena, which is based in St. John's, has a good story to tell. Ms. Walsh, who harvests herbs, berries, seaweed and other ingredients for her products, avoids chemicals at all costs. "We don't use anything that's animal-derived except beeswax, and we use all food-grade ingredients," she says. "And we try to use essential oils that are wild-crafted as opposed to grown with pesticides, or are organic."

Plants such as Labrador tea and partridgeberry (also known as lingonberry) are Indigena's secret weapon. For three years, the company has been studying these flora with scientists from the National Research Council and Memorial University of Newfoundland. One academic finding, Ms. Walsh says: To survive in a harsh and volatile climate, plants that grow in the province have higher levels of antioxidants than similar species elsewhere.

Indigena is ready to patent its first botanical blend, which has anti-aging properties, according to Ms. Walsh. "The whole gist of the story is, you take different compounds that are found in different plants here, and when you combine them together they exponentially [increase] the antioxidant potential of that blend," she explains.

Ms. Walsh runs Indigena with chief executive officer Kimberley Pike and two part-time employees. Sales for the past fiscal year were less than $1-million – a number she'd like to quadruple within four years. The company, which has received orders from the United States, aims to build a North American distribution network. To that end, Indigena has decided to make all sales online and through wholesale distributors, rather than deal directly with brick-and-mortar retailers.

Indigena's products are made with herbs, berries, seaweed and other ingredients from Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo from Ray of Light) Ray Of Light

Indigena's products are made with herbs, berries, seaweed and other ingredients from Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo from Ray of Light)  To see more pictures of Indigena products, click here.

Indigena plans to grow by focusing on higher-end products, Ms. Walsh says. (A 30-millilitre jar of its Labrador Tea Face Creme goes for $95.) The ultimate goal: a public offering or a buyout within six years.

Although Ms. Walsh is looking for venture capital to help build a brand and fund this expansion, money isn't her prime motivator. She has turned down three offers to move production to China and sell Indigena's products worldwide, she says. "I don't want to take something that is so unique and Canadian and have it made somewhere else."

As her company's chief formulator, Ms. Walsh makes most of Indigena's offerings, which range from face creams to body treatments and exfoliating soaps. (Paul Daly for The Globe and Mail) For The Globe and Mail Paul Daly For The Globe and Mail

As her company's chief formulator, Ms. Walsh makes most of Indigena's offerings, which range from face creams to body treatments and exfoliating soaps. (Paul Daly for The Globe and Mail)

Ms. Walsh wants the business to go big, but on her terms. "How do we let the rest of the world know that we have a company that doesn't compromise on anything?" she asks. "How can we get that message out in our branding? Because I don't want to look like I'm just buttering people up to get a sale."

The Challenge: How can Indigena build an international brand while staying true to its roots?


John Pylypczak, president of the creative brand agency Concrete, Toronto

From a brand experience, they fall into the eco-organic category. There's nothing distinctive about it; there are so many people in that field. How do you differentiate yourself?

We worked on a lipstick brand that was made totally of food-grade material, had great colour, and was organic and all that stuff. But we avoided the eco-organic story because that's not really a driver, we believe, for people who wear lipstick. It needed to be about fashion, about style, about colour. When you preach that good-for-you message too much, it gets perceived as snake oil and people don't buy into it.

If you look at the marketing that Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism does, the way they romance that place, it's like, "Wow, I want to go there." I think that's what Indigena should be doing with this product. This magical, unspoiled place on the edge of the continent – we're mining that and bringing it to you.

If that's what is unique about the product, hone that message and elevate the way you tell it. It's not always words; sometimes it's the pictures that you use. They need to go a level up in brand quality to make that feel much more romantic and believable. I think the tourism commercials are an example of that level; those are beautifully shot films.

Even the quality of their packaging, the container it goes in, they need to take a look at elevating that. Not that it has to be crazy; if you spend maybe a few cents more on one container over another, it can make a big difference.

Lauren Freedman, chief executive officer and president of the strategic planning and marketing company Clé Global Cosmetic Services, New York

Retailers, whether they're digital or brick-and-mortar, are looking for brands that stand out, that have a unique position. Indigena could be that brand. I recommend that they focus inwardly on what makes them so unique and call that out, hammer everybody over the head with it.

Highlight on the website homepage those special ingredients that can be found only in the Newfoundland and Labrador region, things that make it so special that no one else has it, because that will create demand. That will also give them a position of strength where they can go forward and acquire additional distribution that's really meaningful.

They also need to lay out a really clear retail road map, a strategic plan of expansion. I say this with all categories of activity, but specifically with distribution. They need to focus on one market at a time as part of their expansion globally. For instance, if they choose the U.S., they need to focus all their efforts there for a period of time and infiltrate it with all they've got.

They should do it in stages and really work strategically to hit the milestones for each of those markets before they expand to another market. You use the learnings that you've gotten from one market to build on your approach and infiltration of the next.

Kathy Cheng, president, WS & Co., founder of the made-in-Canada clothing manufacturer Redwood Classics Apparel, Toronto

What's really important in marketing is building community. As she builds a community, she should be sharing her story. What is her story? What's her authentic purpose? Why should we join her community? That's not really clear.

I think her website and her marketing could have more visuals. What are some of the plants? Why are these plants good?

There should be more beauty on the Indigena website. If we're talking about the land, I'm not seeing any of that. It shows a picture of the product, which is great, but there's no story behind it. Why should I buy that particular soap versus another natural soap?

Every Friday, we hashtag #FactoryFriday on Twitter and people can see a little bit of our factory. Let it be someone coming to visit; let it be what interesting things we're working on; let it be a snapshot of the cutting or sewing or finishing. You're bringing people in to show them this is what we're all about, and you're telling a story visually. If she's making the products herself, it's even more brilliant. She should talk about how she's doing it – that she's hands-on, she's the founder, she's the product geek, and this is why we should be buying from her.


Show what makes the product unique

Rather than harp on health benefits, make customers fall in love with Indigena's unique home.

Focus on one market at a time

Expanding in stages will help you refine your approach as you go.

Get visual – and personal

Use your website and other marketing channels to tell the founder's story in pictures as well as words.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.