Slope Interview Series: Laurent Combredet, Senté
For people that don’t know you, talk briefly about your background. How did you wind up at Senté?
My background is primarily in consumer marketing. Before Senté, I worked in marketing management positions at large consumer and retail companies such as Johnson and Johnson (J&J), Clairol, Gap, and Amazon. Throughout my career, I’ve spent lots of time advertising well-known brands directly to consumers. I’ve also helped launch over 100 skincare products, including products geared towards teens, towards males, anti-aging products, sun care products, and more.
After spending time in the US working at various companies, I moved to France to manage J&J’s skincare business. After about 3 years, I joined Amazon’s French affiliate in Paris. Back in 2012, people primarily knew Amazon as the place to buy books, videos, and things like that. The company was only just exploring consumer goods, so I joined to manage their expanding health and beauty franchise. Working at a fast-growing tech company was almost like getting my second MBA—I really enjoyed my time there, and our team grew from around 4 people to over 30 by the time I left.
After Amazon, I joined Allergan Aesthetics to run SkinMedica, which markets medical-grade skin care products directly to physicians. A former J&J colleague of mine had become President of Allergan Aesthetics, and he told me that physician-dispensed products were the next big thing in skincare. Those brands communicate in a way that’s almost like a pharma-sell, and there’s an emphasis on more potent, active, penetrating ingredients.
After a couple of years at Allergan, I realized I wanted to return to the startup environment. I’m the sort of person who you use to “take the beach,” and I wanted to get back to doing that. Around that time I was introduced to the chairman of Senté. I looked for emerging companies in the physician-dispensed skin care space given how dynamic it is. I hadn’t heard much about Senté, but I found out they were a promising skin care start-up company based in Carlsbad, founded by biotech executives and scientists.
Senté had just introduced a small line of skin care products formulated with proprietary technology, but the company had very limited retail or commercial experience. I joined the company to scale the business, by educating physicians on the unique benefits of our technology.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact Senté?
When I started at Senté, we were a physician-exclusive business, and we were doing well. Then the pandemic hit, and our revenue sharply declined as practices shut down. We hadn’t yet developed the ability to sell online. That was because we believed that not selling online benefited physicians—patients would return to the doctor’s office to buy Senté, thus giving doctors repeat business.
To survive the pandemic, we completely reconsidered our strategy. Additionally, our physicians told us that they could only do so much to build customer awareness about Senté. They needed to consult patients, perform procedures, and manage the office. Plugging Senté wasn’t always top-of-mind. And because we didn’t market directly to the consumer at that point, we generated very little brand awareness. Personally, this realization hit home: to grow the brand, we needed to target consumers directly. And, I thought, COVID presented the perfect time to test a more direct-to-consumer strategy.
With this in mind, we created our own website, began selling products, and gained decent traction. We decided to build our brand identity, educate consumers about Senté’s benefits, and give them the option to either purchase directly through us or through their physicians.
We started creating what I call the “flywheel effect”—a positive customer experience leading to strong engagement that benefits everyone. As we raise awareness about Senté, we create value for physicians because people ask about Senté when they come in for a procedure. Ultimately, we want to provide additional features that explain why going to see an actual doctor is a much different Senté experience than just buying online.
All that to say: one of the biggest ways COVID impacted our business was by flipping our marketing model on its head. We started focusing on building awareness around Senté’s products and creating a strong brand identity.
How did you work through Senté’s brand positioning and identity?
We used to think first and foremost about our physician partners. Now we also need to think about the needs of our actual consumers.
As we started the branding process, we prioritized consumer research; we started asking our consumers about their needs and about how we fit into their lives.
We began testing different product and messaging ideas. We wanted to land on a message that would resonate with our audience and that we could build on. To get there, we sought direct input from the consumer.
This shift helped us think more about Senté’s core purpose: what’s our mission? How do we fit into the world?
Slope was the first agency to help us pinpoint the emotional connection between our brand and our customers. We wanted to work through the branding process from the ground up and think critically about how we’d embed a strong purpose into our messaging. Working with Jeffrey and the team at Slope really helped us clarify our starting questions. Skincare is a cluttered marketplace, there’s tons of brands, and consumers have minimal time—so we needed to decide who we wanted to help and why.
As we continued listening to our customers, we realized that one of our key differentiators is that we help people prone to sensitive skin and irritation. They often struggle with redness, dryness, or other discomfort with their skin. Once we focused on that market segment, we determined what is an emotional “win” for them. We learned that a “win” boils down to using a skincare product and not irritating their skin. Their world starts there.
For instance: we’re on Zoom right now, and if you had rosacea, you’d turn your video off. It’s a painful condition to see. But if you had a product that could help improve or maintain your skin while you take your rosacea medication, then that’s a win! You’d probably even turn your video on!
That became our focus: giving people the ability and the freedom to “show up as who they want to be,” to not feel constrained in terms of how they express themselves. What’s great about that focus is that it's a clear direction to guide us as we keep innovating! The cool thing is that our proprietary technology can really help people with very sensitive skin.
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered when thinking about Senté as a brand?
One of our biggest challenges during the re-branding process was figuring out if our new brand strategy would resonate with everyone inside the company.
Whenever you make a choice, you give something up—in our case, our new brand identity forced us to shed much of our old messaging. Personally, I wanted to know whether the people within our company would embrace our new direction.
After we re-branded and launched our new website, people within the company really felt relieved. Everyone breathed much better because they could understand what we stood for and our purpose in the world.
In fact, after we launched our new website, I emailed the team and asked for feedback. The responses I received were all about how the site made people feel. I appreciated that response because it showed that our team embraced our company’s core purpose and that they bought into the journey.
How did you think through the imagery used on Senté’s site?
In terms of imagery, one of our guiding principles was making an intentional pivot to cultivate a direct relationship with our consumers.
We had two big concerns regarding imagery.
First: most physician-dispensed skin care brands tend to look and feel the same. They look clinical and serious and dress themselves in a white lab coat.
Second: many of these brands also promote complex scientific messaging, which can be intimidating to the consumer. They come across as prescriptive, which can be intimidating to the consumer.
We realized these two problems, so we wanted to make Senté feel approachable, relatable, and to inject a healthy dose of empathy into our brand. We also wanted to give Jeffrey and the Slope design team lots of freedom to come up with a wide spectrum of options.
This touches on a larger point, something I learned while working for Gap. Even though I only spent a little under 2 years with Gap, I learned something vital about developing strong creative, which is not to smother the creative process with too much direction and input. During strategy sessions, the room is usually packed with executives who give the creatives numerous requirements—there’s very specific guidelines, a super dense design brief, etc. So between the client and the account team, creatives receive so many directions that they often resort to creating something they know the team will like. They don’t feel free to really push boundaries or take risks.
At Gap, this wasn’t the case—the creative team was king. The Gap executives gave the creatives as much time as they needed to come back with something bold and cutting edge. The creative team thrived off this freedom, and that’s what helped them create breakthrough campaigns for Gap.
I have since learned to give creatives breathing space, let them own the message, and encourage them to challenge your thinking. After all, you’re not paying them to just take your strategy and parrot it back to you. You want them to drive a conversation about different options, no matter how unlikely those options might seem.
That’s how we approached our work with Jeffrey’s team at Slope, and I know it paid off!
What design trends do you see in the skincare industry?
Digitally native brands have a distinct look and feel.
Less is more, there’s real simplicity, and they present a friendly, approachable tone that breaks down barriers. I think that trend is impacting corporate brands who advertise through more traditional channels and who’ve traditionally relied on a more structured way of communicating.
There’s also a move towards transparency.
Many skincare brands now focus on telling you what’s in the product, on answering questions directly, and on presenting all the facts. Communication is also much more direct. In the past, brands would send out a survey, distill the main points, and then bombard the customer with a message until they relented and bought the product. That process is changing. It’s not about inundating your target customer with display ads—it’s about leveraging social media, blogs, online groups, forums, etc. so that you wind up almost co-developing your brand message and identity alongside your users.
What was the inspiration behind the name Senté?
The founders of the company are Greek, and the Greek word “senté” means “the path,” as in “the path to skin health.”
Where do you see Senté going in the future? How do you see the brand evolving over time?
First, we haven’t forgotten about our roots as a physician-dispensed line. We want to give people new and exciting options to experience Senté with a physician. We’re focused on creating that 360˚ feedback loop where you can experience Senté products and services online and at your local physician’s office.
I’m super excited about our future! Right now, we’re in an interesting place because we’re still early in our online journey. We’re seeing very positive signs after our re-brand, we’ve adopted a strong consumer message that’s grounded in our physician heritage and relationships, and we know these changes will help propel Senté forward.
We’re also investing in more content creation. Our job is to educate people. Our audience wants to know how to avoid problems like flare-ups, so we’re starting to focus our content on physician insights and tips that can help consumers find the right solutions to their problems.