This rambling piece will (and should) fall under the category of #thingsyoulearnrandomly. And hopefully you will soon see, why!
Every morning, instead of reading newspapers, now I need curated emails and twitter lists. One of these early morning reads is Jason Hirschorn’s Fashion Redef email newsletter — I like fashion and style and it has an eclectic mix of links. This morning, email’s curator Adam Wray shared an article about the rise of the niche and non-mass market brands in perfume industry.
The Globe & Mail’s Nathalie Atkinson informed me that large companies are buying up smaller, independent brands and plugging them into their system. One of them, Le Labo, has been a favorite of mine, had been acquried by Estée Lauder , the cosmetics giant that owns some of the more iconic perfumes in the world. I have been a Le Labo customer for a long time — they make a specific fragrance that reminds me of the Mughal Gardens in Delhi. It is a cherished memory and hence that le Labo fragrance has become part of my daily life.
I was introduced to Le Labo by a friend, who like me is a champion of the small brands. Like her, I too actively try and avoid stuff that comes out of brand conglomerates in general (and LVMH in particular.) My desire is to spend money with smaller companies and artisans who actually benefit for their hard work. The large brand conglomerates are increasingly short on quality and charge a premium for advertising in those big fashion magazines. It is why I am constantly on the quest for newer talents — perhaps that also explains why I find startups fun to follow and champion. It must be that underdog thing. Google was great to root for when it was an academic paper called PageRank — today not so much.
Going back to Atkinson’s piece, when reading that piece, I felt a sense of distress, and a little bit of anger. Still, when thinking about this morning’s feeling, I was confused by my own reaction. Just as I am always delighted by the success of my friends who start companies in Silicon Valley, I am equally happy for Roschi and Penot especially as they stand to gain handsomely from the transaction. So why now was I feeling a sense of betrayal? Was it because the words the Le Labo founders used to state their mission and their eventual actions didn’t match up?
Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot, both left L’Oreal to start Le Labo. In an interview with a perfume-loving blogger, Penot once said, “Le Labo does not respond to anything, we just keep on doing what we know best, contributing to the well-being of our clients through our craft, fine perfumery, through true and honest humane connections with them.” Their inability to be honest about their connection to a large conglomerate doesn’t really reflect when Penot had asserted in that interview. If they truly believed the relationship they had with their clients then why didn’t they have the decency to write a small email announcing that it had been acquired by a larger brand. I wonder if they want to hide the fact that they are part of a larger company. After all that would take away the “authenticity” and the image of an “independent” brand.
As is the case, when something fosters a strong emotional and uncharacteristic reaction, I go into self reflective mode. My friends call it my frowning brow, tense face mode. My only explanation so far is that when forming a bond with brands, I am essentially letting them reflect my “self” through their products. Le Labo, then was a small, independent, upstart that made high quality products. It was an apt reflection of some of my values, except in a fragrance bottle. I felt it when I visited one of their many stores around the world. It was reflected in personalized packaging and it was reflected in their ethos.
So perhaps that is why this lack of transparency in their communication with their clients, Le Labo as a brand was suddenly at odds with my way of thinking — and hence why I experienced my unsettled emotions. I am reminded something Starbucks founder Howard Schultz said in an interview with CNN: Great companies that build an enduring brand have an emotional relationship with customers that has no barrier. And that emotional relationship is on the most important characteristic, which is trust.” This broken trust was the reason behind my anger and disappointment with a product that I till this morning, truly loved.
Having being around startups and their eventual acquisitions by large companies, I know that innocence is the first thing to go when part of a giant machine. Their obeisance to a larger profit motive and the quarterly results is what leads to defraying of relationship between us and the brands we love. It is why startups go from beloved to something to be wistful about. Skype, was one of those companies. Today it’s a sigh-inducing necessity. As profits become the sole driving factor, the beloved brands start to make some spreadsheet decisions — raise prices, flood the market, use lower quality ingredients. Who is to stop these changes from happening — the founders report to someone who is a career bureaucrat, motivated in many cases by their annual bonus and desire to not lose their job. Mediocrity is the unseen virus of a large corporation, thanks to the very basic fears of very people who make up a company.
February 5, 2015
Updated on February 9th: The fountain pen world is in an uproar as the new owners of Esterbrook, a vintage and much beloved brand have been playing loose and easy with the brand values. Pen-expert/blogger Leigh Reyes writes about the kerfuffle, which actually is very useful as a “what not to do with your brand.” guide.