Why this local beauty brand is setting its sights on American home shopping

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Clinical studies on pili oil, the key ingredient of Pili Ani’s products (featured here in HSN's "The Big Find"), proved that it can increase skin moisture by 38% in just five days — more than the vastly popular argan and rosehip oils.

The distinctly Filipino pili nut found its champion in two women. The duo of Mary Jane Ong and her mother Rosalina Tan built the independent beauty brand Pili Ani just a few years ago, making pili and elemi oils at the core of everything they create, from essential oil blends to facial creams. During our video call interview, Ong urges Pili Ani’s marketing manager Hannah Felipe to bust out one of their newer offerings: a volcanic face mask infused with pili and elemi oil.

“And of course, tayo lang again… [may] Mayon Volcano ash,” Ong adds, saying that they are sourcing the ash from a town that gained more livelihood opportunities because of the mask. The Pili Ani Volcanic Exfoliating Mask retails at ₱1,200 on their website, and comes in a sleek teardrop-shaped jar and an ornate pyramid-shaped box, inspired by a photo of Bicol’s famous volcano.

That Pili Ani’s new product is inspired by a volcano in flux says a lot about where the brand sees itself: in motion, despite a pandemic that has made skin care and beauty purchases feel more like luxuries than ever before. In a time when the Philippine beauty industry has become so democratized, with more small- and medium-sized brands vying for space on our vanities, Pili Ani has set its sights on an overseas market: the consumers of the Home Shopping Network in the United States.

To expand into home shopping T.V. feels like an unorthodox move; for a Filipino brand to do so is even more unusual. The local beauty industry has grown exponentially in the last half decade, and Filipino consumers are now able to adopt beauty trends much quicker than they did just a few years ago. From an industry dominated by international (mostly American) drug store brands like L’Oreal and Maybelline and a handful of luxury labels distributed in swanky department stores like Rustan’s and Adora, local players and indie brands are now able to command cult followings of their own.

Pili Ani Deep Detox Volcanic Mask. Photo courtesy of PILI ANI

Beauty became one of the easiest products to market beyond traditional channels — the rise of beauty vlogger content has been able to humanize the experience of using these products. Instead of looking at supermodels whose job it is to have perfect skin, potential consumers began to rely on the reviews of everyday individuals who disclose their skin types, issues, and personal experience with the product. Forget beauty awards; when an influential vlogger declares that a product is their “holy grail,” there’s a high chance that it will sell out.

Pili Ani was aware of the playing field, but Ong knew that they were competing with a lot of different voices who were creating their own beauty products using local and natural ingredients.

The brand prides itself on extracting oil from two distinctly Filipino ingredients in all their products: pili, a highly caloric nut with a hard shell exterior, and elemi, the resin from the pili tree. Both pili and elemi are known for their healing properties and are prized for their high nutritional value, known to restore moisture in the skin. To illustrate just how precious a commodity it is, it takes about 1,500 pili fruits to make a liter of pili oil. They source directly from farmers all over the Bicol region. Although pili can be found in some parts of the world with similar climates, the Philippines is the only place where you can source pili in commercial quantities.

Ong’s mother Rosalina Tan, happened to visit Bicol often because Ong’s first business (as a distributor of Ginebra San Miguel) was based there. It was there that Tan, keen on educating people on how to properly grow organic produce, encountered farmers who had been selling elemi oil, to a French luxury brand that had been using it as an ingredient of one of their (now discontinued) skin care products.

“It’s one of their active ingredients for [one of their] creams, na [about] ₱12,000. They weren’t really buying it from the farmers, but they were buying it from a trader. And that trader was just buying it from the farmers, and the price was… okay,” Ong says. “When my mom found out about it, the problem there was during those times, farmers didn’t know how to tap the tree naman talaga. Since may buyer, what happens is that some of [the trees] died. Actually maraming namatay.”

Rosalina Tan, founder of Pili Ani and Mary Jane Tan Ong, CEO. Photo courtesy of PILI ANI

This prompted Tan, an advocate of organic farming in the last two decades, to work with the farmers to extract the oils properly and sustainably. “Ang pinaka importante [sa Pili Ani] ang being sustainable, because we are buying at a fair market price," Ong said.

From working so closely with the raw material, they learned that it wasn’t just the pili and elemi oil that could be transformed into finished products. There were by-products that were being locally made from the pili tree, such as massage oils for hilot or sometimes for food. But it clearly had great potential to be developed into something that was globally covetable.

Ong and her mother invested in turning the brand into Pili Ani, which in Filipino means “chosen harvest.” They wanted pili to be the star of their marketing strategy, in the way papaya extract became synonymous for skin brightening among Filipinos, or how moringa oil (malunggay) has been praised on the pages of Vogue and Allure for its hydrating and antimicrobial properties.

“‘Pag narinig mo ‘pili,’ ano sasabihin mo sa ‘kin? ‘Asan na yung mani?’” Ong says with a laugh. “‘Where’s my marzipan, where’s my pasalubong?’ It’s never on skin care. It’s so hard to introduce.”

While Pili Ani’s a frontliner was a bankable asset, their initial strategy had been to do what most local brands did: without a physical store (available in multi-brand stockists such as Lanai and Kultura), they amplified their messaging online and relied largely on word of mouth testimonials. After gaining a steady following locally, it became clear to Ong that it was no longer enough to have a groundbreaking product with the hope that it would stand out. “Come 2020, we wanted to relaunch. [The] pandemic came, and then na-realize namin na ‘Oops, ang dami nating kulang.’ We had to regroup, rebrand, and we had to form a new team na like-minded ang goals,” Ong explains. “Not just for the sake of making money. We had to rebuild.”

To do this, Ong was determined to a) position the brand as something sustainably and locally made, and b) compete against other luxury skin care brands in the market. The United States became a viable option for Ong, who had lived there previously, and especially after the Home Shopping Network (HSN) announced The Big Find. Launched in July 2020 as a purely virtual event, the two-year-old competition seeks out the best products across a number of categories that HSN and QVC (a partnership between the two channels) sell in. More than 2,400 entries were submitted last year, and Pili Ani was among 23 winning brands — and according to The Big Find, two-thirds of their winners are women- and/or minority-owned.

“I didn’t think twice about submitting. If they think you are a good fit, you get a golden ticket and move on to the next level.”

In late February, their first product, the Ageless Serum Anti-Aging Beauty Treatment premiered on the network and retails for $62. Joining The Big Find was more than submitting a well-packaged product. Ong explains that they were required to invest in clinical studies to prove the effectiveness of their wares. According to Ong, their clinical studies on pili oil proved that it can increase skin moisture by 38% in just five days. By comparison, argan, abyssinian and rosehip — natural oils that are renowned for their hydrating properties — are able to moisturize skin within the same timeframe by 36-37%.

For a product (and an ingredient) that has the capacity to disrupt the beauty industry, Pili Ani could certainly set itself up to be the next holy grail product, with a price tag that comes with that reputation. But for Ong and her team, breaking into HSN isn’t a way to legitimize Pili Ani as a high-end brand anytime soon.

“Actually, we’re not luxury eh. When you say luxury, ‘yan yung mga $200 cream. That’s luxury,” Ong says. She asks Pili Ani’s marketing manager Felipe to explain their specific category, and Felipe calls themselves “masstige.”

“We’re mid-priced,” Felipe explains. “We’re not exactly [luxury], but the feeling is luxurious with our products.”

Ong shares that they are also communicating with big beauty stores in the U.S. to stock Pili Ani on their shelves.

“The sales were okay, but could be better,” Ong candidly shares at the press conference after the launch. But they’re not slowing down anytime — while they’re largely known in the Philippines for their essential oil, Pili Ani’s venture into skin care in the U.S. is part of their strategy to be a full-fledged beauty brand from the Philippines. In the next few months, they plan on launching a full skin care line under the Pili Ani brand, gentle enough for sensitive skin. Ong explains that after their experience with HSN, she realizes the importance of investing in clinical studies and cruelty-free testing to ensure quality beyond beautiful packaging and strong marketing copy. This, for Ong and her mother, is how they are evangelizing to their new audience: by letting the product speak for itself.

“Meron kaming products that we will pull out of the shelves, if we think it’s not really okay. And things we bring out, lalo na ngayon, very careful na kami. I test it myself. Ako, wala ako masyadong [skin care] routine, kaya kung ako nagka-allergies or sila [the Pili Ani team], pull out agad,” Ong says about the rigorous process. “We want to make sure that we love it, and we are able to explain how it works [by using it] on us.”