How do we truly create brand appeal in the generation of AND not OR?

In particular how does the appeal of shampoo and soap effectively become a brand with such cool, such kudos that simply seeing it on the high street in sunny (or in fact a very rainy) London inspires me to reach for my phone notes so I remember its there for the future. Aesop a brand built from an Australian hairdresser has done that, in my house anyway.

Skincare, making you clean and smell nice has been in the market of capturing a gender neutral effect for at least a decade, I remember Molton Brown being the symbol of metro-sexuality when I was in my 30s, but Aesop in its own branded London stores has taken hold of the theory and corrected anything that could be wrong with it, becoming a shop front as appealing to man and woman in equal measure.

Aesop has become a brand symbol with such a special place in a house that loyalty is no longer a question, Aesop hand cleaner in the kitchen is a symbol, a new symbol of knowing; when people visit our little home in Leeds there is a knowing glance from the Aesop(tonians) as they spot the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash by the sink, and for those that haven’t tried the formulation of orange, rosemary and lavender when they do in all cases they ask, what, where and how much, even the kids become obsessed with hand washing, a superb bi-product!

From the beautifully chosen Helvetica type face used on every product to the special kind of adoration that has been created for the shape of every bottle Aesop has captured the art of brand. And those loyal to the brand feel like they get their own unique access to the simplistic perfection of elegance.

Step into the store on Lambs Conduit street in London and be met by a feeling that I can only think to describe as knowledgeable tranquillity, an atmosphere that feels like the highest end of the Spa market place, think Barnsley House in the Cotswolds on a quiet Tuesday, even though the rest of Lambs Conduit is the bustling cool that it always is. The team at Aesop get the mix of complimentary (my brief case) and friendly inquisitive (her Folk bag) perfect. The advice they give, which we would normally shy away from, is perfect, not about a sale (which obviously it is) but in fact its about being helpful, advisory and making a new friend.

We went in to the store for geranium leaf body wash and came away with the beautifully crafted cloth bag of goodness and enough samples to furnish the second bathroom for weeks to come! That is how you feel when you shop Aesop, you don’t buy you are furnished with the knowledge to own goodness, smells, feelings and happiness, maybe that is a stretch a little too far but that is how I feel when I walk out of the store. Lambs Conduit is not just a great store but placement to perfection too, Oliver Spencer (for me the heir to the Paul Smith thrown), Folk, Universal Works, Fromagerie and so many others ‘litter’ the street with calm, perfect cool, a street somewhat male in focus (from a clothing brand at least) Aesop places itself in the and not or category yet again.

Selling a home in 2019 across the global metropolises of the world now requires THE hand wash to be in the photo.

Aesop is modern warm cooked bread and yet hasn’t taken on that snooty sniffy element that so many ‘things’ of that ilk can do. An article in Wallpaper recently described the new perfume by the French family D’orsay, if you want to purchase the fragrance you need to attend a curated experience, wow, whilst I am certain that will be the best smelling experience ever, how scary would that be? Aesop manages to stay just the right side of the scary line, dark wood, perfect smells, running water, natural light and candles and yet because of ‘that’ type face and the skill of the staff it never quite becomes too scary to step into.

Aesop was born in 1987 by Dennis Paphitis an Australian hairdresser with a difference defined in his very own Melbourne hairdressers, that difference lives on today;

An ability to engage all, to have an exclusive inclusive product!

He stopped being a hairdresser in 1996. The first store opened in St. Kilda a cosmopolitan district of Melbourne and stores are now present in over 23 countries with no store being the same in its ultimate design but still somehow they maintain the brand! Ask a casual buyer of Aesop product in my home town of Leeds and they would reference Space NK and Hip as the two places to grab the essentials, on line though really has been the place to procure Aesop outside of London, and maybe this is why so many casual observers view Aesop as a cool French brand rather than the Australian vision of calm that it actually is.

According to a recent article in Esquire Aesop staff are forbidden from talking about the weather, finance has a colour pallet for their graphs and only black ball point pens are allowed in the offices of the brand. It’s a new level of care and detail, drawn into the culture throughout the team, the brand has become its culture and its way forward.
A Liberty beauty buyer describes the brand as, “incredibly genuine” and as I move to retail and become more and more and more conscious of how brand impacts on all aspects I can see with clarity that Aesop has captured the Omnichannel – omni present – brand consistency that so many cry out for, not through technology particularly but through a beauty of engagement in the consistency.

The new Boots store in Covent Garden is a store as a master hub of beauty advice and…

… a great example of the omnichannel experience live!

It is a store that has to be about the experience as the hook, new Boots a brand that can now begin to compete with the premium beauty halls of the world is making a new difference in 2020, as part of my immersion in 2019 I spent a bit of time studying different retail experiences either directly or indeed through a bit of desk based research, Aesop for me came out top but there are some great lessons from others too.

The storytelling of the brand and the relationship that creates is 80% in store for luxury brands according to research in 2019. The ability to create a single customer journey that can follow on on-line is important to the luxury brand but its about the follow up not the sale. In the run up to Christmas 2019 I had two exceptional Ralph Lauren experiences one in NYC and one in the relatively new Leeds store. First the NYC experience, two weeks before Christmas the shop was still a place of calm on Madison Avenue, its own coffee shop, a flower stand for the essential photographs and free bubbles to everyone as they walked in. The feeling of exquisite calmness was stunning and the shop was simply beautiful in its content and layout. The Leeds store effect one week later was nearly as awesome, with the icing on the cake being the level of customer service in store which was exceptional, particularly when you are in buying items for a significant other, the store team were wonderful in their help and advice and then rather than ‘simply’ an emailed receipt the next day a personal email from the assistant who completed the transaction and then after Christmas a follow up to ask how the presents went down, absolutely lovely service!

Once upon a time stores used to be run by showmen! Now its more common for stores to be run by accountants and yet customers can do the accountancy themselves online hence why I think the store experience will die unless we fall back to the experience visit in retail. Its why Hip in Leeds does so well, a store team who know how to make the shopping experience something you go back to. I guess there has to be a hybrid accountant and showman model for the high-street store to truly thrive, after all retail does have to look after the pennies. It is an odd mix though that needs to somehow feel as authentic as the Ralph moment above felt. The surprise and the delight has to be delivered by a human not by a piece of RPA!

If we are to be customer keepers rather than store keepers in the future then hyper-local needs to come from hyper-personalisation. Once we have the ability to do this though a new trend will emerge I think, the desire to at least appear if not actually be connected to local will be possible and suddenly the showman of yesteryear will be given tools to appear like the knowledgeable friend of every customer that walks in, that’s what Hip in Leeds gets so right today! The Aesop stores in London insist on an A to Z of local knowledge being a skill the store team have, an ability to recommend the next store to go to for the next thing on your shopping list.

The Canada Goose store in NYC and now in London has taken the concept of try before you buy that Nike and Adidas have in their flag ship stores to a whole other level. You buy a Canada Goose coat for a reason, to be warm in cold weather, trying on a big winter coat for size in a warm retail outlet is unpleasant and doesn’t give you the chance to give the product a proper ‘stress’ test so Canada Goose have built sub-zero cold room’s into their stores as a try before you buy concept. Taking the work that Adidas and Nike have done in their NYC concept stores one step further. They have their own Basketball courts in the shops where you can book in to try the trainer of choice on the court and see how it enhances your performance, or the skate park inside Selfridges in London where again you can try the sports wear of choice against the conditions it has been built for.

The Greek for market place is agora, a more literal translation of the word is meeting place for like minded people.

A disused once uninspiring, perhaps even a little scary area not too far from Kings Cross station is attracting some of the best stores in London, open since October 2018 Coal Drops Yard is an agora, a shopping area that has mastered the ability of attracting the ‘like-minded’ stores that have an appeal that collectively enhances to the power of ten. In one area you have; APC, Folk, You Must Create, Paul Smith, Aesop, American Vintage, Country Of Origin, Cos and Universal Works (and those are just the ones I know I visit when I go there!) As with Aesop mentioned before the staff in this area have a unique capability to be curating an experience, not just in their store but in the whole small area, recommending other stores that have items that compliment what they are selling, offering the recommendation for coffee or a nice glass of wine. The agora feeling of Coal Drops for me is how I want to shop, it makes you feel like you are in ‘it’ together, part of a club, part of a way of knowing. Maybe this feeling is why clothes edits like the Thread subscription took off like they didi in 2019, that club feeling, being part of something new.

I can’t finish this blog piece without mentioning for me ‘my’ brand of the moment; Acne Studios I think has managed to capture so much of what 2020 will be about, firstly its range is exceptional, and the quality of the items and the collaborations is brilliant, whether you are shopping on line, in NYC, London or Copenhagen the experience is locally curated, instantly recognisable as on brand and wonderfully personal. They just get it right in every direction. The edits and content they offer out to other stores is great but it’s the uniqueness of their own content that sets me marvelling at how they do it, and the collaborations they have chosen too. In the five own stores I have visited the staff have been exquisite in their showmanship and customer keeper capability, even with language barriers!

My ‘studies’ of retail brands in 2019 taught me quite a lot about how I like to shop too, one worry I have is the same as the social media ‘bubble’ effect, if I keep going back to the same places will I really stretch my taste and experience new, something that the agora of places like Coal Drops Yard nurture and whilst I am in love with the place I know I need to be careful of it, an open mind to the next is just as important as knowing where the stores are now. I guess that’s why GQ, Esquire et al still sell magazines though!

So on that note, make your recommendation below, lets get out there and find the new me and you, lets curate an experience together.

Thanks for reading….


Edit Note: This blog was written over a 6 month research period, some of the stores (and staff) may well have changed during this period of time.

Edit Note 2: Style is in the ‘eye of the beholder’, any recomednations to add to this list woul dbe very welcome!