“When you look internally and hyperfocus on what really matters — ignore all the external noise — you can build a meaningful business,” said Heela Yang, chief executive officer and cofounder of Sol de Janeiro.
She should know. By doing just that, Yang has catapulted her brand into superstar sales status.
Yang first had the idea for Sol de Janeiro shortly after moving to Rio de Janeiro. While on a Brazilian beach during her pregnancy, she noticed everyone around her — women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ethnicities — “all wearing tiny little bikinis and having the best time of their lives,” said Yang. They were celebrating who they are, and the here and now.
People mixed body oil with sand to use as exfoliators, before jumping into the sea.
“They were loving themselves head to toe,” cellulite and wrinkles included, said Yang.
“I became absolutely obsessed with this feeling of liberation, freedom and nonjudgment,” she continued. “I thought: ‘I’ve got to spread this message.’ That’s how it all began.”
Yang and her team spent six months crafting a brand mission statement, personality and identity.
“Sol de Janeiro exists to spark endless self-celebration and joy through the power and warmth of Brazilian spirit,” said Yang.
There was much brainstorming and many debates. Yang and her colleagues created a woman, asking themselves who she was, how she walked, smelled, hugged and smiled.
“She doesn’t just walk — she saunters,” said Yang. “She sways. We never defined how she looks. It was all about her attitude.”
Next up was deciding which product and category would help amplify and spread the message. They opted for body care.
“What is Brazilians’ favorite body part? It’s unanimous — [Brazil] is the only country that has a bum-bum contest,” she said.
That led to the creation of Sol de Janeiro’s now iconic Brazilian Bum Bum Cream.
Yang encountered a lot of “no’s” in developing the product — from the nixing of its bright yellow packaging to the words “bum bum” appearing in a premium product name — but moved forward with her ideas anyway.
“We had the courage that was rooted in the foundation of the brand that we had articulated,” said Yang. “It was like a bible.”
Each time executives asked themselves if something is true to the brand.
“Then when the answer was ‘yes,’ we had the courage to make those bold decisions,” said Yang.
During product development, more than 100 ingredients were identified to exclude, a touch of light-reflecting shimmer was added and the texture was worked.
“A lot of people said: ‘Your fragrance is too sweet,’” said Yang. “Your fragrance is way too strong for a body cream.”
Yet Sol de Janeiro is meant to be delicious, so she added 3 percent fragrance to the formula. Fragrance supplier Robertet took a bet on the product, collaborating on it for free, and the brand is now among its largest clients. So did Sephora, where in 2016 the Bum Bum Cream became the number-one skin care product after three months.
“Since then, with this dynamic relationship and partnership, we were able to take this brand from a Bum Bum brand to the Sol de Janeiro brand,” said Yang. “That was an incredible journey.”
A fragrance mist was created from the Bum Bum cream’s scent, for example.
Sol de Janeiro, which was acquired by L’Occitane in November 2021, is expected in 2023 to generate global retail sales of $650 million, of which $475 million should come from North America. The brand has about 30 retailers, 30 products in three categories and 145 people on staff.
“You can grow a meaningful business with just one hero product,” said Yang.
She added: “We are blessed with this fun, playful lifestyle brand that can extend across many categories,” she said. “We can really have fun. The sky’s the limit.
“My dream is to become a global, multibillion-dollar brand with a cult following,” said Yang. “I’m here for the long haul.”