09 - What’s in your bathroom? ft. Dion Hughes

January 21, 2020

Dion Hughes is the Founder and Creative Director of Persuasion Arts & Sciences and the Co-founder of HiBAR Inc. After a long career as a creative director at some of the world’s top ad agencies, Dion founded creative brand consultancy Persuasion Arts & Sciences, using creativity to help grow businesses such as Apple, Best Buy, and Lowe’s.  In 2018, he applied his problem-solving skills to a challenge of a different kind – plastic waste. The company he co-founded, HiBAR, is a fast-growing brand of salon-quality shampoos and conditioners.  HiBar was honored in the 2019 Fast Company Innovation by Design Awards. Dion is a multiple Adweek All-Star Creative, has dozens of Effie awards for marketing effectiveness, and was featured in the NYTimes bestseller Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath.

Pinar Guvenc  00:00

Hello everyone and welcome to the ninth episode of What's Wrong With: The Podcast. My name is Pinar Guvenc and I'm the managing partner of Eray Carbajo, an award winning Architecture and Design Studio based in New York and Istanbul with a mission of creating concepts that address urban, social and environmental problems. Today we have the pleasure of talking to Dion Hughes. Dion is the founder and creative director of Persuasion Arts and Sciences and the co-founder of HiBAR. After a long career as a creative director as some of the world's top ad agencies, Dion founded creative brand consultancy Persuasion Arts and Sciences using creativity to help grow businesses such as Apple, Best Buy, and Lowe's. In 2018, he applied his problem solving skills to a challenge of a different kind: plastic waste. The company he co-founded, HiBAR, is a fast-growing brand of salon quality shampoos and conditioners that eliminate plastic packaging. HiBAR was honored in the 2019 Fast Company Innovation By Design Awards, Dion is a multiple Adweek All-Star creative, has dozens of awards for marketing effectiveness and was featured in The New York Times bestseller, "Decisive" by Chip and Dan Heath.

Pinar Guvenc  01:17

Dion, welcome. 

Dion Hughes  01:18

Thank you. 

Pinar Guvenc  01:19

It's a pleasure to have you here today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today?

Dion Hughes  01:29

Sure. I'm an advertising guy. I've been a copywriter and a creative director for many, many years, worked on lots of famous brands and written Superbowl commercials and I still run a creative brand consultancy here in Minneapolis. But about four years ago, I was on a family vacation and we rented a property by the beach south of Toluca in Mexico. And it was a private property the beach was a private beach so very privileged and the beach was lovely but where the property line finished, in other words where the caretaker stopped doing his work, the rest of the beach for literally as far as the eye could see was just covered in plastic. And I you know, I, my family had already done a little bit of a job in trying to get rid of plastic and more for I don't know, just the chemical makeup of plastic than anything else, but I was just shocked to to see and to think that maybe that's what the ocean is really all about, that all the beaches are only cleaned because somebody gets up in the morning to clean them. And on getting back to Minneapolis, I happened to be standing in my shower and for as good of a job as my wife and I had done we had not attacked the bathroom and I was just blown away by how much plastic was in in the bathroom in the shower particularly so I actually literally was like well, I'll just go and buy a...there's got to be some good non-plastic shampoos in the world. And I looked around and there honestly weren't that many. The ones that I found I didn't particularly like as far as a brand or even more importantly, just how the product performed. And so I, I started to think about what it would...what sort of product might be able to get rid of plastic. And I happened to kind of network my way around and I happen to have a few friends who are kind of quasi- in the industry, they had a bath bomb company, and I thought maybe they would know some things about making a product. I didn't know anything about any of this stuff. And us, plus another guy who just sold his pet food company got together and decided to start working on this problem together. And yeah, that's how HiBAR- eventually what it was called- that's how it was born.  What a way to like address a problem you're like frustrated at right away. Like, now that you mention it, I'm thinking like, almost all of us are guilty of using so much plastic in the shower, even if we like, try to reuse our ziplocs and are very mindful of like recycling, which I guess is my question like we...I don't know if they usually believe that we can like recycle what we're utilizing in the bathroom. But there are also a lot of conversations around how recycling is not necessarily happening in so many places you think you're recycling but in the end, they all go to the same place. Like have you ever gathered information around this when you were trying to address the packaging issue? Yeah, it's just a very complicated material, plastic. It's actually quite valuable. It's...but the problem with it is that there are so many different types of plastics. The colors, the different chemical formulations, the combinations of layers of different polymers. The fact that most people don't don't clean the plastics. So, you know soiled plastics go into your recycling bin and end up getting rejected by the recycling facilities. Recycling capabilities differ from community to community. It's just very, very complicated. So I think the number bandied about is that 92%...somewhere around there...92% of plastic just does not get recycled. And and that's for the stuff that people are most aware of. So I think if we're in our kitchens and we have an empty plastic container, then we rinse it out, at least that's what I do, and it goes into the recycling bin. So but when you move to the bathroom, that's a that's a different part of your house, a different mindset. And so a lot of the plastics that you use in your bathroom, just end up getting tossed into the gutter. Get rinsed out, they get tossed into a just a I don't know a trash can and probably don't get recycled. So that number is even less for that 92% number is even worse for bathroom products. Oh my god I did not know that it was 92%, that it so sad. And that is for like what you're mentioning, even for the most simplest approach, I guess like the water bottles, right? Like the ingredient is always the same. You don't even necessarily have to rinse it out. And I guess like to that point, even you know it's easy to opt out for an option as you were mentioning that okay, if I'm buying water, I can easily get one that is in a glass bottle and I can reuse it and not aim for the plastic one. Because I know the ingredient in it in the end is water right? But when you're talking about personal care products it is so so tricky because something...there might be some product that is specific that can address that. Your hair issues or skin issues or whatever it is, and you basically settle for whatever packaging they come in with. Right. So how did you address and I'm sure there was a lot of like R+D and user testing that address various type of needs in the shower, particularly for consumers, in order to be able to for people, to say like, okay, they have no packaging, they're plastic free and also I can find something that fits me. Yeah, I think that you...to me, this is a really important piece for HiBAR and for any other...anybody else who's trying to create change, is that when when I was looking around for a product...I mean, I really didn't set out to start a company. I was just looking for a shampoo that had no plastic that still made my hair look okay. And I'm not the, you know, I'm not a glamorous person, I don't concentrate all that much on my hair. But the products that I tried, and I tried, I tried products from all around the world trying to find something that worked. I didn't really...they didn't really work for me. And so bundled into the thinking of this product and the brand is that we can't expect people to change their behavior, i.e. buy a product that doesn't have plastic in it if it means that they're gonna walk out into the world not looking their best. That that's putting the problem back onto people. So we took it as our problem to solve that we need to create a product that performs just as well or better than the products that are in in plastic bottles right now. Just without the plastic. So that's really what we spent most of our time on was creating that product that performed at that level.  Hmm and I guess like, you know, when we look at the brand, it talks about like plastic free, and that was the background story to it. And then obviously, there's a much more higher level focus on the consumer itself because you're trying to find a product that fits them the best. What was some initial feedback you got from users? Like, were they skeptical about it? Like they want to try you because they want to be plastic free? And, but like, were they, you know, questioning? Okay, like, I'm gonna try this because there's no plastic, but I'm not sure it's gonna work. But then, you know, they see it work and then they marry to it, or was it like, adopting the product right away because it just fit their story and it works fine. A bit of both. I mean, we always knew that there would be a certain set of people who would get rid of plastic at almost any cost. So yeah, um, you know, so so we need...we would get a certain percent of those people by creating a nice brand and making a nice product but, but their expectations of how a product performs were less important than just having no plastic. But for us to truly have a proper mass impact, we have to look at the...at the folks who are shopping at some of the bigger retailers in the country. And look at what they're buying and why they're buying it. They're buying it to make them...to have a high performing product,  to have nice hair. So we have to design something and make something for them. Now we got a lot of skepticism, we got a lot of...and this is three or four years ago and I think a lot has changed in terms of awareness of plastic pollution. But when we started it was like oh, and we you know, we shopped this around to all sorts of experts in beauty, in environment and they're all like well, it's a cute idea. Gee, I don't know if the world's ready for it. I don't think that people care. I think you should aim this at guys because guys don't care about how their hair looks as much. I mean, it was just...nobody anywhere said, Wow, that's an awesome idea. You totally should do that. This is what the world needs. Nobody said that. Wow. Which probably made you more passionate about the idea? Well, yes, it did. I mean, there's nothing like hearing that skepticism in the face of what you think is something really important and we always felt that, this is back then again before the plastic pollution, I really feel like plastic awareness of plastic pollution has kind of passed its tipping point in terms of mass-awareness. Before that happened, I just felt like at some point in the future, looking at the pathetic rate of recycling and the increasing amount of plastic that's produced in the world every year, that if, if, if I was becoming aware of it in 2015. And I was not early, you know, there's plenty of, you know, well-known books that were written many years ago about plastic pollution. If I've become aware of it now, and the amount of plastic that is leaking into the ocean is only going to increase over the years. At some point, that awareness is going to tip over. And people are going to realize, they're going to make the connection between their own choices and their own behaviors, and what they're seeing out in the environment and that there will be...then there will be a need for products like ours. So we weren't sure if we were too early. If we were the right people, if we had the right idea. But we knew that it would happen at some point. It wasn't so much a kind of a crystal ball, Nostradamus thing, it was just sort of extrapolating out and going, it's only logical unfortunately, it's a it's a hard logic, it's a harsh logic. It's just gonna happen. And so, let's give it a go. We might be too early, we might fall on our faces. And in 10 years time, we'll see somebody else solve the problem. But let's give it a go. Yeah, and we're not even...you're right. Like, I mean, there's definitely more awareness around it. But we're not even at that tipping point, like so many people. And this also depends on the generation, I guess. But like, I guess, I mean, we've looked into some research where it talks about you know, Gen X actually being very, very responsible about recycling, but maybe you know, Gen Z actually, questions how like, is recycling really efficient like is recycling actually working? Right, because I like we have neighbors who like I see that recycle everything, every single plastic, but I highly doubt that once that goes into the recycling bin, it actually addresses where it should be going. Right like I've heard big institutions whether like schools, colleges, hospitals, putting the recycle bin within just to...as like almost like a marketing angle into their brand like showing people, patients or consumers or students that they're actually like a responsible facility. But in the end, they actually end up throwing it all in trash, it's just for sort of like the storefront of the operation. So I think that that was like really sad to hear. And I don't think that awareness is out there yet either. So many people think they're being responsible by simply recycling and I don't think we're in the mindset of we should actually be eliminating the packaging, plastic packaging all together if we can. That's like sort of my like, overall observation on what's like...how plastic is perceived and how the problem is addressed? I was gonna ask also being a consultant yourself. What do you see in terms of the commercial market? Like how do people perceive like that there is an understanding of problem now. But how do you see that being addressed on a grander level? You know, I haven't really been working on...outside of HiBAR, I haven't worked on anything that really would give me an insight on that. So I don't know. I don't think I have a very good answer. Is there like an overall like overview when you were setting up HiBAR research on the market where you saw like, how are the current brands trying to address this because it's the sake of their own brand too, as Gen X and onwards, they're more aware of the plastic issue. Yeah, I think that there's some, I think that there's little dribs and drabs of innovation. And I think, you know, just my feeling on it is that they haven't gone deep enough into rethinking the entire experience. I mean, the lesson to me out of this was, if you want to get rid of a particular type of packaging, it's not about replacing that packaging with something else you actually have to go...you have to be prepared to look at the entire experience, and be prepared to even reinvent the product from the ground up in order to get rid of that packaging. And, you know, just going back to recycling, you know, I wouldn't want anybody listening to this podcast to think that they should not bother recycling. They should absolutely try to do recycling, but to also know that that's not the end of it at all. That's not an excuse or, or, you know, now, my job is done because I've recycled it's about reducing what you use, it's about buying mindfully. So if there's a choice between a product that's packaged in plastic or not, then pick the one that's not. And those those market forces will eventually add up and force change, much bigger and much bigger change and more interesting innovations from from companies. Yeah, and I guess that we will see, you know, we talked about in one of our early podcasts like how there are almost too many options for consumers out there right and we're bombarded by advertisement nonstop. When we go to a supermarket when we used to have like two options to pick from now we have like a hundred options to pick from and it's already super confusing for everybody, and I think personal care is one of those categories where If I want to go and buy a shampoo, I, I'm almost overwhelmed by the decision that I have to make. But I think as that awareness grows and you realize there is a differentiator, in terms of packaging, or no package at all, I think that sort of almost gives a relief to the consumer, at least on the shopping experience side. Like knowing that they are making a wise choice, right, like I'm thinking, what you're saying in terms of like, both shopping experience, and then the user experience itself. Like, I think having a very strong message and walking the walk by saying like, Oh, it's not, you know, a bottle that is like semi recycled or, you know, what you were saying in terms of like a minimal effort in terms of sustainability in general. It is a very evident product that it's actually you know, it's really addressing it to the core. So that gives the consumer almost an ease of mind on what they're choosing right away and this sort of, to me it's like, I don't know if we're at that tipping point yet but almost a no brainer of like which product are choosing, no? Unless you have a serious, you know, I don't know maybe a health condition or a very specific type of hair that you're weary about changing your shampoo. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it's true. The, I mean, right now the choice is pretty simple. If you do have a choice. And non-plastic shampoos are barely even visible in the world. There aren't that many brands still. And if you are fortunate enough to have that option on your local supermarket or drug store, whatever, shelf, then that's an easy choice. Our prediction is that, if we're if we're right that that aisle that you see right now, let's say at your local Target or your local Kroger's or whatever, that is currently, I don't know 200 brands of different hair products all in plastic bottles. Yeah. That 20 years from now, it'll be the same aisle and the same number of brands only none of them will be in plastic bottles. Right? That's what it should be. And you know, there are so many different ways of thinking about haircare, brands that appeal product formulations, specialty. There's a lot of different stuff, a lot of different innovations. So we're really in the early days of creating a great product. That can hit as many people as possible, work for as many people as possible and just remove the plastic. And then wander around target and look at all the other product categories that use plastic and our, you know and and can possibly be reinvented. I mean really truly, that's that's the sort of stuff that's going to have to happen. Yeah. And it's interesting because, you know, I guess similar to policy you know, corporations also always lag. I mean, they're very proactive if they see a demand in the market but in terms of leading the market on how things should be they're very pretty much lagging. And I don't know if you ever got this feedback, but you know, having known if you, you know, mentors or incubators or venture capitals, they usually like when somebody is trying to get into personal care business they....Well, you already like said like heard a lot that that's never going to work. But they also get a lot of advice on like, Well, I mean, you may not be able to survive, because you cannot be like such and such Corporation like, because there's these, like conglomerates. So basically, if we see 200 brands of hair products out there, they probably own a hundred of them right? And they know the pulse of the market really well. And if they don't see that there is a huge demand from the consumer end, they're not going to push it even if they have the bandwidth and financial means in order to do that r&d. I mean, you did it as a startup. And if they don't do it, I think it's really hard to you know, see the point where you were talking about like 20 years from now we're gonna see hair products with no packaging whatsoever. Do you think it's the case? Like do you also think they, the bigger brands, actually wait around for the consumer demand to kick in and then act, or there's a shift in how business is done and they are realizing in order to remain relevant, they actually need to up their game? Well they do need to up their game, the world will happen to them. The rate of plastic leaking into the ocean is increasing every year. And that and so, you know, they're going to be you will already see a lot of pressure on companies like Coca Cola named as you know, the most prolific plastic polluter and, you know, so that's gonna, that's just going to get worse and worse for them. And so there's a part of it that is about selling product and, and making profits for your shareholders and you're board and all the rest of it. There's also the corporate citizen aspect. And then like you say there's this, the the young folk coming in who are...or you know, going out of their way to choose products that fit more how they see the world and what they see the future being like. But in terms of...in terms of innovation, though, it's interesting. It's big companies are far better placed to innovate. They have all the resources, all of the knowledge, but they also have a lot of bureaucracy that just comes with with the territory, and they have a lot of expectations on how a product performs sales wise. So it's diff...it's, even though they've got all the capabilities, they also have some built in difficulties in bringing new ideas to market. They would not be, there's no big company in the world that would be happy with what our sales are. Like, if we were, if we were that big company, they'd be going, this thing's a failure. It's a flop. This is going to take too long, blah, blah, blah, us, just a small, you know, four partners, 12 employees. A little over a year old. We're thrilled. And, are we making tons of money? No, but we're, we're putting it all back into the business and we really think we're onto something. And so, you know, for us, the innovation is exciting and success looked at from inside of a big corporation. It might be like, Oh, that's cute, but it's kind of a failure. Let's close that little...let's close that team down and redeploy them onto something else.

Pinar Guvenc  25:45

Right, right, right. Yeah, that's, that's the only like, frustrating part to know or observe, you know, in the end, I think we're going to come to the point where because of our the Gen Z and the younger generations following, their higher demand from brands and holding them accountable to what they do, we're gonna see smaller companies thrive more like companies that are actually authorities in their own niche, and especially addressing environmental or social problems. And when we get there, and as big corporations see that they would put their act together or they will buy up the smaller companies, which generally ends up happening. But it's frustrating to know that the organizations that have the most means to make this happen, are so driven by profit and pleasing shareholders and whatnot, is that we're so so delayed on where we should be. And I think like tying back to how like something happening through policy or a corporation's new agenda, but also, going back to what you mentioned in terms of experience. I think eliminating straws was a great case example. Right? And we heard like big, like corporate chains announcing that they're going to eliminate straws. And like plastic straws by 2020. There was some policy around that in some states. But in terms of experience, and this is actually a recent conversation we had is that, when doing so it was a great environmental act, right. However, not considerate of people with disabilities or aging who actually do need a straw in order to drink or consume something. So some, you know, some adapted by placing paper straws or metal straws which, to the point, to experience is a terrible experience. The paper straw melts in the midway of when you're drinking and the metal straw leaves a terrible aftertaste. So they actually address the problem, which is great. And I'm very supportive of, however, because they didn't do it in a collaborative way, they actually didn't consider the full experience, user experience of it, in order to be able to address everyone. So what do you think in terms of that, like, how do you think we can have more, I guess, solutions that can address all or help all without changing or diminishing the experience of using that product?

Dion Hughes  28:43

Well, it's interesting because we get a lot of, you know, we get a lot of feedback on social media, from customers or would-be customers asking us about formulations and ingredients and you know how we package and how we ship and where we source from and, and, and I always have to say to people that we're not perfect. We're, you know, we have, we, we think we've done a really good job of getting rid of plastic in the packaging. And, you know, when you walk into that, when you say, "look, this is a product that is that is seeking to make a positive environmental impact, it's a more mindful product", then you open the conversation to being mindful about everything. And, and, you know, plastic is our number one concern, but we know that with that territory comes expectations around a whole bunch of other stuff. And we've put most of our attention into the plastic and then the performance of the product. And all I would say is that, you know, we're gonna, we're gonna keep on trying to make our product more perfect. Perform even better, have better ingredients. I mean, the truth is that we're in the early days of formulating a really great- 'we' I mean society, you know the world- in formulating a non-plastic product. You think about the amount of competition that there is to create ingredients for all of the hundreds and hundreds, thousands of brands of liquid shampoo, versus the companies that make ingredients that are appropriate for a solid shampoo. There's very little to choose from, we've really had to piece this together and do a lot of innovation on our own on our own. Now, you know, we will keep on improving, but any gaps that we have, are opportunities for other people to come in and make a better product. And I'd encourage people to do that. Like if you think that, you know, it sucks that we have honey in one of our bars, so we're not 100% vegan, then then come up with with, you know, go go into your basement and invent a totally vegan plastic-free salon-quality shampoo. I just, you know, so if people have a problem with paper straws or metal straws, then come up with a better straw. Right? It's an opportunity, every problem...so but they're, but they're kind of sequential problem solving. So great, we got rid of plastic straws, you know, that made probably a small, a small dent. I think it was actually...I agree with you, I thought it was great because it raised the issue and just puts it onto everybody's radar a little bit. In practical matters, the amount of plastic, you know, negligible. A kind of insidious, bad plastic but still, but Okay, so now we've got you know, there are people who do need to use straws, the metal straws the paper straws maybe are not performing as well as the plastic ones, so let's keep on coming up with solutions to that problem. At least we're not dealing with plastic waste anymore.

Pinar Guvenc  32:06

Yeah, yeah, I agree. I agree, I guess like a mindset of like being open to innovating non-stop. I mean, you as a younger firm, you're already like, this is your first prototype. And I think it's great that, you know, you're actually listening now to your customers and their feedback, because that is...whether that's a you know, great feedback or a complaint that is a means for you to, you know, adapt or change or either innovate in what you do. And it is basically almost like, co-creation way of like, with your users, I mean, they're not directly participating in the production of it, but their feedback is, you know, getting you 50% ahead on how you should better your product for the next round. As a progress maker in an industry that is viciously competitive, what would be your advice to other progress makers, whether they're in personal care industry or something else?

Dion Hughes  33:09

Well, I you know, I think that I would say that if it's progress, then it's also threatening to people and, and may end alien somehow. That's the sense that I got from our early conversations was that people, the industry experts that we were seeking advice from, almost a part of their expertise was getting in the way of them seeing what was possible. You know, that we're seeing that we're seeing the world through their expert lens as it exists right now. And we're not able to see the problem and that this is a potential solution. So I was heartened by our own convictions. Taking the best of those conversations from experts because they do have a lot of good stuff. But there also, it also makes you kind of focus on what you really truly believe in, and never ever losing that. So, you know, my advice to people since I've, you know, I've been lucky to have these conversations with folks it that, you know, really focus on that thing that you think is wrong in the world. And what your idea on how to solve that is, and then listen to the experts, but but at the same time, don't listen to them, because they're going to tell you that it's not gonna work. Right? Otherwise they'd be doing it. And they're not doing it. So that's the...that's the nature of new ideas and, and then the nature of new ideas is that they exist in your head in a perfect, beautiful way. And nobody else can see that. Nobody else can see what you're thinking until it actually happens. And then they go, Oh, yeah, that's...I always thought that was a great idea. That's literally what has happened with this. 

Pinar Guvenc  35:00

Right, right and then you see the bigger brands and corporates follow. Yeah. That was great. Um, anything you'd like to add on that you feel like you have an address?

Dion Hughes  35:14

Um, I think we touched upon this, about...the product design and the brand design of HiBAR i think is...I think you look at the whole problem and you go Okay, there's, it's just a systemic problem like the retail has put plastic products on shelves, because that's most convenient. Plastic is cheap and durable. So that's what happens. So the products can exist in a particular form and so hundreds of thousands of companies build up around all of that. So recycling companies and trash companies and and freight systems and packaging and manufacturing systems...think of all of the, all of the businesses that feed into that. And so you have to, we've had to step back from all of that and reinvent as much as we can. And we've still got a long way to go, you know, in terms of how we source our ingredients, what packaging the ingredients themselves come in, you know, you quickly realize that the problem is everywhere. So hopefully, with a successful business, hopefully we get to be more successful. Hopefully other people will either be inspired by us or copy us or look in a different category and do what we're doing that that system will slowly change and, and there'll be people who there'll be companies invented to answer our own business needs.

Pinar Guvenc  36:51

Right, right. And I guess this ties into you know, giving an advice to just because the problem is systemic and it's much bigger than your own product doesn't mean you can't start somewhere. Right? 

Dion Hughes  37:04

Like, you got to stop somewhere. Yeah. And you did it in the most elegant way. We hope so.

Pinar Guvenc  37:11

Well, thank you so much, Dion. This was great. Thank you for joining us today.

Dion Hughes  37:16

Yeah, thank you very much.

Pinar Guvenc  37:19

Thank you for listening to our podcast. Tune in next week when we sit down with Evren Uzer, assistant professor of urban planning in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons School of Design. Evren is an urban planner and practitioner working on community-led housing processes, civic engagement and critical heritage studies, activism and interventions in the public space. For more information on our events and podcasts, visit us at whatswrongwith.xyz.

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