On Instagram, the hottest brands are always eager to flaunt their outrageously cool founders. You've got Fenty Beauty, with superstar Rihanna regularly blending and buffing on shimmery new highlighters and body bronzers. You've got Kylie Cosmetics, with the youngest Jenner routinely swatching her bright and creamy Lip Kits onto her arm for her 112 million followers to see. And you've got Glossier, with Emily Weiss giving fans a peek into those millennial pink-coated offices every other hour.
And then there's Supergoop, with its SPF products like the Instagram-worthy Glow Stick that influencers can't shut up about. It's got a founder that's decidedly not an internationally-known 20-something, nor a former Vogue intern. She is Holly Thaggard, a cheery former third grade teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and two children.
The unlikely story of a former grade school teacher launching a hip and trendy, millennial and Gen Z-focused sunscreen company begins with as earnest a mission as you can imagine: She just wanted people to wear more sunscreen.
"After a friend was diagnosed with skin cancer, I immediately started thinking back to my time in the classroom when I was working as a third-grade teacher," Thaggard says. "There was never any sunscreen around. Now it’s like, Gosh we're outside all the time! This was in Texas! They were out in P.E. for hours!"
Why wasn't wearing sunscreen a more pressing topic of conversation in 2008? Thaggard did a little research, and found that the number one reason people didn't wear it regularly is because they didn't like how it felt on their skin. So she got to thinking: In order to change how people thought about sunscreen, Thaggard had to, well, change sunscreen.
She started working on her first formula: the Everyday Sunscreen, a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50 that remains popular to this day. As she considered her mission of getting as much sunscreen onto as many people as possible — especially kids — a lightbulb went off. Why don't I just deliver this sunscreen directly into schools across America? she thought. But then came the major hiccup: Sunscreen was classified as an over-the-counter drug in 2008, and SPF wasn't actually allowed on public school campuses. Back then, the only state in the U.S. that even permitted sunscreen at school without a doctor’s note was California. (By 2018, nine more states joined California, but it is still banned in the majority of U.S. schools without special permission.)
Thaggard started to work with private schools, which didn't have to abide by those regulations, but found the process to be incredibly slow. So she threw out that business plan and steered the company into the retail world, which she quickly learned to navigate herself. After making friends with a few retailers like Sephora, Thaggard and her team of nine chemists got to work yet again, creating products like a CC cream, a lip balm, a lip and cheek tint, a mousse, a lip gloss, a setting powder, and a self-tanner all packed with SPF.
While plenty of beauty brands are now jumping on the innovation train, launching sunscreens with new scents and gimmicks like glitter, Supergoop has managed to stay at the forefront after more than 10 years of production. "Our entire product lineup is built off of the question, How can we do SPF in a way that hasn’t been done before?" Thaggard says.
But Supergoop is still an indie brand, with fewer than 40 employees working across offices in San Antonio and New York — so how did it become so incredibly popular among millennial and Gen Z consumers? Rather than spending its resources trying to pull in audiences with print or TV ads, the brand looked to where its young customers already were, and met them there with strong influencer relationships and social media targeting. In a time when most sunscreen brands were talking down to their customers like an old stuffy dermatologist in a lab coat, Supergoop was the cool friend whose sunscreen you wanted to borrow at the beach.
Building on that peer-like relationship, Supergoop rolled out text message subscriptions last year, which allows its fan to get updates from the brand right on their phone. The idea came after the mobile messaging company OpenMarket reported that millennials prefer texting with businesses because it provides convenience and speed. As of last week, mobile messaging was one of Supergoop's top three marketing channels, along with organic and paid social media and influencers.
Supergoop also reached a larger audience by making sunscreen for a larger audience — a concept that was surprisingly lost on many brands until recently. In a pre-Fenty era, when the majority of sunscreen brands had an outdated view of who their customers were (as in: pale people only), Supergoop filled a gap in the market and created an array of gels and creams that didn't appear white or grey on darker skin tones. According to blogger Nyma Tang, who told us that Supergoop's Unseen Sunscreen primer is one of her favorites, that matters. "They think that since you have melanin in your skin, that's all the defense you need," Tang says. "It's like, God made us this way for a reason so we already have fighting mechanisms in our skin against the sun. No, you still have to protect yourself."
That inclusive message is something this generation demands from brands, and it was a no-brainer from the beginning for Thaggard. "I have absolutely always thought about our product line being widely accessible. Regardless of your skin tone or type, skin cancer is an epidemic," Thaggard says. "In my research, I've found that people with darker skin can feel like they don't need sun protection just because of false marketing. Black skin has a built-in SPF, but it's not substantial, and so it’s really important to create good products that blend in easily."
Supergoop's latest 100% Mineral Matte Screen, which hit Sephora on August 1, comes in one universal tint that blends into any skin tone, light or dark. The launch comes after the success of both the Unseen Sunscreen and Glow Stick this year, both of which are also invisible on all skin tones and have earned the brand lots of praise and attention on social media. (The Glow Stick repeatedly sold out at Sephora.)
Timing has also been on Supergoop's side. It was just 2014 when the U.S. Surgeon General declared skin cancer an epidemic, and since then the SPF industry has seen significant growth both in the U.S. and abroad. According to a 2018 report, the global sun-care business is expected to climb from $15.83 billion to $24.91 billion by 2024.
But amidst all its success, Thaggard hasn't lost sight of her brand's original mission. In 2017, in partnership with Sephora, it launched Ounce By Ounce, a program to put sunscreen into schools across America, with a goal of getting it into 1,000 classrooms this year.
"We built our brand over the last decade to really bring awareness to consumers," Thaggard says. "We've got the best team in the business, and finally we're in a time when people are just as passionate about sunscreen as us."