In the mid-1980s, John Sebastian Cusenza, founder and president of the hair-care and cosmetics company Sebastian International Inc., abandoned several of his products that contained harmful or polluting ingredients such as ammonia.
Instead, he started marketing products that were more environmentally sensitive. He chose the Rainforest Foundation--a high-profile charity that fights the destruction of the Amazon rain forest--to be a symbol of Sebastian International's new "green" image.
The make-over was a success. Sebastian's annual sales have doubled since 1985 to more than $100 million, according to Cusenza. Based in Woodland Hills, the company markets its shampoos, conditioners and other hair-care products directly to about 6,000 salons in this country and sells overseas through salons in 34 countries, including France, Japan and Italy.
Part of the company's strategy is to tie its product sales to social issues and encourage customers to donate to a variety of causes.
"We are involved in social issues as a brand new way to do marketing," said Cusenza. "The business, the salon and the consumer can all benefit from helping someone less fortunate."
Suzanne Grayson, a cosmetics industry marketing consultant in Santa Barbara, says that Sebastian and rivals Aveda and John Paul Mitchell Systems are the dominant hair-care products sold only to salons, and each has succeeded by marketing environmentally sensitive products.
"The main issue concerning these companies now is how to grow beyond" their current size, Grayson said, "because of the limitations of their distribution channels." Since Sebastian sells only to hair salons, she says, the company can only grow by creating new hair-care lines or by changing its strategy and selling directly to retailers, which means trying to elbow the likes of Procter & Gamble products for shelf space.
But Cusenza thinks the firm can still grow within the salons. He decided long ago to not sell to retailers, unlike Vidal Sassoon, and says he will not change his strategy.
Because there are only three or four main brands competing in a hair salon, said the 54-year-old former hairdresser, Sebastian products are likely to be highly visible. Also, Cusenza said, hairdressers know what they are talking about and can get the ideas across about what's new in Sebastian products.
Those products are not organic, but they contain many plant extracts, such as aloe vera gel, chamomile and witch hazel. The company contends they are all non-polluting and not harmful in any way.
Cusenza said he is happy with where the company is right now, and he wants to see how far it can grow by relying on new marketing concepts.
One of those ideas is a charitable promotion he set up last year called Club UNITE, for Unity Now Is a Tomorrow for Everyone. The organization steers customer donations to seven charities, including the Rainforest Foundation, Operation Home Shield (which helps the homeless), the Design Industry Foundation for AIDS and the American Indian Children's Education Fund. Hair salon customers who donate at least $10 to one of the seven groups are given $16 worth of Sebastian items plus discount coupons for other Sebastian products.
And the rain forest continues to be a symbol for the company. Last year, Cusenza said, Sebastian gave $250,000 to the Rainforest Foundation, and there is a small rain forest-like area of plants and water set up within the firm's headquarters.
Susan and Phillip Curtis are owners of the Susan Alan salon in Northridge. They carry various brands, including Redken and Paul Mitchell, but said that 50% to 70% of their sales are Sebastian products. Their salon also hosts the largest Club UNITE in the country, with more than 575 memberships. About 25% of their clients have donated to one of the charities. Clients at the salon spend an average of $35 to $40 on hair treatments as well.
Customer Marsha Accomazzo is a Club UNITE member and has given money to fight child abuse and to the American Indian charity.
"I don't know if it makes me more loyal to the brand, but it makes me feel good," she said.
However, at Greca, a Sherman Oaks salon that sells Sebastian products, manager Maria Vivar said the only people she knows who are aware of Sebastian's Club UNITE are her colleagues.
"What customers care about is the classy image and that there are no harmful ingredients in the products," Vivar said.
Yet another Cusenza marketing ploy is a Little Green contest for children he began two years ago. Children go to a salon that sells Sebastian products and enter one of their environmental drawings. Each year a winner is chosen, and the child gets a $5,000 savings bond and a trip to the Amazon rain forest.
To extend the motif further, Cusenza launched yet another marketing tool called Localized Interactive Foundation Involvement, in which a Sebastian distributor picks a local cause and the company donates part of the profits from the sale of selected Sebastian items at that salon.
"It's a very good idea," consultant Grayson said. "After a while the brand gets a very favorable aura, and it relieves people from feeling they're not doing enough."
While granting that the charities are likely to help build loyalty to the brand and the salons selling it, Mary Atherton, editor of the trade magazine Modern Salon, believes Sebastian is still primarily recognized for its high-fashion, avant-garde image.
"They are an innovative, lively company," she said.
Even John Paul De Joria, president of John Paul Mitchell Systems, a Beverly Hills-based hair-care company and a Sebastian competitor, said: "They have done an excellent job with the Rainforest Foundation. At Paul Mitchell, we were first committed to local environmental causes and communities. But I am delighted other people are joining the bandwagon."
Although Cusenza is now successful, his career didn't start in high gear. Born in Tunisia, he moved to the U.S. as a teen-ager, later becoming a hairdresser and partner in a beauty school. In 1971 that company went bankrupt and the failure wiped out his savings. He went back to hairdressing, saved $3,000 and bought a salon. In 1973 Cusenza started Sebastian with his wife, Geri, and his brother Tony.
His wife is now the company's creative director, and Tony is vice president for marketing. Cusenza's brother Jimmy joined the company and is vice president for international sales. Jimmy also helped inspire the rain forest marketing idea based on his Peace Corps work in Brazil during the 1960s. John Cusenza himself visited the Amazon in 1970.
For Sebastian to keep growing, Cusenza knows it must keep creating new products, and even he concedes that making the green movement a marketing ploy is becoming passe.
Geri says the next trend will be using less abrasive chemicals to color the hair. Years ago Sebastian did away with harsh coloring ingredients, including some dyes and stripping agents, in part because there had been a cancer scare related to hair dyes.
One of the company's new products is a coloring solution that lightens or subtly emphasizes colors already in the hair, rather than using hard-core bleaching.
"In the mid-'90s," said Geri Cusenza, "we are going to have the biggest youth movement since the '60s, and you better learn their language."