You may love her or loathe her but there is something about reality television star Kim Kardashian West that her 21.9 million Twitter followers just cannot get enough of. So when last week she tweeted "Late night tan with @FionaMLocke THANK YOU!!!!!!" it sent certain people all a-flutter, in particular the team behind one Northern Ireland company.
For those not up to speed with the world of celebrity tanning, California-based Ms Locke is apparently one of the world’s most sought-after “skin-finishing” specialists, the person to whom A-list celebrities apparently turn when they want a certain glow on the red carpet, the big screen or, in Kardashian’s case, just about everywhere else.
Any of Kim’s followers who checked Locke out would discover that she exclusively uses just one particular range of tanning and skin products.
You might imagine these would hail from a cosmopolitan fashion hub such as Paris, New York or Milan, but they have been developed, designed and produced by a company based in Ballyclare, Co Antrim.
Vita Liberata, which was established in 2003 by Alyson Hogg, is not exactly a stranger to celebrity approval – several Hollywood stars and other celebrities are already high-profile fans of its products.
Marketing coup But Hogg, Vita Liberata’s chief executive, says the Kardashian tweet is something of a marketing coup for the company, which employs a team of nearly 50 “creative, tenacious and incredibly smart” people, most of whom are women.
“It is a huge boost for us, especially in the US, which is one of our key markets. We currently export to 23 countries worldwide but the US is a huge opportunity for us and the plug from Kim Kardashian is a great way for us to build brand awareness,” she said.
She is gearing up for her own red-carpet moment next month when she will travel to Buckingham Palace to receive a Queen’s Award for enterprise in international trade, one of the UK’s top business honours.
Recipients from Northern Ireland include Glen Dimplex and Powerscreen International but Vita Liberata will be the first skincare company to receive the award. The company was chosen chiefly because it grew export sales in the two years to 2013 by more than 400 per cent.
Research and development According to Hogg, her success is built on a “truly unique product” – a non-toxic, organic, odourless luxury self-tan – and a strong financial and personal commitment to ongoing research and development. She says the company’s most recent product, the “pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tan” is the direct result of this commitment to R&D.
“There is so much competition in this sector that you have to have a unique selling point, you have to be innovative, you have to put the product before profits and you simply need to give the customer what they want,” she says.
When she first started the business she spent three months standing in a shopping centre in Belfast conducting market research to find out what women wanted from their skincare products.
“I quickly found out they all wanted the same thing – products that actually work – so that’s what I set out to make. I had never been in business before, I was an innocent academic doing a PhD at the time but I trusted my instincts,” she says.
Hogg needed a backer, so she asked her father, Dr Fred Hogg, a well known Northern Ireland businessman, who gave her not only the money but also his unwavering support.
A chance conversation with one of her employees in the early days proved the inspiration for what is today an award-winning, globally recognised self-tanning brand.
“She has the type of skin a lot of people here have and she always used tanning products but they always made her look a bit orange most of the time and she wanted me to make a self-tan especially for her,” says Hogg.
“I was reluctant because I didn’t think that I could make the kind of product that was just right but I saw it as a challenge and I set out to make a product without nasty smells that wasn’t sticky or that one that would leave streaky results – something unique. And with the help of a very clever chemist we did it and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Equity investment Two years ago she secured a multimillion-pound equity investment from Dublin-based Broadlake Capital to help finance her global expansion plans; and earlier this year agreed another financing deal (details of which were undisclosed) with the Growth Loan Fund, a government-backed fund that provides loan finance to local businesses.
Hogg hopes the loan will help it increase sales in the US because the company plans to invest in new manufacturing and distribution services and establish a new sales and training team there. But one thing is for certain: her ambitions are far from pale.