Doctor doctor! How can I build an audience for my brand?
Dr Sam Bunting, cosmetic dermatologist, YouTube star and skincare entrepreneur, talks brand authenticity, skin misery and the importance of kindness

Search for Dr Sam Bunting online and you’re greeted by a glamorous, chestnut-haired, dewy-skinned influencer. With perfectly arched eyebrows and a wry smile, the straight-talking cosmetic dermatologist is waging war on problem skin in adults – Snow White’s mischievous sister armed with retinoid and benzoyl peroxide. Yet to dismiss Dr Sam as a glossy social media personality would be a mistake.

With over 83,000 YouTube subscribers and a whopping 51,700 Instagram followers, Dr Sam’s aspirational but accessible brand is a masterclass in audience engagement – a journey that has taken her from private practice to the launch of her own skincare range in only a few years. It’s a story of instinctive and organic growth in an era before the term “influencer” was even ‘a thing’. A tale of genuine authenticity achieved through an obsessive focus on her primary audience: acne-prone women aged 25 to 40.

Annie is an editor, writer and content strategist. She has worked at the Financial Times, Press Association and Disney.

Photos: Dr Sam Bunting

Ask the Northern Irish doctor for her best advice for a budding entrepreneur and she simply poses two questions: “Are you addressing an unmet need? Do you truly know the inner workings of the mind of the person you are trying to target?” Ticking these two boxes has been a constant in her business. From day one, Bunting set out to solve a problem she knew only too well was causing misery for countless women – problem skin. While chronically stressed working as a junior doctor in hospital she found herself plagued by spots and the associated anxiety becoming her own target audience. “I’ve been there. I’ve cancelled dates because of bad skin – I have a real personal insight,” she recalls.

Bunting also saw that lack of dermatology expertise in GPs, combined with a feeling in women that they “shouldn’t complain”, meant many were suffering in silence simply because they didn’t know where to go. “In the UK it’s not common to go to a dermatologist for what people think is a beauty problem”, she explains, “but acne is the most common skin problem in our society. It’s a really pervasive issue that is generally not handled very well and causes huge amounts of distress and scarring. Fixing it makes such a big difference to people’s lives.”

The life-changing possibility of achieving great skin informed the thinking behind her private dermatology practice, which she opened a decade ago, and still drives her brand.

“I understood women not only wanted medical solutions for skin problems but they wanted to take it further and enhance their skin. So I positioned it as a skincare clinic rather than just solving disease.“

This instinctive positioning worked leading to a natural interest from press without any concerted PR push. Success followed in the form of work with skincare brands – including Dolce & Gabbana’s skincare launch – as well as world travel and even a TV show, TLC’s ‘Extreme Beauty Disasters’, in which Bunting helped fix beauty treatments gone wrong.

As her personal brand grew, Bunting’s social media presence emerged organically in response to an issue she witnessed time and again in her patients – women following bad advice from amateur beauty bloggers. “I thought that was a good time to take to YouTube and develop the channel as a place where you could come for good advice from a place of proper skin knowledge.”

Again, her instinct was correct. Bunting’s wise, medically-informed advice, confident, friendly manner and recommendations for great, reasonably-priced products gathered a loyal following. She credits this to her empathy and integrity. “I think that’s what people like about me. The straightforwardness of how I demystify a lot of things around skincare and my integrity in what I recommend. I don’t encourage heavy-spending unless the way that the product is formulated genuinely leads to increased costs.”

While many brands try to retrofit community onto products, it was Bunting’s community that “naturally” led her to the idea of creating a skincare brand – something she had been mulling for years. As well as continually hearing the same concerns from her online audience, she noticed many brands used in her practice were being discontinued despite consumers complaining. “It was a real call to action to do something about that myself – to make products that were even better, using the knowledge I’d accumulated by working with people over the last 10 years.”

The line itself is pure Dr Sam: sleek, simple and accessible. “The idea is that simplicity is luxury”, Bunting explains. “I wanted it to be a super-educated edit with no extraneous products. Simple, easy to use, easy to navigate – with supporting video content that leaves you with zero question marks about how to use everything correctly together. I knew I didn’t want to get bogged down in medical language. I wanted the tone of voice to be warm and empathetic so the consumer knows they’re in good, safe but also human hands.”

“I wanted the tone of voice to be warm and empathetic so the consumer knows they’re in good, safe but also human hands.“

Despite being courted by many major brands to launch a range with them, Bunting was determined to go it alone in producing her skincare line. It’s a self-funded effort and she’s carefully scaling the operation – launching one product at a time and asking her community for feedback as she goes. The intermediate price-point is her in-person skincare clubs – small gatherings in beautiful settings where people can talk, ask questions and leave with a goody bag. “I think real life events are quite sexy right now,” Bunting twinkles.

These elements are mutually beneficial. A Facebook group created for attendees of events has “snowballed” rapidly gathering 12,752 members to date, with a monthly engagement of 29,000. It’s such an active audience that Bunting regularly uses the group to ask for feedback or conduct surveys to ensure communications are grounded in genuine consumer insights.

She also confesses she’s at full capacity at her clinic. Giving content away for free has only helped her business. “Selling direct to consumer makes it more affordable for the buyer but, more importantly, it helps us control the customer journey. It’s the way Apple works – I remember reading an article about one of the key marketers at Apple years ago on a plane and some of their premise was exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve built an uncluttered website without multiple options so it’s very clear what you should take for your concern. I want the shopper to feel confident they are being taken care of.”

Now that she’s firmly in e-commerce, is there a danger in giving so much of her expertise for free on social media? “I don’t think so,” Bunting replies, explaining she views her audiences as different complementary segments of her business – ultimately enabling her to help as many people as possible. “The clinic is our high-end offering – one-on-one, bespoke, aspirational, but still good value for money. The skincare range and content represent a diffusion line. You can get a quasi-clinic feel by watching the videos and reading the copy. It has the same feel and flow as a patient who walks out of my office with their bespoke skincare plan.”

Looking back it would be easy to dismiss Bunting’s success as luck. But truly understanding her audiences and taking the time to learn from every step has laid the foundations of her brand. “It’s a bit of rambling route,” she admits, “but looking back there’s nothing I’ve done where I think ‘gosh, I wish I hadn’t done that’. It was all just a really good immersion in all parts of the market place.”

She has also faced challenges frequently pushing her comfort zone and grappling with topics she knew nothing about. “I’m a doctor,” she laughs, “I have zero training in entrepreneurship. I can barely write an Excel spreadsheet! I could easily have become discouraged with the idea of building the business – but I’ve learned how to break tasks down step by step and avoid the anxiety that comes from being truly out of your comfort zone. I’m naturally quite anxious and quite ‘type A’ so I’ve really had to embrace the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach to business life.”

She also credits respecting this anxiety as part of her success. “We worked really hard to minimise our costs in the early days to minimise the anxiety of a massive monthly spend. We were very lucky we were profitable within the first month. We’ve never had any debt. I think it would have been very difficult if we’d gone in all guns blazing with a new team and a big PR budget before we knew what we were meant to become.”

Is she proud of what she’s achieved? Here, pragmatic Dr Sam kicks in. “I’m Irish – so I’m not prone to being overly sentimental. But I couldn’t be happier with where we are. We’ve made the decision not to go into bricks and mortar at this point as we want to control the customer experience from end to end for a longer period of time. Once the brand is more established, we’ll revisit this”.

She adds that the kindness of others has been a big help in building the brand. “One of the things along the way that has been a real joy is the readiness of almost complete strangers to help me with different facets of my business. Sometimes it’s been overwhelming how generous people can be because they like to see others doing well. There’s a chain of people that I’m very grateful to for giving me the right introductions”. Ultimately, however, Bunting’s success rests on one thing – her desire to solve a real problem well.

“I genuinely take great joy in helping people feel better about their skin. I didn’t do a skincare range to have my name on a pot. It really is to reach a bigger audience than I can through the clinic alone and solve what I think is a common, annoying and pernicious problem – and do it well. The bigger we can scale the better“

Simply put, Bunting knows the problem – and understands how to solve it.