How Aussie icon Aesop went global, and what we can learn from them

You know it, because everybody does. The perfectly minimal packaging. The stores with their clean architectural lines and immaculate staff. The subtle, natural scents emanating from their neatly labelled products.

It might sound clichéd, but Australian skincare company Aesop has become more than just a brand, it’s a movement. Walking into a stranger’s bathroom and spotting an Aesop product somehow instantly tells you what kind of person they are (one with good taste, essentially). It’s both familiar and aspirational. Luxurious and attainable. And, of course, universally successful.

Founded by Melburnian Dennis Paphitis in 1987 (at the time just as a hair salon that also sold its own products), Aesop now has over 183 points of sale in 50 countries. But its world domination isn’t just ideological, it’s financial. And far from accidental.

According to Smart Company the company really hit the ground running in 2003, when a “change of direction” sped things up substantially. Chief Executive Michael O’Keeffe said this altered approach was all about looking at the big picture or, specifically, the brand’s image.

“It was important for us to be okay with having these ugly brown glass jars, and we found out putting them in the right place with the right context can really achieve something,” O’Keeffe told Smart Company.

“This was really about transforming from a product centric business to a retail centric business.”

They nailed it. As Dr Alexander Haldemann, a design and brand expert, wrote for HuffPost: “While each Aesop store is unique, the experience of the brand is consistent - if only by the way it makes one feel.”

Here are some of their core tactics:

1.    They don’t advertise. Think about it – ever seen an Aesop billboard? Print ad? Or even a radio or TV ad? They let their stores and products speak for themselves. And they rely on that “Oooohhh, what’s that?” curiosity their products inspire when you see them in a friend’s bathroom.

2.    They focus on their great products. They don’t offer too many iterations of their famous hand creams, scrubs, cleansers and soaps, but what they do offer is innovative and relevant to the target market (e.g. those clever post-poo drops).

3.    They feel local. Aesop make a point of adapting their stores to suit individual environments. So while they might be an Australian brand, in other countries they subtly shrug off any obvious hints at their roots and their shopfronts pay respect to local architecture and trends.  

4.    They choose their staff wisely. They want people who genuinely value the product and represent the brand, not just employees looking for a summer job. Their staff are intensely educated about what they’re selling.

5.    Their ethos extends beyond the point of sale. Even employees in the corporate offices of the company are required to adhere to the brand’s strict aesthetic and lifestyle principles.

While O’Keeffe humbly admitted to Smart Company that Aesop will likely have to restructure and adapt to continue its winning streak, the goal is it hit $1 billion in sales by 2025. Now THAT’S what you call a power move.