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Queen Bee

Maria Nyline-Asker, president of Ayablu, maker of Burt’s Bees Baby, proves that organic fashion can be authentic, affordable and adorable.

Bringing more than 25 years of product development, operational and merchandising experience to the hive (if you will), Maria Nyline-Asker, president of Ayablu, the infant and children’s product licensee for Burt’s Bees, knew the label would be a natural fit in the children’s market. “An organic brand with a trusted reputation is sure to get Mom’s attention,” Nyline-Asker says, noting that as soon as Clorox acquired Burt’s Bees for $900 million in 2007, the company was looking for possible extensions. “I saw so much potential and was more than ready to take on the challenge,” she adds.

It wasn’t until 2011 that Burt’s Bees inked the deal with Ayablu, and sales took off right out of the gate. Nyline-Asker attributes the success to being bold as well as beholden to a killer brand reputation. “Like all startup businesses, you just have to go for it,” she says, admitting the introductory layette gained initial momentum primarily due to Burt’s Bees’ trusted name and endearing backstory. For those unfamiliar, Burt’s Bees got its start in 1984 when Maine artist Roxanne Quimby found herself thumbing a ride home one afternoon. Eventually, a bright yellow Datsun pickup truck pulled over, and Quimby instantly recognized Burt Shavitz, a local whose beard was almost as well-known as his roadside honey stand. Before long, Quimby was making candles with wax from Shavitz’s beehives. They made $200 at their first craft fair and within a year, they’d made $20,000. It was a New York boutique that fell in love with the artistry of Burt’s Bees candles that triggered the company to start shipping by the hundreds. Two years later, Quimby perfected a recipe she found in a 19th century farmer’s journal, and Burt’s Bees Lip Balm was born—a bestseller to this day. As demand grew, Burt’s Bees moved to bigger quarters, relocating from Maine to North Carolina to focus on the health and beauty care markets. The product line continued to expand, introducing the company’s Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream in 1998, which earned 30 awards including four Allure Best of Beauty wins. In 1999, Burt’s Bees went global, opening offices in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Today, the company’s organic products are stocked in locations spanning gas stations to resort shops. It continues to introduce about 30 new products a year. “Being such a ubiquitous brand, Burt’s can live in all different channels,” says Nyline-Asker, noting that the distribution strategy for Burt’s Bees Baby had also meant casting a wide net at first that includes grocery stores, spas and department stores. “We’ve only recently pulled in the reigns to concentrate on a handful of key partners,” she says, citing Buy Buy Baby, Target and Amazon, as well as a growing partnership with Nordstrom since June. However, the company is also expanding into more children’s specialty boutiques, having exhibited for the first time at Children’s Club in New York this year.

At the August show, Burt’s Bees Baby presented its selection of organic products for babies and kids, including clothing and bedding. Nyline-Asker reports its signature 100-percent organic cotton was admired by buyers for its durable yet gentle hand-feel. “It’s earth-friendly and GOTS-certified to meet the highest global standards for organic textiles—all at an affordable price,” she says, recalling how overwhelming the response was at the show. “At one point, we physically couldn’t fit all the buyers in our booth,” she says, noting that it signed two to three times more accounts than anticipated. “In hindsight, we should have scheduled pre-appointments, as well as splurged on a bigger booth.”

In fact, Nyline-Asker believes Burt’s Bees Baby is just taking flight with plenty more growth to be gained. “We’ve recently invested a lot in expansion internationally with plans to launch in China and Taiwan in Q1 of next year,” she says. “We’re also in talks with several other potential key partners, and I’m excited for more boutique growth nationwide.” The latter expansion, Nyline-Asker believes, synergizes well with the brand’s classic ethos. “It’s always nice to have the opportunity to shop in your own town, which I think people are reverting back to more and more,” she says. “Quite honestly, we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Who’s the quintessential Burt’s Bees Baby customer?

From the very beginning, our mission has been anyone and everyone. There’s always been a premium for organic products, so we want Burt’s Bees Baby to be accessible, not just in terms of price point, but where you can find it.  We have a very unique distribution model, having the ability to be just as popular at Target as with Nordstrom. Of course, we don’t carry the exact same product everywhere. It’s all based on calculated consumer demand, but it’s always backed by the same ethos and integrity. 

How high is the demand for organic clothing these days?

It’s very prevalent. While the majority of our customers are healthy-living advocates and believe in sustainable practices, perhaps one of the biggest compliments comes from moms who have told me, ‘I walked up to the fixture, drawn by the unique and beautiful product, but it wasn’t until I got it home I realized it was organic!’ Part of that story tells me we need to do a better job of marketing, but if the product is purchased purely based on the design aesthetic and price point, well, hooray for us! It’s a win-win.    

What makes your designs different than other organic brands?

Most designs today are done digitally. And while I think the ability to churn out prints and patterns quickly is phenomenal, it misses that artisanal element. Our designers start with an old-school approach, hand-painting every print we introduce.  We’ve become known for our watercolor and drawing techniques.

What inspires each collection?

Our designers travel the world, looking at color, pattern and detail, which ultimately lends to a mood board. We’re always inspired by nature. You’re never going to see trains, planes and automobiles on our product like you would other boys’ clothing. Both our boys’ and girls’ designs revolve around natural beauty, meaning lots of plants, bugs, animals, flowers and trees.

Why else do customers choose Burt’s Bees over other organic options?

Outside of Burt’s Bees Baby, you have two different ‘buckets’ of organic brands. One is the big box brands like Carter’s or Gerber who try to do organic. But that’s hard for them due to the stigma they already have in the marketplace. Many people scratch their head when they see a brand that’s known for conventionally grown cotton or synthetic fiber suddenly doing organic. The other bucket involves small boutique brands that only do organic, but these brands typically have small size runs and higher price points. Burt’s Bees Baby sits right in the middle—easily attainable, authentic and affordable.

How important is brand ethos to customers today?

Very. While it’s so tempting nowadays to plant your kid in front of an iPad or TV, I think parents are reverting back to a simpler life. Think wood toys, classic books, foraging in the outdoors, which lends to our organic, nature-based designs. With a history of being natural, organic and sustainable, we consider our ethos in every decision. Our paper is recycled. The inks are soy-based. The required polybags are recyclable. It’s all part of our cohesive message built on offering organic products produced using sustainable business practices. We are not doing this to be fashionable. It’s who we are.

What’s trending for Spring/Summer 2019?

Sets! We’re producing fewer separates and designing more sets. When a consumer comes in, they’re ready to buy an outfit and don’t need to go through all the hunting and pecking for a matching pant or top. We released gift sets, which have received a tremendous response from parents and gift-givers. Our family jammies are also a bestseller due to the ‘mini me’ craze. We’re looking to keep expanding our lounge program after such a great response.

What’s your best advice for optimizing relationships with your retail partners?

The most important aspect is to listen and learn. While I think email is great, I’m old school and prefer to have face-to-face meetings with our retail partners. Whether it’s at a trade show, flying to Minneapolis to meet Target or flying to Seattle to meet Nordstrom, having those face-to-face meetings builds long-standing rapport. Emails are great for getting the day-to-day stuff done, but meeting, listening and learning from your partners is irreplaceable.

How did the closing of Babies “R” Us impact your business?

We’re okay, but frankly speaking, it’s been tough overall as an industry. In the financial and political climate we’re in, there’s still much uncertainty. There’s talk that the GDP’s growing, but I think people are still conservative in terms of their growth expectations. However, in that last couple of years, we’ve really seen some healthy developments for Burt’s Bees Baby. We started in 2012, and here we are six years later, still thriving even with these setbacks. It helps to have broad experience. Prior to launching Ayablu, I served as  VP of design and merchandising at Joseph Abboud, was a director of licensing for Perry Ellis Intl., I founded ElinOtto, a maternity apparel company, and most recently managed (the kitchen and bath brand) Waterworks through its bankruptcy reorganization.

Any secrets to success in such a difficult retail climate?

Getting smarter and more efficient in how we operate our business. We better understand our relationship with consumers, as well as our wholesale partners. In the early days, we’d test a lot of different products and see what sticks. Now we’ve got things like digital data, history and POS selling to better inform us. It constantly evolves our designs and categories based on what’s selling at retail. Amazon, which generates amazing analytics, is one of our fastest growing partners. Our own website has also experienced significant growth.

Have you received pushback from retailers for selling Amazon and direct-to-consumer?

We’ve had a little pushback from a couple of retailers who said we promote more than they’d like, but unfortunately that’s kind of the environment we’re in today. To be fair, when you look at our competition, I don’t think we promote nearly as much as they do.

What’s your primary source of getting the brand’s message out?

We try to be where parents are, which today means targeting social media channels. We use authentic parents and babies with real stories. Our brand is about celebrating moms and dads, which must be apparent in our marketing. We also just re-launched our blog this year to create a more engaging and informative platform on our site.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the fact that there is still so much to do. The bigger the brand becomes, the better we can become—especially in terms of pricing. My mission is for every parent to be able to buy a beautiful, well-made Burt’s Bees Baby product that’s organic and affordable. It’s only fair. •

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