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Suzanne Santos is the brain behind Aesop
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Suzanne Santos is the brain behind Aesop
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Suzanne Santos is the brain behind Aesop
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Conversations
31 March 2013

Suzanne Santos is the brain behind Aesop

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Matthew Sleeth

Kate Bezar and Dennis Paphitis on Suzanne Santos...

Aesop cosmetics is that rare thing – a brand which commands extraordinary love and respect from its customers. Yet, there is no magic formula, it’s because the love and respect is mutual. Suzanne Santos is the woman responsible for the brand, and along with Aesop’s founder, Dennis Paphitis, their extraordinary vision and determination to do things the ‘Aesop way’, has seen the company become an international success story.

Dennis Paphitis, Director Aesop; “There are moments in life where it’s clear certain paths are meant to cross. I remember meeting Suzanne nearly 20 years ago via a friend. She had recently returned from the Philippines and Japan. At that time I was planning to open my first Melbourne salon (which I thought of as more of a well-being clinic for hair) and needed a front house person to assist in meeting, greeting and hosting clients. Suzanne has always possessed a remarkable presence and ability to comfort and nurture people which has become an integral part of the way we do things at Aesop. Her remarkable intelligence and cross cultural sensitivity meant that from our earliest days together there was an implicit understanding in how we communicated with both staff and clients anywhere in the world. I have learnt much from Suzanne particularly in the way she extends her empathy and sense of social obligation to those around her. Suzanne’s current role as global ambassador for Aesop could not be a more perfectly suited one.”

This story originally ran in issue #3 of Dumbo Feather

KATE BEZAR: We’re in the new store and I know this feels to you like the culmination of where Aesop’s been, but also very much where you want it to go.

SUZANNE SANTOS: It’s a culmination of all the philosophies that have led the product to this point. Most importantly it gives us the opportunity to serve our customers in a way such that their dignity is the criteria by which we exchange communication. These are our hand-selected staff and this is the environment that responds to and respects our values. It means that any customer could come here and from the beginning to the end, read each label and understand what we are, and what we do. They’d be supported in their selection by the staff, or without any interference if that was their choice. And they could then, very importantly, either themselves or with assistance, use the product here and now. That means everything to us.

To be able to give a person an opportunity to understand Aesop through demonstration, whether the person actually wants to put it on their face, or if they just want the pleasure of it on their hands, is vitally important to us. We invite the individual to become involved. It beckons you to be part of it. Companies generally try to force their own culture onto you, but we’d rather invite you to immerse yourself in it. We make product for customers, not for ourselves, we make it for other people’s pleasure. And that pleasure I think in truth begins with a response to the labels and what we’re saying, which is succinct and to the point.

This story originally ran in issue #3 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #3 of Dumbo Feather

Being in here is an extremely sensuous experience, meaning it engages all of the senses. Is that quite deliberate?

It is about the pleasures the products can give, and the need for that to be part of a person’s everyday experience.

And it takes time to shop, that’s the truth – we live in an era where we are extremely deprived of time. So when somebody enters here, indeed, every sense should be cared for and experienced because it’s their precious time. Many of my friends, who have come here in anonymity, have told me that the Aesop store has provided them with a confirmation of what they always believed we innately were.

Right, it’s the same with your head office – which not many people would have had a chance to experience – but when you walk in there, you get an overwhelming, “Yes, this is Aesop”.

The Aesop experience is not just about aesthetics or topical application.

In terms of your philosophical approach to selling – has that changed over time?

No I don’t think so. I think that from the first moment that we exchanged product for money it was about the intelligence of the individual and the union between two equal parties. We take great pride in what we sell, it’s truly a pleasure to share it with others. And the notion of a woman or a man, coming into the space and feeling the freedom to browse and ask questions – not necessarily purchase but be informed – has been the manner in which we’ve always approached selling. It’s the products, the products sell themselves…whether by sampling through demonstration or sampling through a sachet. A person takes away that experience, not feeling obliged to purchase.

And in terms of marketing, you’ve tended to shy away from traditional forms of advertising over the years.

Not out of disrespect for advertising, but the funds were invested into the product instead. Quite simply they cost a great deal to make because of the quality of the ingredients and the quantity of botanicals we use. Dennis also had no ambition for it to be a giant company so there was really no need to hurry the process through advertising. For us,

It’s about the intimacy of an individual welcoming Aesop into their life, and then inviting others through conversation

to seek it out – that kind of pace was manageable for the company. After a very short period of time, Dennis began to sponsor the Arts, and not just the Arts, he has certainly committed to other aspects of life, privately and quietly without people knowing it’s come from Aesop. For example, Aesop began supporting Medecins Sans Frontieres well before they won the Nobel Prize, well before anyone knew what MSF was.

And there was definitely a non-traditional approach taken to packaging as well.

Most skin and cosmetics companies to spend 60 percent on packaging, 30 percent on marketing and 10 percent of the product, with Aesop it’s the opposite. We would spend about 80 percent on the product, and 20 percent on the rest. The packaging was, and still is, quite unlike anything else on the shelves, but it was developed out of practical considerations, rather than rebellious ones! We chose the packaging we did for two reasons. Firstly it was fundamental – by using darkened glass to extend the life of the product we were able to control to a far greater degree the amount of manmade preservatives needed. Manmade preservatives are one of the irritants to many people. Secondly we were able to mass produce and recycle it. We live in a world where superfluous packaging is a problem! It also, very quickly, weaned out those people who were going to respond to the brand and built that following quickly amongst people who appreciated it for it’s simplicity and practicality. There are people who think it’s appalling, appalling use of packaging. And in a way that’s nice too. I think we need a world where people have personal choice, and many companies provide for those other people and satisfy their needs. But this product provides satisfaction to another community of people, so it’s finding one’s place quickly. And it did that, it established a community of followers quickly.

Who are Aesop’s customers? How would you describe them?

I’m always reluctant to categorise our customers – they really are such a diverse range of people – yet I do believe there’s a shared consciousness amongst them, there’s a belief in the ability to make change through their cosmetic purchases.

And the quotes on the packaging, on the walls in your head office, on all your communication, how did they originate?

I have to say once again that Dennis started to use quotes a decade in advance of other people using them. And initially, for the first five or six years, it floored people. It confused some people, while others celebrated the notion of acknowledging the work of great people. It seemed, like many things we’ve done, like the packaging, it again levelled out the people who got us, and who wanted to be part of that. So the quotes really stemmed from Dennis’ respect for thinkers – that’s how it began– and our desire to share those thoughts. In advance of people putting quotes everywhere, we really didn’t have a lot of opportunity to be exposed to statements of worth. Unless you read books that referred to them, or you owned the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or you deliberately sought them out, those opportunities weren’t there. You know for many people, to read a great quote can take the mind to wonderful, wonderful levels and inspire, absolutely inspire! So I think it’s a great contribution to the manner in which we recall and revere what others have said.

Any great thinkers that have either influenced you personally, or the company? Or are there any other organisations that have inspired you?

Organisations that have inspired us… I think I’ll go back to Medecins Sans Frontieres because Dennis did begin that involvement really quite early, and that was based on the inspiration of what historically that organisation had done and what they were doing at the time. It’s easy for individuals to become jaded into thinking that supporting organisations like MSF has some mode of trend about it as opposed to the enormous respect for the organisation which actually motivates us. The support of MSF by us is as honest as it could possibly be. It’s about the worth that they bring, and the fact that they can take medical action where others can not take action, and there is such a need for that in the world. There are endless organisations that you could attach yourself to, but we’re not interested in helping organisations for the sake of putting our name to them. So they definitely did provide inspiration.

Have you ever used the product as such to highlight any particular social or political issues?

Yes, we have. We used the soap bar for several years to support Plan Australia’s program against female circumcision, but I deeply regret that we didn’t make a bolder delivery through font size of what we were doing. It was explained on the packaging that a contribution from the sale of the product was going to Plan Australia’s program to end the practice of female circumcision, to stop that process. It’s a very difficult subject for people, and it’s a very difficult thing to discuss. Yet it’s still occurring, it has not ceased. And it certainly has not abated because in countries where people have migrated because they still seek out individuals to perform those actions in Western society. There is something about that action, there’s something about that act,

I don’t think there is actually any greater crime against a woman.

And the fact that it is not defined as a crime reflects so much about the world that we live in. I am sorry that others haven’t picked up the mantle of that actually. We live in a world where, for instance, Lauder supports cancer research, and they do that because of their family’s very tragic involvement with that condition. Others in the industry have followed that line – there hasn’t been a lot of original thought. I go back to the point, that because it is such a difficult subject, you’re not going to get a mainstream company aligning themselves with it. But in truth we women who walk and breathe on this earth, really as one, should rise up against it. I feel almost ashamed now to think that we haven’t done anything, and I personally haven’t done anything about it in a long time.

It must be wonderful to be part of a company which has such strong values and is prepared to act on them.

We would like to convey to every customer, a sense of the honour with which we make product and are a part of society. It’s not an easy thing in a world where people make endless exclamations and proclamations about the worth of what’s inside their jars – especially in the cosmetic industry where everything is invariably about the worth based on cost, the feigned cost. I think it is unjustifiable for people to charge the prices they do, for what they do.

To work for a company where the security of your word is assured, I think, is the ultimate pleasure. We live in a world where people are maimed and cheated constantly by all sorts of retail experiences. Our products cleanse, balance and moisturise the skin, as well as you can and that contribution is enough. We need to make no more claim as a company to the lives of women and men. There is something overwhelming about the relevance of cosmetics in this world, and in the world since Mesopotamia. The idea that a person can, with such a sense of security, open one of our jars and use our products, is of great pride to us.

And how many years now has it been?

Eighteen years!

Would you mind telling me how it all began?

Dennis began this because of his incredible drive to secure the best, the best in this industry. He’d come back from Europe and he’d opened a hair salon, off High Street, Armadale [Melbourne] and he was using commercial product. It was a time of great cultural change on this earth, and that change was recognising a return to botanicals in the formulation of cosmetics, hair care and skin care. Of course in European hair salons, the market was dominated in truth by the Americans, and all botanicals had been eliminated a very long time ago. So it was almost a moment of consciousness, and he was encapsulated with it, by that moment of consciousness. He wasn’t interested in the products that were available so he sought to create a product that did have botanical ingredients. And because of his organic sensibility in terms of quality, he sought out individuals of the caliber who could begin the process.

At the time it was a very new field, and he began this campaign, this lifelong campaign, to find the best botanical ingredients and the people who were growing them. The manner in which they were grown needed to meet the high expectations that he places on every element of Aesop. And of course the absence of animal testing of ingredients was obviously a significant part of it. He was not avant garde as such, but certainly part of the very beginning of the history of this cosmetic change. The removal of fragrance and colouring was a very significant thing to happen, and there was barely anyone else doing it at the time. I do think we can’t underestimate the role Aesop played in the history of cosmetics, and given the significance of cosmetics, that’s, that’s something, that’s a contribution.

So from that evolved the hair care, the first products we made were hair care, and they startled people. They startled people because in the first place they were transparent, and they startled people because we had lived in a time where cosmetics had no natural components.

Instead they had that fake apple smell!

Yes! And some people were not responsive to it, and for others, it was as if they’d found their dream. It began with hair care, and it moved into skin care – a hand balm. The hand balm is a metaphor for the brand in some ways, and then everything else just followed. We moved from a very small hair salon to a much larger one, then this took over. And it didn’t take over really because we pursued it’s growth, it grew in an extremely natural, containable way where people spoke to others of the experience of using it. Then Dennis simultaneously took it offshore and there were some fantastically responsive individuals in creative stores at the time who recognised the relevance and the worth in what he was doing, and they purchased it.

And that really was the foundation of the international focus. It could actually be much larger than it is, and it could have been much larger, much faster, but he has always contained it in a manner that has kept it sensible, and allowed us the right to have control over what was occurring with it. That is where the brand comes from.

And how has your role changed over time?

It’s changed significantly. A company like ours reached a point in its development where it needed the investment of other factors, apart from just the fundamental running on scientific and marketing levels, and so we now have individuals who bring enormous worth to the further development of the range, at many levels of the company. So the small group that we were is now a much larger group, so therefore my role has changed. I look upon, much more than look at.

At the moment what I do is I train people both here and overseas to converse about our brand, to understand our brand philosophically, and to introduce our brand at a commercial level. Because of my history with the brand, obviously there are things that my eyes can see and feel which means that I can help others who are holding the brand, to maintain its alignment – as best they can – with what happens here at the origin of Aesop.

Aesop is about a conversation between two people, it’s really not about anything else.

It’s about people listening, staff listening and responding specifically to what the need is. I take great pleasure in being part of a brand that so values communication and conversation. We’ve lost the art of conversation and it is breaking down society. There’s too much silence, and training based on, “Follow my word and the customer will be happy with that”. At any level, television has created a whole societal laziness. We’re so used to being entertained in a one-sided conversation in which we don’t need to put in any effort… And it’s interesting how people respond to being listened to. People return to enjoy it, not just to buy product.

If you hadn’t found Aesop, or if it hadn’t found you, what do you think you would have done?

I think I probably would have gone back to uni and studied and taken a path not dissimilar in terms of communicating with people. It’s very hard to predict what you would have done, because this is what I did, and this is my life to date, and it has touched my whole existence.

It’s not a company where it could not have touched my whole existence, and certainly it has been a remarkable experience. I feel blessed. Whatever happens after this will be profoundly directed by – not just the longevity of it – but what I’ve learnt. There really is no amount of scholastic education that could have taught me what I’ve learnt to date from this experience.

My life at Aesop has been an apprenticeship.

You must have also been exposed to amazing places, and people.

It has been a pleasure. I feel that the travel aspect of my job has been a gift. It’s been a gift because of the places to which I’ve been exposed, and because I’ve been able to experience things beyond just the workplace when I travel – opportunities I don’t know if I would have had in another time. I feel very fortunate because travel is something that has changed my life. Many things change your life, and it’s not the single and only relevant factor in one’s development, but travel does expose your senses, all of your senses. I’ve met incredibly interesting people, I’ve had remarkable meals, I’ve seen and experienced things I only wish I could have recorded…

Aesop certainly feels much more like an international brand, than a distinctly Australian one.

We have always seen ourselves as a small member of the international cosmetics industry rather than a global player. That our origins are in Australia seems more like a chance of geography.

Dennis has European roots doesn’t he?

Yes, Greek Cypriot. But I don’t think it’s that, I think it’s a strong sense that we are part of a global community of people. We were born here, and because of that there are initiatives that we have to contribute to others, and in the same way we are respectful of what other countries can bring to us. Australia was a great foundation for a small fledgling company in a time when the world was crazy, and there was a recession, and it wasn’t easy to pursue business, not just on such a small scale. So being in Australia was just fortunate. I believe Australians deny homage to that, we really don’t enjoy the sense of what this country can bring to our lives. There is a liberty that we have here in Australia that others do not have. Many, many people would not know that the product comes from this fabulous country. Many Australians would not know that the product was Australian. It’s interesting when you say to someone in a foreign country, “This is an Australian brand”, and they’re often quite taken aback.

And the intent of the retail concept is to focus in Australia initially?

No, we actually opened simultaneously in Taipei – two outlets, and there’s a third to be opened within the month. In the same month we will open a stand-alone store in Hong Kong, before the year’s end we’ll probably open another store in Melbourne, and we need to open a store in London. Most of our expansion is occurring outside of Australia. Our priority is to develop a much greater sense of our company and the Aesop stores do that. The stores in Taipei have been successful from the moment they opened. It is a very exciting experience to have such enthusiastic people – both from an employment and a customer perspective. We all do become extremely excited at the creation of a new product or the opening of a new store. The anticipation is shared by everyone. When we launched the eye serum recently many of the staff invited their friends because they were so enthusiastic, and it is that level of ownership I find inspiring. I believe that’s probably quite unique and incredibly special.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Matthew Sleeth

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