How Branding Expert Christopher Skinner Tells a Compelling Story
Five years after launching the beauty branding agency School House, the LVMH alum dishes on how storytelling, introspection, and thinking outside the box can propel a business to success in the digital age.
Building strategy, branding creative, and immersive environments for the world’s most in-demand beauty brands, the New York City agency School House has become one of the industry’s must-know names—and the company isn’t even six years old. Credit founder and principal Christopher Skinner, whose impressive career includes stints at Sephora, Space NK Apothecary, and Fresh, where he spearheaded global design and store experience. At the latter, Skinner identified a hole in the market: a creative studio that offers a sensitive, personalized approach to beauty’s ever-changing landscape.
Surface caught up with Skinner to learn about the brand’s origins, it’s hyper-speed growth, and why vulnerability is key to creating genuine, thoughtful branding.
How has School House evolved since its inception? What have you learned from growing a company, and how have you changed as a leader?
Since opening in 2015, we’ve seen steady year-over-year gains in clients, projects, and teams. Our founding capabilities of strategy, branding, digital, and architecture were originally spread across fashion, beauty, and luxury. We soon learned we were trying to do too much for too many, so in 2017 we narrowed our industry focus to beauty alone, which linked strongly with my professional background (hailing from LVMH’s Fresh and Sephora, along with time at Space NK Apothecary) and personal passion (you should see my medicine cabinet). This pivot allowed School House to evolve from a generalized-generalist studio into a generalized-specialist studio, narrowing in on one industry, but remaining wide in its capabilities to help our brand partners tackle more, and faster.
In 2018, we expanded our team and capabilities to include industrial design and took on projects ranging from product and custom packaging design (see Tata Harper’s Supernatural Collection) to open-sell design (MAC, Clinique, Amore Pacific display design in Sephora and ULTA). In 2019, we took our experientially led architectural capabilities and expanded into more traditional experiential design, creating brand-immersive installations ranging from 100 square feet to 10,000 square feet.
Throughout this growth and these pivots, I’ve learned that you can’t fix the things you’re not willing to acknowledge internally and externally. I see bettering a business just as I see bettering myself as a person—you have to be willing to open up and get messy before you can take the necessary steps to fix and strengthen your position. I’ve always firmly believed you can achieve more when you come from a place of kindness, openness, and empathy than anything else. As a leader of creative strategists and designers, nothing is more detrimental to innovation with peers and clients than unhealthy ego and close-mindedness.
Successful creative projects are all about storytelling. How do you tell stories for your brands, and what do you think makes a story compelling, successful, or captivating? What draws people in?
Every good story follows a similar beginning, middle, end cadence that can be applied to both physical and digital consumer experiences. What’s most interesting in creative projects within brand work is that you can also break down macro stories into micro stories, each with their own beginning, middle, and end layered within one another (i.e. e-commerce begins on a website and ends with the receipt of the goods to your home, but the receipt of the goods to your home also has its own beginning, middle, and end sequence). The best brand experiences address these layered moments and define each overarching and underlying story, making every moment—small or large from beginning to end—memorable.
But the most resonant stories told and remembered are those that embody vulnerability. In the past, I’ve felt brands mistook storytelling for backstory—like where a product came from— rather than allowing the product or the consumer to experience the traditional journey of a hero. Every hero’s journey within storytelling requires a pivotal moment where they understand they can’t continue on the way they always have. Rather, they must become vulnerable and open themselves to new ideologies to tackle their fears, to fall in love, or to save the world. The more vulnerable the person, the story, or the brand, the more they open themselves up to allow others in. And isn’t that what branding and brand-building is all about?
Can you share details of your recent projects that were totally out-of-the-box or inspiring? How did you conceptualize it, and why did it work with this brand?
At the end of 2019, School House opened La Mer’s first experiential exhibition in Shanghai, a 10,000-square-foot fully immersive and reactive experience dedicated to the beloved brand’s storytelling and annual campaign. Named “Edge of the Sea” after a collaboration between La Mer and Mario and Gray Sorrenti, the exhibition took place in China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, The Power Station of Art (PSA).
After visiting PSA for the first time, it became clear this could not be another brand exhibition that solely relied upon larger-than-life recreations of packaging and the repetitive camera bait we’ve come to see from “experiential museums.” Rather than create a linear brand storytelling activation, we created an experience of immersive storytelling art with the consumer at its center. It explored the powerful dynamic and innovative output of two forces thematically coming together—sea and sky, land and water, Mario and Gray, and so on. The experience was brought to life through a range of digital and tactile treatments, immersions, and interactions, within a space constructed to visually represent recollection.
Just as the sea, it was a space where inspiration knew no bounds, and the curious could come to explore limitlessly. In the end, the exhibition garnered 20,000 visitors in two weeks and one billion total social media impressions. Why did it work? Because we weren’t trying to graft brand education onto the consumer, but awake a sense of discovery and desire to learn and see more—the same impulses that La Mer was founded and built upon.
How does School House see its role in the current climate? Are you doing anything to support Black-owned beauty brands?
In June, School House announced the 1,000 Hours Pledge, a program where the agency donates $150,000 of design hours across our capabilities to independent, Black-owned beauty businesses. So far, under this pledge, we’ve partnered with Coloured Raine (a longstanding client of ours), ConditionHER, Mad Moisture Beauty, Ami Cole, and have provided consultative calls to many others.
School House staff have also received a $250 beauty stipend (on top of an existing $1,000 beauty annual allowance) to be spent at Black-owned beauty businesses. In addition, we donated $5,000 to Black Lives Matter, which helps bring justice, healing, and freedom to Black people across the globe, and $5,000 to Center for Black Equity, which supports Black LGBTQ+ organizations. Most importantly, we’ve opened up transparent and vulnerable conversations internally on racism and the systematic oppression of people of color. We took part in the #pulluporshutup movement and have used our public platforms to decry hate and acknowledge that racism exists. Every organization, no matter their industry, needs to step up and use their positions to invoke change. The Black community needs all of our voices, and all of our influence, now more than ever.
What makes beauty an exciting field to work in? What gets you out of bed excited about your job? How do you see the field evolving in the next few years?
The year 2005 was a perfect time for me to enter beauty. I’ve been able to experience the tremendous dynamic shifts shaping our industry. Now that digital commerce is experiencing a traffic lift, I’m excited to see how the space evolves to ensure more physically inspired experiences, just as how in years past we’ve seen the physical space evolve to ensure more digitally inspired experiences. Living in New York City, I’m surrounded by recent vacancies and I’m eager for School House to start reinventing physical brand destinations.
At the end of the day, I love helping people and creating exciting work for consumers. Seeing a brand invented or reinvented, surprise its consumers, and move ideology in an industry gives me goosebumps. It not only gets me out of bed in the morning, the anticipation keeps me up late at night.