‘Our ambition is to be the Apple of the beauty industry.’
As Anita Roddick seemed to suggest in Chapter 11, red wine is good for you. It is the central pillar of the French Paradox – the familiar belief that, although the French wolf down artery-clogging foods like cheese, steak-frites and patisseries with abandon, they enjoy relatively low levels of coronary heart disease. This led to speculation that drinking red wine reduced the risk of heart attacks. While the data behind the French Paradox turn out to be shaky, research has shown that red grapes contain antioxidant polyphenols, such as resveratrol, which may well have health benefits.
Most of us merely use this as an excuse for accepting a second glass of red wine with dinner. A French beauty brand named Caudalie encourages us to go several steps further, by rubbing wine-related products into our skins. What sounds like an odd notion is a palpable success, as a visit to Caudalie’s offices in an elegant champagne-coloured building not far from boulevard Haussmann confirms.
There, marketing director Pauline Celier-Bony gives me chapter and verse on the Caudalie saga. More than anything, it’s a valuable lesson in creating an independent brand with an identity strong enough to stand out in the crowded skincare sector. It attracts consumers by expertly playing on two notions: the French Paradox and the French art of living.
The story began at the Château Smith Haut Lafitte in 1993, when Mathilde Thomas and her now husband Bertrand took a group of students led by a professor of pharmacology from Bordeaux University on a tour of the vineyards, owned by Mathilde’s parents. The professor, Joseph Vercauteren, remarked that the grape seeds discarded during the winemaking process contained potentially valuable antioxidants. Pursuing the conversation, Mathilde discovered that the by-products of winemaking were known for combating free radicals, one of the main causes of skin ageing.
Realizing that they had stumbled upon a business idea – and a way of further monetizing the vineyard – Mathilde and Bertrand partnered with Vercauteren to isolate the molecules that would turn those by-products into the active ingredients of a line of beauty products. In 1994 they launched Caudalie (the word is a unit of measurement referring to the duration of a wine’s flavour on the palate) and patented the idea of ‘vinothérapie’. They began with two creams and a nutritional supplement.
In a stroke of genius, they decided to distribute their product not through conventional beauty retailers like Sephora, but through pharmacies. Pauline explains:
Caudalie’s key market is successful women aged between 35 and 49. The conventional strategy of a beauty company is to sell a dream world, but we felt that selling through pharmacies better reflected the authenticity of our products. Although it’s a glamorous brand, its products are reasonably priced and contain natural ingredients. We consider pharmacies our partners. Our sales people educate pharmacy staff about what our products can do and they pass this information on to our customers.
Caudalie also provides point-of-sale posters – which it considers more effective than press advertising – and keeps the brand front of mind with regular promotions, also carefully communicated to pharmacies by its sales staff. Pharmacies with a high footfall of the brand’s target customers are selected for consumer events, during which the brand’s beauty therapists are on hand to provide tips and an opportunity to test products. Pharmacies often sell out of their stock during one of these gatherings. By 2009, Caudalie was the leading anti-ageing brand across a network of 10,000 pharmacies.
The brand has proved skilled at building a database of consumers. Products come with an invitation to join ‘Le Club’ and benefit from special privileges. The invitation includes a customer code that can be tapped into a registration form on the brand’s website. Customers must name the product they purchased, which provides a clearer idea of their preferences. Members of Le Club receive a newsletter and regular free samples. The brand now has a database of over 200,000 clients.
The website is available in 11 different versions, including Japanese, Chinese and Russian. From customer relationship management to the e-boutique, it has proved vitally important to the growth of Caudalie. Its address is clearly visible on packaging and advertising. One of the brand’s most interesting innovations was the ‘click to call’ service. When visitors to the ‘gift ideas’ section of the site land on a product, underneath they see the words, ‘Personalized consultation? We will call you within half an hour,’ followed by a button marked ‘Call me’. A click and a phone number later, they’re talking to a Caudalie representative.
In 1999, Mathilde and Bertrand opened Les Sources de Caudalie, a fivestar hotel and spa amidst the vines of Château Smith Haut Lafitte. This introduced clients to such delights as ‘barrel baths’ in red wine or grape marc, massages with grapeseed oil, grape blossom wraps and crushed Cabernet scrubs. There are also wine-tasting and cooking classes and a gastronomic restaurant. Even if you’re sceptical about the treatments, the place is idyllic, from the perfectly judged rustic-luxe architecture to the wandering peacocks. The establishment proved so popular that Caudalie has opened a number of other spas: just outside Paris, in Brazil, in Turkey, within the Plaza hotel in New York (note the ‘French Paradox Lounge’) and in the Rioja region of Spain.
Spas play the same role – on a more impressive scale – as branded beauty salons within department stores. Beyond their basic utility as generators of cash, they encapsulate and concretize the brand’s values. They also provide memorable experiences that inspire brand loyalty. Imagine if every time you use a tube of Caudalie cream you remember a pampered vacation in the gently sun-warmed Bordeaux countryside, when you felt more relaxed and contented, possibly, than you had in years. The building in Rioja, designed by Frank Gehry, is essentially a giant logo, with its purple-tinted metallic curls reflecting the towering peaks in the distance.
Not that Caudalie disparages more conventional marketing methods. Initially, its advertising was minimalistic and star free, focusing on grape and vine imagery. But in 2010 it recruited the Hungarian model Reka Ebergenyi as its ‘face’. ‘Beautiful, natural, feminine,’ says Pauline. She confirms that the recruitment of the model underlined Caudalie’s status as a successful brand.
Caudalie now has a whole panoply of skincare products, including an obligatory ‘fix everything’ cream, which it naturally calls Premier Cru (‘your skin is regenerated and redensified, wrinkles are smoothed, the look of your skin is renewed and your complexion is even-toned. Smoother, firmer and more luminous, your skin looks visibly younger’). It has mastered every aspect of beauty branding, including the vocabulary, while delivering the extra tannic twist that enables it to compete with the luxury titans.
But what can you do if you don’t have a vineyard and a scientist close to hand?
The Absolution solution
When two marketing experts launch a beauty brand – watch out. For a start, they have a tendency to take a close look at what the rest of the market is doing with the sole aim of disrupting it, which was more or less the approach of Isabelle Carron and Arnaud Pigounides, founders of the emerging brand Absolution.
The pair were already entrepreneurs, having created a small but cool communications agency called Jak. (It stands for ‘Just a kiss’. Arnaud explains, ‘When you meet someone you like, if your strategy is good enough, the validation comes with a kiss. After that, anything can happen.’) This attracted an impressive list of clients, ranging from Louis Vuitton and Vogue to L’Oréal and Christian Dior Cosmetics.
They both know branding backwards. Isabelle worked for a string of wellknown agencies. Arnaud ran a call centre before running off to New York to play electronic music and set up an agency called Reflex. Then he came back to Paris to work for another agency, before meeting Isabelle at a dinner. They call Jak ‘a strategy, design, creation and curiosity agency’. The seed of Absolution lies in the word ‘creation’. Isabelle believes that an agency should create not just advertising, but products too. (This is by no means unheard of: the cult jeans brand Acne was launched by a communications agency.)
‘I’d worked on beauty brands, but that’s a world away from launching your own,’ says Isabelle. ‘However, I’d done some benchmarking and I got the impression that there were a lot of “me too” products in the industry. There was also an element of personal frustration because I’d never found a product that suited my skin.’
Wondering about this, Isabelle began to explore the mysteries of the skin by talking to scientists. ‘What I discovered was that the skin is an ecosystem. It’s an external organ, so it’s always reacting to outside influences. I think of it as a communications interface. It’s not in a fixed state; it’s always adapting, reconfiguring. So if your skin is different every day, why would you always use the same cream?’
At the same time, she knew that customization was a growing trend in the luxury sector. The challenge, then, was to create a flexible, bespoke beauty system.
Arnaud says, ‘Once the problem was clear, we realized we had to solve it. Creating our own brand would be a demonstration of everything the agency could do.’
The solution was intriguingly simple: a range of four soothing base creams that could be used on their own, but to which users could add an activerich serum depending on their needs. There’s a serum for dry skin, one for outbreaks, another targeting wrinkles and – finally – one to promote ‘radiance’. The bottle’s pump action delivers a bead of cream to the small concave dispenser at its top. Users add a pump of serum and then mix with a fingertip before applying to their skin.
‘We didn’t want to keep adding to the range,’ says Isabelle. ‘The idea was to launch a complete range of solutions at once. They’re not segmented by age or even by sex, although there is a cream tailored toward men.’ In addition, the brand is certified organic. ‘More than 99 per cent of ingredients are of natural origin, far higher than is required for certification. Most products calling themselves “organic” only contain between 10 and 16 per cent. Not only that, but at least 60 per cent of our ingredients are produced by organic farming.’
Although Absolution mentions the ‘organic’ aspect of the brand in its marketing, this is not presented as a raison d’être. ‘Today it should be a given,’ Isabelle states. Her stringent demands, along with the unusual mixand- match system, were ‘a challenge for the laboratory’, she admits. Despite this recourse to professional help, there is something handcrafted about the brand. When the pair launched it at the Beyond Beauty salon in Paris in 2009, they handed out brochures printed on thick recyclable paper and roughly stitched together on a sewing machine. They won the salon’s Beauty Challenger award. Since then, the brand has landed a design award from Wallpaper magazine.
Arnaud is behind the brand’s aesthetics, which are markedly different to those of its rivals, with dramatic black-and-white packaging that recalls both contemporary art and post-punk album covers. The website (www. absolution-cosmetics.com) continues the theme, with its handwritten text and drawings. The e-shop looks more like an underground fanzine. In fact, there’s a touch of rock and roll about Absolution that makes the global luxury brands look distinctly conservative. Even the ‘mixing’ aspect brings to mind a raucous night at a club. Absolution is skincare for hipsters.
The distribution strategy reflects this positioning. Rather than being stocked by global chains, Absolution is sold through niche boutiques in bohemian parts of town – its first two outlets in New York were in Brooklyn – or distributors that share its cultish air, like London’s Space NK ‘apothecary’. In Paris, the brand has its own ‘gallery’, where you’ll find bookshelves, an elderly piano and assorted creative types.
At that time of writing, Absolution was closing in on its first million and considering opening a spa.
‘Our ambition’, says Arnaud, with a wry smile, ‘is to be the Apple of the beauty industry.’
He’s half-joking. But it’s the other half you should keep an eye on.
The tale of Aesop
The first thing that happens when I walk into a branch of Aesop, the Australian beauty brand, is that an attractive young woman offers to rub cream into my hand. I accept, obviously, and find myself receiving a full-blown hand massage. It is sensual and rather shockingly intimate. I notice afterward that my skin feels smooth and smells great – in a herby, refreshingly masculine way – which it continues to do for the rest of the day. It’s rule number one, straight off the book: if you want to sell a cream, get it on to your customer.
Despite its name, that’s about the only thing Aesop does by the book. It was created by former hairdresser Dennis Paphitis who, as you may have deduced, likes stories. The product packaging is sprinkled with quotations, and when you land on the brand’s website the first thing you see is a line from Carl Jung: ‘As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.’
Straight away, you know you’re not dealing with a conventional celebritydriven beauty brand. The site also includes a newsletter offering bite-size reviews of books, art exhibitions, films, designer objects, gourmet restaurants and other cultural and lifestyle matters. The brand positions itself as part of the global creative community. All this might be rather wearing – not to say pretentious – were it not done with a light touch that nods to the irrepressible Australian sense of humour.
Paphitis originally ran a hair salon in Melbourne, where in the late 1980s he began experimenting with hair care products containing essential oils. Although these had been credited with mysterious life-changing qualities and had a whiff of the hippie about them, Paphitis was interested in their antibacterial and astringent qualities. When his potions proved popular, he moved on to a hand cream for the salon’s in-house manicurist. Eventually he began working with a chemist. Now the brand has its own laboratory in Melbourne.
Suzanne Santos, who has worked with Paphitis almost since the beginning and is his ‘product advocate’ (a role somewhere between ambassador and chief marketing officer), says Aesop has always been inspired by ‘science and the elegance of science’. The products contain mostly natural ingredients (like Caudalie, it is convinced by the antioxidant effect of grapeseed extract), but it doesn’t boast about that, because it uses artificial ones too. Suzanne says, ‘You’ll never hear us saying we’re “natural” and “organic”. Brands that make that claim usually aren’t being honest. We use man-made ingredients when they’re essential for creating the bestquality product.’
Nor does the brand boast about its packaging, which is nonetheless one of the loveliest things about it: brutally simple striped black and cream labels on brown tinted bottles that recall beer bottles. ‘Where possible, we avoid plastic packaging because it can disperse into the product,’ Suzanne explains. ‘We could have used green glass, but it turned out that brown was easier to find – maybe because of beer bottles.’
Paphitis himself has said that he wanted a ‘consistent, monochromatic and understated approach to packaging’ so people didn’t feel ‘violated’ when they entered their bathrooms in the morning. Additionally, in its stores, Aesop shuns exterior packaging, such as cardboard boxes shrunk-wrapped in cellophane, which it considers a waste. The bottles are ready to be transferred from the stores directly to your bathroom shelf.
At the time I catch up with it, Aesop has 36 stores around the world and 300 employees. (‘It’s still a small company. Small enough that we know who’s who,’ notes Suzanne.) Each store is unique, designed to complement its environment and say something about the history of the neighbourhood. A store in the Aoyama district of Tokyo recycled materials from a demolished home nearby. Another in London’s Mayfair has a Georgian air, with antique green walls, globe lights and giant white porcelain basins. And a store in Paris is entirely decorated with wooden slats inspired by the parquet floors found in the city’s apartments.
Since the brand eschews advertising, the stores and their quirky interiors are marketing tools, often featured by design and architecture magazines and blogs. Suzanne confirms that Aesop also supplies products to selected restaurants and hotels. ‘They usually come to us,’ she says. ‘It’s a great way of communicating, but we have to be careful about it. We always go along to make sure that it’s a suitable environment. If it’s a restaurant, for example, we want the food to be excellent, no matter how stylish the decor might be. Dennis enjoys great cooking, and he certainly wouldn’t want his products on display in a place with awful food. Uniqueness is important, too. A hotel doesn’t have to be big – it could be five rooms on an island somewhere. It’s about attitude.’
People have been known to leave their hotel and go straight to a department store to ask for Aesop products.
Word of mouth, as ever, remains the most prized marketing tool. Aesop is what is occasionally described as a ‘dog whistle brand’ – compelling to those on the right wavelength. ‘Our customers tend to be urban, worldly, well travelled, curious and quite demanding,’ says Suzanne. ‘They have every right to be, because they’re putting our product on their skin. We’re highly aware of that responsibility.’
She accepts that Aesop is not for everyone. Because it uses largely natural ingredients, and dispenses with synthetic colours and fragrances, its products tend not to look or smell alike. ‘Mainstream beauty products have an inoffensive odour and a deathly white colour. Ours can look and smell quite unusual in comparison.’
Paphitis himself is dismissive of the major cosmetics brands, which he describes as ‘passionless products constructed by marketing departments and focus groups, and designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of people to appeal to those who would like to be lighter, slimmer, thinner, whatever’. He does not pay attention to them, but rather tunes them out as mindless clutter, like reality TV (‘Skincare with soul’, Star, Malaysia, 27 January 2008).
One thing you won’t hear in Aesop’s discourse is ‘anti-ageing’. Says Suzanne: ‘It is simply not in our philosophy. And that, I think, is quite radical.’