– the Australian boutique Beauty Care brand founded in 1987 – intuitively masters the art of “class branding”. It is a perfect case to illustrate key principles that – when lived by – can lift a brand above the masses. Of course their way to execute is not the one and only way to go. If fact, it is the very individualistic choices brands make in following the principles that make them stand out from the masses.
Mission Incomparable – An intelligent beauty brand.
No matter where and how you first meet the Aesop brand it will strike you as the prototype of a modern beauty brand. On the one hand, you will have experienced fragments of the brand language before: The modern apothecary packaging; The collaboration with designers in creating contemporary store environments; Art or crossover products. On the other hand, you rarely see the concept of sophisticated simplicity executed in such a pure, consistent and holistic way. And how many beauty brands do you know which exhibit a deep philosophical sensitivity and acknowledge your cultural intelligence?
But then, Aesop refuses to tick most of the boxes of the Beauty industry. There are no glossy packs, counters or ads. There are no promises of ‘agelessness’ or eternal beauty. No pumped-up mission to change the world, either. Instead, “Aesop values all human endeavors undertaken with intellectual rigor vision and a nod to the whimsical” their website informs us. “We advocate the use of our products as part of a balanced life that includes a healthy diet, sensible exercise, a moderate intake of red wine and a regular dose of stimulating literature”. Aesop shuns what they consider gimmicky category talk. Instead you will hear surprisingly matter-of-fact statements that declare that high-grade, man-made ingredients like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate are chosen because they are the most effective… Some Aesop chocolate and wine anyone? Sorry they are not for sale, just for friends visiting he store.
It is this type of lateral thinking, doing and honest talk by founder and creative director Dennis Paphitis and the tireless zeal with which he pursued this vision that has made the brand incomparable and timeless. As he puts it ”if you deliver something that is considered and original and you do so with integrity there’s always going to be a market.”2
“Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” (Janis Joplin)
– quote on an Aesop sample.
Longing vs Belonging – A beauty poet society.
To be treated to that wine and chocolate can be seen and experienced as a form of privilege, of ritualized ascendance to the desirable circle of intellectual sophisticates who associate with the brand. It certainly felt that way at a recent party by the Aesop store in Sheung Wan (Hong Kong). The store was packed with a somewhat homogeneous crowd who could have walked straight out of a Monocle magazine. Most people visibly enjoyed each other and being with the brand. Many had met before. Business was brisk. One buyer explained that he was stocking up “to help the store succeed… happy to have one in his neighborhood”.
Aesop prides itself in this close, habit-forming relationship with their neighborhood – physical and spiritual.; A very defined and worth-while customer segment. A modern, moneyed, intellectual ‘cultural cohort’ (as Douglas Holt would put it 7) that wants to use sophisticated yet unpretentious products and to be admired for their connoisseur-ship. They believe in- and identify with Aesop and use their choice to clearly differentiate versus their nemesis, the ‘nouveau riche’ and their primitive, showy and wasteful consumption. To them Aesop is the antithesis of the trophy luxury or lifestyle brand of the shallow masses. And the identical brown bottles and aluminum tubes that don’t even have a ‘proper’ logo (just a name printed in simple ‘Optima Medium’) are the proof. To them, Aesop is cult and they are willing disciples. Paphitis humbly comments that “Aesop is now part of a small movement that’s best described as the Muji-Hermes paradigm.”
But this cult-like closeness and the surroundings can also be intimidating to the uninitiated. The literary quotes scrolling along the ceiling, the projection of a surreal meditation film and identical looking bottles sitting on strict and sparse wood ledges along the wall; ‘Rind Concentrate Body Balm’ bagged into raw paper bags… This meticulously staged brand demands proper level of serious curiosity and involvement before letting you into its idiosyncratic world. ‘Beauty Junkies’, please stay out!”
“Better than a face-lift, to stay young we need to be permanently in a state of intellectual curiosity.” (Salvador Pániker) – quote on an Aesop broshure.
Of Myth and Meaning – Aesop: The prototype of storytelling.
Aesop’s story offers up plenty of myth making material, starting with the choice of name. Aesop – A Greek teller of fables whose origins and authorship are uncertain. Some attribute the unusual choice to the founder’s family is of Greek origin (he is Australian). Others to the fact that he is a bookworm and avid student of philosophy. Paphitis, hints that “The clarity of thinking [of Aesop] and quality of his communication was inspiring to me. 5” He says “I guess the reason I started my own beauty company was that I wasn’t patient enough to be a philosopher, nor tolerant enough to be an architect.”9
Associating Aesop with fables, philosophy, art and architecture certainly helped Paphitis tell a story. He learned to appreciate the values of “discipline order and respect” as a hairdresser apprentice and applied it to his own salon in the 80ies known as a place where one had to be serious, obey the rules (no make-up, no jewelry) but one also got treated to an indulgent, healthy hair treatment in return – blondes stayed away. Encouraged and seconded by partners who helped him run operations, Paphitis refined and extended his salon to become a beauty company and a lifestyle. Quite naturally, he worked on all aspects of his brand teaching himself botany, chemistry and philosophy to formulate the products and vision right.
The way he went about bringing it to life created the icon Aesop is today. There is Paphitis choosing every quote that appears on labels, walls, brochures; There are the decisions to clear entire shops of all products to make space for books of authors he admires (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) or designers (Jo Meesters) ceramic artists (Ray Chan). And then there are favorite neighborhood shops-, restaurants- or theater tips on the web site and printed on Aesop brochures, paper bags. When asked to comment on these unusual choices, Paphitis tells journalist he prefers to answer in writing as “it will provide a more considered and precise answer”. He wants Aesop to be known for its spirit and attitude, for being a ‘celebration of the everyday’ where less is better, where substance wins, where things have a deeper meaning.
To many, these might seem like eccentric or pretentious statements and actions. But on closer inspection, they are manifestations of a brand that appeals to a very defined customer segment. It is a matter of perspective whether you classify Aesop’s $30 “Animal Fur and Skin Wash” as another kind of wasteful decadence or the way human, honest and hard-working products should be. 8
“Means must be subsidiary to ends and to our desire for dignity and value.”
(Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) – Quote in the ‘About’ tab of Aesop.com site.
Behold! When Less Is So Much More.
On the surface, the minimalist art of the Aesop product was born out of practicality. “Well considered design improves our lives”, the Aesop website tells us. The brown color of the bottles, the aluminium tubes help to minimize the need for preservatives. Printing ingredients and instructions on the front label allowed to forgo boxes or direction leaflets and save cost and the environment. And so does that all the bottles and tubes come from the same mold.
But deeper down, what looks like a modern interpretation of a Victorian chemist’s lab fits neatly into the self-aware modernism of the brand’s followers who enthuse about slow food, urban cycling or low-fi electronics. Just like with Mies Van Der Rohe’s designs, Aesop’s do not come at the expense of aesthetic pleasure. There is nothing ‘utilitarian’ about using 7560 amber glass bottles to decorate a store (Adelaide) or a thousand reclaimed of copies of The New York Times (New York) or 3000 cardboard boxes (Melbourne). Those are artistic and ideological statements by the brand. The purity of intent, design and restrained luxury manifested through the store’s appearance is continued in the making process, the package, the content and, ultimately, the usage experience.
In fact, Aesop will tell us that everything starts with the product. The website informs us that “chemical scientists work out of our utilitarian, custom-built laboratory using both plant-based and laboratory made ingredients of highest quality and proven efficacy… to craft formulations of exceptional quality”. After seeing the store and amber apothecary bottles, one can easily imagine that spartan but elegant lab.
The spell-binding, stimulating sophistication of Aesop’s product comes to the fore when you squeeze out the contents and wrap yourself in a rich mix of anti-oxidant goodness of parsley and blackcurrant seed oil, enhanced by orange or violet petal. But Aesop’s formulations do not only stand out through their choice of ingredients but also through the source and areas of innovation. Rather than regularly re-formulating and launching “new, improved’ upgrades as is standard in the industry (“too much time goes into formulating them well” 5), the brand is hunting for inspiration externally. That’s how Aesop ended up formulating “Post Poo Drops”, a delicious flushing fragrance ‘recommended for shared bathrooms’ and a detergent ‘beautifully formulated for beautiful clothes’ together with like-minded fashion label APC.
‘Setting the rules’, finding and supporting soul-mates also guides the choice of store locations creating a unique brand manifestation. Aesop joins its globe-trotting avant-guard community in renewing these ‘rough- edge’ neighborhoods – and likely saving a lot of money on agreed leases compared to the usual ‘urban hip’ brands that follow later. As CEO O’Keeffe puts it “We see ourselves as leaders rather than followers. We’re not reading the latest Wallpaper* looking for the next cool cafe to partner with.” 5
But the hard work behind this precise orchestration never shows through. Everything looks as it had come together intuitively and effortlessly… almost not un-noticeable, if it wasn’t for the unique aura of perfection radiating inside out.
“Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous amounts of energy merely to be normal.” (Albert Camus) – said to be Dennis Paphitis’ favorite quote. 11
Living the Dream – La Vie en Aesop Cream.
Iconic brands distinguish themselves through ideology (ideas and ideals) and grand gestures. But it is the organizations behind them that either give them depth and make them last or risk to “burst the bubble” when avid followers look behind the curtains and find values and motivations not lining up with the myth.
The Melbourne headquarter of Aesop seem to look and feel just like what one would expect them to. A journalist-visitor from The Age reports of a “cool, near silent, all-white architect designed building […] a cold, dreamy, lightly perfumed space. […] There is little decoration […] except for a dead straight line of red tulips and more lines of Aesop’s brown glass bottles”. There are the quotes on the wall, of course (no personal pictures allowed), and people who “quietly come and go” 1. The Aesop researchers supposedly all wear the same white apothecary coats. Everyone sits on Herman Miller chairs at sleek, pale wood desks and uses the same type of black BIC pen. Financial charts are colored in Aesop cream and even the toilet paper was chosen by the boss . All employees are to leave the building during lunch time (to get fresh air and to avoid bread crumbs and such in the office)…
This could be the description from the shoot of some modern version of “1984” if it was not the credible result of a quarter century of fastidious thinking and shaping by the brands founder. Paphitis is invariably described as a fickle, precise, unforgiving perfectionist who is stimulated by the purist and minimalist expression of observation and thought.
But Paphitis’ brand of conviction and actions also attracted some 300 like-minded admirers to join his company over the years. Together, they develop a visceral understanding of the Aesop and its followers and form an organization with “an uncommon blend of courtesy, cordiality and intellectual energy” (a job posting says). They pride themselves in remaining resolutely a-typical for their industry. It comes as no surprise, then that the CEO of the past decade was an engineer, consultant and investment adviser before joining his clients’ firm. The geographic isolation and the tad irreverent Aussie attitude might also help.
The buzz, lighthearted but engaged conversations you observe at that party at that Sheung Wan store do not feel like a sales pitch. The staff will tell you their personal experience with each of the products and try to determine which regimen might fit best for you. In fact, the Aesop website discourages customers from ordering – unless they had a personal talk about their beauty needs with a shop assistant first and try them out in the store. While Paphitis has officially retired to become ‘creative director’ (there is a creative manager), he continues to be deeply involved in areas of passion and high importance. One of them is to advise store staff not to talk about such things as the weather as “customers don’t benefit from benign but obvious […] commentary.”11 He understands that wearing lab coats might be copied but the spirit of the brand can’t.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.
(Albert Einstein)” – quote on walls of Aesop headquarters in Melbourne, AUS.
Un-Selling – “Spectacular Performance, Minus The Drama”
That is is the headline on a card showing a dramatic black and white photo from the series ‘Mil Besos’ by Ruven Afanador on the front and introducing of a new hair care line on the back – in the typical matter-of-fact way, without any pictures of the product 13. Again, Aesop stresses its deliberately different approach to selling beauty. The brand does everything to give you an experience of discovery rather than “assaulting you” as O’Keeffe describes the standard industry approach. But this discovery is not left to chance and the alternative means employed by the brand are no less effective in capturing the (more targeted) audience.
Whether you are part of the local or the global, jet-setting, intelligentsia, there are chances you will have been surprised by the enthralling scents and contemporary chic of Aesop’s Resurrection Duet soap and moisturizer set in the bathroom or on the shelves of one of you favorite restaurants, spas, coffee shops, boutiques, tailors or … friends. Aesop collaborates with such on-message venues as the ’28 à Aix-en-Provence’ winery in Yarra Valley, Kapok lifestyle boutique in Wan Chai, Claska gallery, hotel, shop and more in Tokyo. Beyond reaching their precise target, Aesop also achieves an effective equity halo from these equally experiential brands.
If you are attracted by the artistic display of an Aesop store their iconic moisturizer dispenser outside the window invites you to make the product discovery. Once you step inside, the discovery continues. Even if you have been in another Aesop store before, for each store represents a different interpretation of the strict brand identity. Aesop distances itself from the globally identical beauty counter of many competitors.
“Un-selling” is in fact a guiding theme: Brochures are in matte black and white and fragrant (printing ink?), not glossy, airbrushed and colorful. The language and images are a playful mix between the high brow, lyrical, artistic and decidedly low brow, not of the scientific-didactic charts and claims type. The usual name dropping of (the quite numerous) celebrity customers is verboten to staff. Instead, your friends at Aesop will tell you that the local climate and your personal diet has as much or more effect on your hair than any care products and “…to some extend we need to acknowledge what has been bequeathed to us” as that brochure reads. On the other hand, customer blog about how seriously the staff take their job to try and determine the right potions and regimen for the customer. One that will help them fend of adverse factors like UV and pollution, fit their skin … and their personality. As CEO O’Keeffe says “[…] we’re not perfect, the customer’s not perfect, and it’s not that people actually want to become perfect either. […] People should leave our store with a positive experience, rather than some of these brands that make people feel bad and the sell them products to overcome that.”5
“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever“. (Napoleon Bonaparte)
– a quote and strategy choice used by Aesop.
Moving with Gravitas – Substance over speed.
In that sense, the Aesop brand teaches us more than the namesake fabulist who lets the tortoise win over the hare. For Aesop has not only grown along the single measure of sales – even through the recent recession. The brand has also kept building-up a unique equity and organization can capture consumer interest and loyalty for many more years to come.
In fact, unless you believe in this unique equity being a valuable long-term asset, Aesop will not compare favorably versus other Beauty brands. The industry has certainly not taken a nap in expanding globally and Aesop’s 80-some stores amount to not much when compared to the hundreds of stores and counters Kiehl’s has opened in the last dozen years or to the more than two thousand The Body Shop operates or licenses around the world (both owned by L’Oreal since 2000 and 2006, respectively). – But then many argue that The Body Shop has lost its soul – and profitability – a long time ago and that Kiehl’s might pay too little back into the 160+ year old legend to keep the myth alive as it expands furiously.
Compare that to an Aesop that does not cave to the lure of the growth hotbed Asia – particularly China but grows with integrity, on its own terms: They refuse to launch ‘whitening’ products because they have “negative cultural and personal ramifications”2, they do not get into the discount and gift pack game, which is considered essential in Asia by the industry. They do not set foot on the China mainland as they feel the elite is not yet ready to look beyond monogrammed and shiny concept of luxury and they would not be able (or allowed) to ‘go deep’ in their neighborhood and customer relationships.
Aesop has taken on some minority venture capital funding in 2010 to finance its considered international expansion and help scale operations back home. But Paphitis and the management majority owners have turned down advances by some of the Beauty powerhouses to take over and catapult Aesop into the luxury Beauty big league . At price points ranging from $20 to 150 and with a well-off, loyal follower-ship, Aesop seems in no rush to sell. But most importantly, how could the anti-Beauty beauty brand survive such ownership and expansion spiritually? Just like the customers and the market, a future owner has to be ready to receive and appreciate this brand.
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” (Henry David Thoreau)
– quote in an Aesop product and store catalog.
Read more about Aesop and other Ueberbrands in our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands“
1 “Pure Vision“, The Age, Australia, Sept 2002
2 “Aesop’s Fables“, Smart Company, March 2012
3 “Aesop The Stuff Of Fables“, Marc C O’Flaherty blog and in Financial Times, May 2012
4 “Ten questions with Dennis Paphitis“, a great interview by Daniel Benning, Oct 2012 on OEN
5 “The Fable Guys“, Jo Bowman, CNBC Magazine, Feb 2012
6 “More than skin deep“, the Star online, Malaysis, June 2009
7 Read about how serving a cultural need of a segment of the population can create iconic brands in “How Brands Become Icons”, HBR Press, 2004 or in “Cultural Strategy”, Oxford University Press, 2010 by Douglas Holt.
8 Read in Styletales how Aesop Animal puts the dog into “a state of clean dog zen” and the owner into a trance, inhaling the “glorious aroma.”
9 “Aesop: Fabled Beauty“, The independent, UK, April 2008
10 “Aesop x Kapok” Hong Kong, Hypebeast – online magazine, June 2012
11 “The Man behind the Aesop Brand“, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 2012
12 “Aesop: The Making of a Lovemark“, Futuro blog by Eduardo Chavez – Read how a true Aesop lover discovers, experiences and gets captivated by this brand.
13 Read about and see the dramatic work of Ruven Afanador in particular the ‘Mil Besos’ series Aesop sourced from.