Utilitarian luxury: the brand secrets of Aesop

30 June 2017

In our Brand Profile Series, we take a closer look at surging brands across the world. For this eighth article of the series, we invite you to the retro minimalist universe of Aesop!

An oasis in urban jungles

If you are not fazed by your usual high street cosmetic shops, look no further: Aesop awaits you. Their luxury plant-based products, beautifully displayed in calm and elegant boutiques, are the perfect break from our saturated lifestyle. With 178 signature stores in 24 countries (that is almost half as many shops as Kiehl’s), the Australian brand founded in 1987 has found its clientele. Often described as a success of “unbranding”, Aesop’s main secret is attracting new clients who often don’t even know what the shop is selling, but are reeled in by its aesthetic. On another note, the owner of Aesop, Brazilian cosmetic brand Natura, is currently expanding and negotiating the acquisition of another big name in the field, Body Shop.

Utilitarian luxury

Aesop’s forte is elevating something as utilitarian as skin care products to a form of art. While confronted with an endless list of competitors, Aesop chose the classic back to basics approach and rooted itself in an intellectual context. Its “utilitarian luxury” perspective, a sort of Hermès meets Muji take, strongly contrasts with other brands investing in flashy marketing strategies, and its frame of reference is far from a traditional cosmetic one. It focuses on the search for knowledge. Just like in a bookshop, clients enter a filtered atmosphere and browse through the shelves in search of information. A sort of scholar treasure hunt in a library-like environment.


A new take on consistency

On their website or in their retro inspired shops, the look of Aesop is a studied mix of black, white and warm golden brown. Just like their colour palette, the logo has stayed the same for 28 years. Although the brand preserves a general aesthetic, every single boutique is decorated in a different manner; in fact, every new shop’s interior design is assigned to a local firm. The brand also likes to use the original architectural elements that were already in place and incorporate them into the general look of the shop. This is what gives Aesop its “local gem” appearance, where you alway feel like you just discovered something unique and local. In contrast, every one of their products looks identical: apart from a line of creams that look like paint tubes, every bottle is brown, with a black cap and a beige label covered in small writing.

Broaden your horizons!

Aesop relies on its “consultants” to guide customers through this jungle of lookalike products. Since the customer strongly depends on those professionals’ explanations, the power stays in the hands of the brand itself. And it is there that Aesop strongly differs from usual retail brands: instead of being obvious in the packaging of their products, they much prefer to present it as something the client has to discover and understand, just like a bookshop would raise one’s curiosity without giving all the needed information at once. And since the brand views itself as a general opening to knowledge, their website offers sections such as “Aesop on Design” or “Aesop in Film”, in which their clients discover the making of the architecture of the shops or are invited to sit down with a drink to enjoy a selection of short films, made by Aesop of course. The brand even publishes a literary magazine, “The Fabulist”, in which no Aesop products are mentioned. And of course, since their interest for design and architecture is obvious: the brand has its very own design website, “Taxonomy of Design”, which offers exceptionally good interior design information and highlights Aesop’s search for simple perfection.

aesop oscar freire

Keeping the future bright

The question one might ask himself is: how will Aesop preserve the balance between their wish to keep that “little unique shop” feel and their ongoing international growth? On another hand, now that digital world and e-commerce are the norm, how will Aesop implant itself with its lookalike products that are hard to differentiate without extra help? The brand might also want to widen its online experience for customers, for instance through an instant chat and personalised advice, just like in old school bookshops. And just like those bookshops, it will need to find a way to adapt to the main characteristics of the web.

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Image credit: © Aesop

Brand Design, Consumer goods, Luxury