Jo Malone on refreshing the retail experience

The fragrance entrepreneur is reinventing retail for the second time with Jo Loves.

Jo Malone

Stepping into the Jo Loves store on Elizabeth Street in London’s Belgravia is like walking into a high-end cocktail bar. Behind the silver fragrance ‘brasserie’ bar the shop assistant warms bath cologne in a small tagine, releasing a cloud of scented steam. Next she pours cleanser over ice and strains it into a martini glass, before gently painting a light foam of body lotion onto the customer’s skin. This is fragrance tapas, the latest innovation from entrepreneur Jo Malone.

“I didn’t set out to be different: it makes your creativity slightly fake if you do,” says Malone, sitting in the studio at the rear of the store where customers create bespoke candles.

“I love things that have that quirkiness, that storytelling element to it. The tapas experience is a bit like when you have your first kiss. Everyone remembers their first kiss and so for our brand that’s our first kiss. People look at the product with fresh eyes, which is what every brand in the world is trying to do.”

A restless, creative mind, Malone describes herself as always looking for the next innovation to delight the consumer. That was the idea behind the launch of her second fragrance business Jo Loves in 2011, a concept she ensured was distinct from the eponymous brand she established 25 years ago, which made her a worldwide name.

The Jo Malone brand launched in 1991, followed in 1994 by the opening of her first store in what would prove to be a fragrance empire with the commercial allure to attract beauty industry heavyweight Estée Lauder, which bought the business in 1999.

READ MORE: Jo Malone – ‘Great brands make consumers the creative heartbeat’

Malone stayed on as creative director until 2006, during which time she was diagnosed with breast cancer and took a year out to have chemotherapy. In her newly-launched autobiography ‘Jo Malone: My Story’, she describes how she returned to the business and realised she could no longer “feel her character” there.

The decision to step away from the Jo Malone business in 2006 was a difficult one. The Estée Lauder deal stipulated that Malone take a five-year hiatus from the beauty industry, during which time she was not even allowed to purchase items from a beauty counter in case it appeared to be an endorsement. Malone struggled without a creative outlet and divorced from the industry she loved.

Jo Malone Jo Loves
Fragrance tapas is the latest innovation from entrepreneur Jo Malone

“I had a brand that was so synonymous with who I was and I was no longer part of that. I was miserable not being a shopkeeper and not creating fragrances. I was utterly frustrated and I didn’t know who I was,” she recalls.

“If someone had offered me a job, I would have bitten their hand off but nobody did so I decided to go out there and give it another go.”

And so Jo Loves was born. Malone’s teenage son Josh hit upon the name while they were throwing ideas around at the kitchen table, feeling it best summed up the brand as an expression of the scents she loves.

Creating a point of difference

As a passionate champion of retail Malone wanted to create a brand that gave the customer a reason to come back to the high street. “Did the world need another brand? Of course it didn’t, but it does need a brand with a difference.

“It’s not about a marketing campaign or doing the in-thing, it’s about the ingredients I love and the things that happened to me in my life that I translate back into fragrance,” she adds.

“Shopkeepers became lazy – that’s the reality I’m afraid. We became lazy and it was all about the product.”

Jo Malone, founder, Jo Loves

For Malone, the role of the retailer is to find the magical storytelling elements of a brand, which is key to repeat purchase and creating a language with the consumer. She argues that retailers need to raise their game or risk alienating customers.

“Shopkeepers became lazy – that’s the reality I’m afraid. We became lazy and it was all about the product,” says Malone emphatically.

“It’s about the language and the landscape your product lives in; the packaging, the entertainment, circus, the education – all those things encompassed. You look at all the great brands that succeed today – they have storytelling elements. They draw the consumer in to be the creative heartbeat, as well as the consumer of their product.”

She looks around the candle studio as an exemplification of her retail philosophy. Here customers create their own bespoke candle, selecting a base fragrance and a shot fragrance by first sweeping scent across a blank canvas with a paintbrush. The selected shot and base fragrances are then fused together by blowtorch in-store to form the candle.

Second-time startup

Building a brand from scratch was far scarier the second time around, Malone admits. When she started Jo Malone she was unknown so could stay under the radar, but with Jo Loves she she felt the world was watching.

The process of creating Jo Loves was the complete reverse of conventional brand-building, in particular having to register the intellectual property of the name in every territory before a single bottle had been sold.

Not everything with the launch went to plan. Malone admits she went “horribly wrong” with the original Jo Loves branding, opting for red packaging that drew a stark distinction from the black and cream design that defines Jo Malone. Looking back she is the first to admit the choice was about her emotions and identity, rather than the product itself.

“It wasn’t until I saw it sitting in Selfridges the night before we were going to open I knew I’d made the biggest mistake and there was nothing I could do about it,” she recalls.

“I was standing on the escalator and as I looked over I could see Jo Malone. I was looking at this brand thinking, ‘what have I done?’ I still love this brand, but it doesn’t need me any more. It has another creator and here I am with this brand that doesn’t look right.”

Having sunk all her money into the new business Malone knew there were not sufficient funds to rebrand straight away and that she would have to live with the packaging for what turned out to be four years.

Jo Malone Jo Loves
The first and only Jo Loves store opened on Elizabeth Street in 2013

“It was excruciating. I felt humiliated in myself because I’m the kind of person who is either all or nothing. If I don’t believe in something, I’ll get up and walk away. So it was really, really hard,” she recalls.

Malone went back to the drawing board in 2015, stripping away the colour to a classic white and black. Despite the changes, she knew something was missing. It was only when playing with a bottle of her favourite nail varnish – Shanghai Red – as she was getting ready for a business trip to the Chinese city, that inspiration struck.

“I will never forget the moment. I was sat there with a whole sheet of labels and I just dropped one drop of nail varnish [onto it].

“As I’m dyslexic I never sign anything off. I have a sheet of red dots and when something goes to the next level in the company it has to be ‘red dotted’. I sat there and thought, that’s my red dot – my seal of approval.”

The little red dot is now a feature of every package, bag and label, along with the embossed Union flag, which signifies Malone’s pride in being a British entrepreneur.

The first and only Jo Loves store opened on Elizabeth Street in 2013, an evocative location for Malone, who had worked at a florist on the same street when she was 16. As with all her fragrances, which take inspiration from her life experiences, the Elizabeth Street florist inspired scent No.42 The Flower Shop, a mix of fresh blooms and crushed green leaves.

This is one of 11 ‘shared’ fragrances, including bestseller Pomelo. Launched in October 2011, Jo Loves’ signature scent inspired by summer holidays and sandy beaches was also the brand’s first fragrance. The latest addition to the collection, unveiled in September, is Smoked Plum & Leather, a warm, earthy scent inspired by Malone’s love of riding horses in Montana.

“Online is a challenge and for us is a means of global distribution and repeat purchase, but that element you get [in-store] is missing.”

Jo Malone, founder, Jo Loves

In July, Jo Loves branched out with a deal to sell on premium ecommerce site Net-a-Porter, complementing existing stockist Emirates Airline. The brand also sells through the Jo Loves website, launched in 2012. Although it is difficult to replicate the tapas experience online, Malone and the team have a video series planned to take online consumers behind the scenes.

“Online is a challenge and for us is a means of global distribution and repeat purchase, but that element you get [in-store] is missing and we’re still finding that a challenge around how we make it real for people,” Malone adds. “It can be done, but you just have to think with a different head.”

Global goals

The plan is not to open store after store across the UK and internationally, with Malone preferring small Jo Loves boutiques in select locations. While she sees the obvious potential of being stocked by department stores, she will only work with retailers that are prepared to take on the whole concept.

“If I wanted to put my product on shelves, it would be in almost every department store but that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in little fragrance brasseries and creating tapas, which is why China is so amazing because they get it in a second,” she states.

READ MORE: Mary Portas – ‘High street’s future will be localism, not big brands’

Brand expansion opportunities are very different from what they were 20 years ago when the focus was primarily on America and Europe. Today, Malone believes her experiential, retail theatre-focused strategy will resonate strongly across Asia and the Middle East.

“The Middle East wouldn’t have been in my top five 20 years ago and now it’s in my top three and China is in my top five,” she explains.

“In China, their minds are so hungry and they are so agile. Everything is an adventure and everything is precious. I’ve been privileged recently to spend a lot of time with Chinese business people from all different walks of life and their hunger for British luxury products is amazing, but their hunger for experience is exactly what we’re about. The Middle East is the same.”

Jo Loves is currently on the cover of the Emirates in-flight magazine – and will be until March 2017 – something she describes as a “powerful statement” that will get her business in front of the airline’s 64 million passengers.

Malone’s business philosophy comes from a continual desire to make things better and while not involved in every strategy, she is aware of all ongoing activity.

“Yes I am a control freak, but control freaks change the world.”

Jo Malone, founder, Jo Loves

“If I don’t feel something is right, I will make my voice heard and if I’m the only person in the office who feels it, tough. I would say yes I am a control freak, but control freaks change the world.”

Changing the world is all part of the plan for Malone, who is determined to get back on top of “the mountain” again. She came close in April with her inauguration into the World Retail Congress hall of fame, her proudest career moment to date.

“I had Tommy Hilfiger on one side and Solomon Lew on the other, both of whom are great global retailers. Standing up on that stage I took a second to think ‘oh my God, years ago I would have given my right arm for five minutes with just one of you’.”

Malone describes the end of her inauguration speech in Dubai as the moment she realised she was back after years in the wilderness, separated from the beauty industry to which her identity is so inextricably linked.

“I proved with Jo Malone that I could build a business from a kitchen sink. The world’s biggest cosmetic company could not produce that, they had to buy it,” says Malone with conviction.

“These things don’t happen to people who have had a lucky break twice. These things happen when people see the product and the true integrity of the creator in a business and we’re going to plant it in every corner of the world again.”

  • Jo Malone will headline The Festival of Marketing in October. For more information and to purchase tickets go to www.fesivalofmarketing.com

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