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Bacteria in a Bottle: Commercialising a Field in Development

Probiotic spray for the skin microbiome

The consumer products industry is built on well-established pillars. It’s a creative and dynamic industry with a clear playbook. While launching a brand or product is not trivial, this general rinse-repeat (pun intended) formula that the market leaders are able to leverage is a big part of why the consumer products industry among the largest on the planet and has continued to grow.

The rapidly growing field of the skin microbiome presents a fascinating new chapter for the consumer products industry. It stands to challenge some of its pillars, and potentially disrupt them significantly. The mere premise of the skin microbiome, the actual need for live bacteria, challenges everything from manufacturing and raw materials, to R&D and the marketing messages.

Perhaps not surprisingly, deeply challenging innovations like this rarely come from existing market leaders. They tend to be produced by outsiders. In the case of the skin microbiome, most of the cutting-edge work in the field is being done by academic researchers and entrepreneurs, and almost none in the world of consumer products.

Most interestingly in the case of the skin microbiome, these “outsiders” are not able to rely on the same pillars or playbooks as the leaders in the industry. What’s exciting, and also unfortunate, is this field just isn’t compatible with pre-existing pillars. Which then begs the question, if many of the existing rules can’t be followed, what next?

Which rules to follow? Which rules to break? What new rules need to be created? Venturing into uncharted territory also carries tremendous responsibility. Outside of the obvious risk that’s being taken just by the nature of pioneering ideas, any who come after you will look at your steps with great scrutiny, and likely follow many of them (or at least the ones that proved to be successful). No pressure.

At AOBiome, we had extensive conversations about this as we were building Mother Dirt. We were the first to commercialise live bacteria and start selling it to consumers. Along with the manufacturing and R&D challenges that we needed to navigate, there were many philosophical conversations around how to navigate rules and guidelines in a field that was rapidly evolving.

There are three key guiding values that have been helpful to us throughout the journey and continue to be to this day:

1. Be transparent about what you don’t know

Typically, in consumer products, you know every detail about your product and messaging is built to reinforce it. Conversely, in any developing field, there are often more questions than there are answers. The opportunity to harness classic marketing and claims messages will be highly constrained. While this might seem like a disadvantage, if handled properly, it can catalyse your rate of learning.

Choosing to launch our AO+ Mist when we knew we couldn’t follow the classic claims and marketing positioning playbook might have seemed like a strange choice. Being clear that our goal was learning, not profits, allowed us to make the purposeful decision to not claim anything beyond the science as we knew it. We made engagement and transparency mission-critical, and got really comfortable saying: ‘we don’t know, but we’re working on finding out’. The number of things we have learned from users has been invaluable all the way to clinical work with the FDA.

2. People first. Science second

In areas of tremendous scientific innovation, we tend to believe we should lead with the innovation as a headlining part of consumer messaging. In a field like the skin microbiome, it might seem obvious to lead with bacteria or the microbiome as the leading message.

However, it’s worth remembering that for anything to reach a broader audience, there’s a need to connect with people on an emotional level first, because the science doesn’t connect as well beyond the early adopters. The need to connect with people on that visceral level is something the consumer product industry understands well, and is among the best at. This does not mean that the science has no place in the core message, just that it’s not the first message.

With Mother Dirt, we wanted to connect with people over the nostalgia of childhood – when it was OK to play outside and get a little dirty. That has much more universal opportunity for connection, not to mention a powerful emotional component, than the specifics of the microbiome, or Ammonia-Oxidising Bacteria (our proprietary technology). We wanted our commercial message to have the opportunity to transcend beyond early adopters. While brand building takes a long time, we’ve been able to move into new audiences at a faster rate than expected, and we attribute a big part of this to our branding and messaging.

3. Keep a long-term goal

‘Speed wins’ can be a common mantra when launching a product, especially the highly competitive consumer products space. However, in a nascent field like the skin microbiome, to truly create a disruptive impact, it will be critical to get consumers, the medical community, and regulatory agencies on board. This can’t happen overnight. Trying to go faster than the rate of research and acceptance can often have negative long-term implications for everyone in the field.

It’s with a long-term goal in mind that we also pursue clinical studies with the FDA. For us, our pacing has been set to the fastest speed the regulatory and scientific community can possibly go. While sometimes we wish it could be faster, we recognise the deliberate nature of the existing system that’s in place and choose to respect it, not just for ourselves, but for the future of the field.

While we are not purely a consumer company or a pharmaceutical company, we see both parts being equally important to contributing to the success of the field and it’s impact on public awareness. In taking cues from these 2 very different fields of business and science, we’re constantly questioning as we move forward and hopefully, writing (or at least contributing to) the playbook for this emerging world.

Jasmina Aganovic


Jasmina Aganovic is the President of Mother Dirt, a daughter company of AOBiome. Jasmina is part of the smarter cosmetics panel at the upcoming 5th Microbiome R&D and Business Collaboration Forum: USA.

Watch CMO of AOBiome, Larry Weiss’ presentation online to hear more about skin microbiome product development.

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