St-Ives Changes Skin to Stay in the Game, a lesson in Differentiation

St-Ives was probably the first brand of lotion and face scrub I ever used, it’s not surprising because it occupies a lot of shelf space in drugstores so it really goes noticed. A brand owned by the FMCG giant Unilever, St Ives has been in the lotion and facial cleanser game for 30 years, mostly known for its facial apricot scrub, and claims that it uses natural products like green tea and oatmeal to deliver quality products for softer and fresh feel skin.

When a brand has been around for this long, means that it has a winning recipe to stay relevant through the years, but it also means that it needs to navigate through a market shift and new competition. With the relatively recent reshaping of the skincare industry, what are St-Ives’ chances of survival?


Skincare became more than just face cream and lotion. With the power of social media, the whole identity of the industry shifted into lifestyle – taking care of your skin became about taking care of who you are as a person and the effect you have on your environment. It became about empowerment and embracing the unique skin you were born into. The whole approach stopped being about being “pretty”, and more about accepting yourself and respecting the environment. Bloggers and Instagramers started sharing their skincare routines and favorite products – VOGUE even has a whole running segment about celebrities’ morning routines in their bathrooms – this led to new brands popping up redefining the rules of the game, such as Glossier, Herbivore, Make, Milk, Peach & Lily and many more. All those brands share a lot of similarities: an aesthetically pleasing and harmonious Instagram feed, simply designed packaging, focus on natural ingredients and an empowering tone of voice. St-Ives would need to redefine what differentiates it from others so that the brand can stay relevant to their audience.


Differentiating a brand from another is more than just offering the basics, as there’s a fundamental need to go beyond and look for something that is relevant to the target audience. For example, a facial cleanser that removes oil from skin is a given, but a facial cleanser made from natural ingredients and softening power is a step in the right direction to stand out. Differentiation is basically comparing our product or service with others available in the market.

St-Ives would start with its differentiation exercise by taking into consideration:

  • The market where it’s competing
  • Its strengths and competencies
  • Its competitors and collaborators
  • Its target audience

Once the frame of reference is defined, the brand would identify both its POPs and PODs:

  • Points of Parity (POP) with other competitors, as in the minimum attributes needed to comply with, in order to be able to compete in the category. POP does not include the physical attributes of the product, but instead includes the services and intangible characteristics associated with the product, such as:
    • Must-Have Characteristics: following St-Ives’ example, those characteristics would be a safe facial cleanser that smells good and pours easily out of a tube, exactly like every skincare product. These characteristics, albeit not noticed by the consumer, are must-haves for the optimal experience during their skincare routine.
    • Competitive Points of Parity –  defined by the elimination or the decrease of the differences over competitors: When new brands started prioritizing the natural ingredients in their products and the effects it has on the skin, St-Ives needed to be part of the conversation so it would start highlighting the natural ingredients it uses in its products, such as apricot or oatmeal. By identifying the competitive points of parity, St-Ives would gain consumers concerned about the health risks of using a product that is not made out of natural ingredients.
  • Points of difference (POD) is what makes the brand unique about its offering and complies to the wishes of the customer. The POD needs to be selected based on a set criteria relevant from a consumer’s perspective. The objective is to find out an attribute or differential benefit that can set St-Ives apart from the competition. From a customer’s perspective, the PODs need to comply with three record sets:
    • Relevant 
    • Exclusive
    • Trustworthy & Reliable

Differentiation can be reached at different levels, include but not limited to:

  • Product Attributes:
    • characteristics
    • shape
    • packaging
    • components
    • design
  • Associated Services 
    • ease of purchase
    • delivery
    • installation
    • customer support
    • maintenance

It is generally easier to transmit a POD when the benefit fits into the customer’s belief. Companies might choose to concentrate on one or more differential attributes or benefits. In my opinion, St-Ives PODs lie in its distribution channels thanks to their mother company Unilever and its access to shelf space in drugstores, price as it is considered a relatively cheaper version of newer brands and the loyalty some customers have to it as it has been in the market for long and adopted quite a following, one could also say it has become a household name.

I leave you with the final thought that markets are not static, so the frame of reference is subject to change and brands need to review their POP and POD frequently.

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