Selling perfection, enlightenment and... handsoap

There’s a part of my brain that knows that spending £27 on hand soap is insane. But there’s another part that says ‘shut up brain, it looks cool, I like it, and that’s enough reason.’

Aesop products seem to do a weird thing that certain brands or products do to me that provokes a very emotional response rather that a rational one. It’s a kind of fuzzy unexplainable desire that I occasionally and ashamedly feel for very material things.

For me recently it’s things like (predictably) a new iPhone, stuff from APC, Dodds Gin, Beavertown Beer, in my teens it was Nike Air trainers and PlayStation games and it could all probably be traced back to being ten and having an overwhelming sense of ‘want that’ for shiny stickers from the USA ’94 sticker album.

As an adult and being quite fickle I’ve realised I generally like things because they look pretty or come wrapped in brown paper.  But for the purposes of this post I’ll say I choose certain brands over other brands as it helps define me and this is mostly true for anyone who doesn’t shop in Lidl. As someone in the office said recently any purchase over about £5 is basically a status symbol.

This couldn’t be more true of aspirational lifestyle brand Aesop.  Whilst the product is apparently of the highest quality (around 80% of their spend on product goes on ingredient and formulation costs when the rest of the industry spend around 10%) the main reason people buy Aesop is because they want to buy into the lifestyle it carefully curates, one of effortless simplicity, sophistication and wisdom.

Aesop’s trick is not to try to sell themselves at all. Being sold to is for some people but Aesop’s customers are way too sophisticated for that. Since launching in 1987 they’ve not made one advert and currently have no plans to. Unlike almost every other beauty brand they also play down the significance of their products in people’s lives.

As Aesop Product Advocate Suzanne Santos says ‘At the end of the day, we’re making cosmetics; we’re not changing the world, there are thousands of people who change the world on a daily basis, and no one knows their names.’

Instead of attempting to sell themselves to customers they’ve focused their efforts inward. Building an identity from the inside out with an attention to detail that borders on the tedious, affecting everything from toilet roll in their offices to the lining of drawers in store. In doing so have created this impenetrable world of wisdom and sophistication, where there are no cracks between the brand and the organisation.

Does it matter which brand of toilet paper they use? Or what paper they print financial charts on? Or whether the weather is an appropriate conversation to have with customers? Yes it does actually because one little slip like that would ruin the whole holistic perfection thing that’s been meticulously crafted. If I found a hole punch from Ryman in the Aesop stationary cupboard I’d feel massively let down.

There’s a complexity to the brand, a perspective hinted at through quotes on walls in store and essays on their website. It’s wrapped up in a view of philosophy, architecture, art and literature, which bleeds into everything.

Gone are the days when brand could live in a vacuum, refusing to acknowledge competitors and keeping conversations to areas directly related to their own products or category.

Today brands can be as rounded yet complex as people, they can cross into different categories and talk to different audiences, they can demonstrate multiple interests and varying behaviours as long as the identity is consistent.

Founder Dennis Paphitis has described the brand as ‘the equivalent of a weighty, gold charm bracelet on the tanned wrist of a glamorous, well-read European woman who has travelled and collected interesting experiences.’

Sound kind of specific? Maybe the kind of way a niche start-up might think about themselves? But Aesop are not niche. They are a global brand with 72 stores in 13 countries. They made sales of US$82 million last year and are expected to grow further as they launch in South America and Asia.

There’s value in complexity for brands. Just make sure the hand soap, stationary and loo roll are all reading from the same page.