Editor's note: Last week’s profile of CARLY received high praise from our readers. Thank you to everyone who shared it and left such wonderful feedback. If you haven’t read it yet, we’d like to introduce you to C.A.R.L.Y: she’s young, she cares deeply about issues, and she Can’t Afford Real Life Yet. Read it here.
Brand Profile: Le Labo
“What, exactly, is Le Labo?” I boomed to Ingrid as we sat over drinks at DUMBO House, a members-only club in Brooklyn. She stared at me, blankly, as if to stifle a retort of “OK Boomer”.
“It’s a candle. A small, expensive, candle. And it’s a perfume. It’s a… it’s a lot of things. Why?”
is a frequent contributor to Future Commerce, appearing on the show 5 times in 2019. She’s the Chief Digital Officer at e.l.f., and, among many other things, a maven of luxury and beauty. I ask Ingrid because she will have mercy on me, a 39-year old father of two who lives in Florida; the New Yorker’s profile of tragically unhip.
“I came across it during some research for an Insiders essay and I realized - I’ve seen it before - and I’ve smelled that smell before, but I never really connected the brand to the scent. Now everywhere I go it’s ‘Le Labo’ this and ‘Le Labo’ that.”
That piece I was researching was Insiders #014: “How to Lose a Customer in 10 Days” In it, I reviewed how brands are selling sensory experiences directly to customers via digital channels, and how they’re building trust with their customers to overcome the fear of purchase by offering everything from free shipping and returns to sampler packs. This review of candles led me down a rabbit hole of luxury candles where I stumbled upon the likes of No 22, Diptyque and Bond No. 9. And yes, Le Labo.
The timing of my interest in the brand aligns well with seasonal shopping trends. Scents peak during gifting seasons, and we’re well into Holiday 2019.
Cult of the Cool
I’m in Las Vegas. I hate Vegas. To make matters worse, I’m in Las Vegas the week before Christmas. The only redeeming quality to being in Las Vegas the week before Christmas is that there’s a Le Labo in the Plaza Shoppes, a small luxury shopping mall attached to the Wynn Resort.
In this mall, there are a number of cult brands all within mere feet of each other. Le Labo is situated between Urth Cafe, across from Rimowa, and around the corner from Soul Cycle. You get the distinct feeling that there’s a “type” of person who seeks out Le Labo, and I am worried I’ve become that person.
During my last 3 trips to Vegas (did I mention I hate Vegas?) I’ve come to this exact spot to go to a Soul Cycle class, passing the Le Labo at least as many times. But today I dragged my Future Commerce co-founder, Brian, and my good friend Tony, with me specifically to visit the store and attempt to fully understand the mystique.
The store is small. There’s a distinct color palette - heavy on earth tones and off-white - with wood, tile, and concrete. Like a piece of art, it appears quite simple on the surface but the longer you stare, the more detail and intentionality begin to appear. There is a single salesperson, Rachael, who seems to be an expert on the brand and all of the products in the line, new and old
Le Labo has packaged fragrance into a variety of modalities that extend beyond candles and perfumes. They have a complete line of bath products including soap (solid and liquid), shampoo and conditioner. Their haircare line is quite extensive. They even have an amulet that contains a ceramic diffuser that you hydrate with perfume oil from an eyedropper. The amulet can be worn, or tossed into your car or gym bag.
To call Le Labo a fragrance company seems to sell it a bit short, but that’s exactly what they are. Owned by Estee Lauder, the purveyor of luxury fragrances and related accouterments describes itself as a lifestyle brand, offering, quote, “sensorial experiences, memories and a point of view.” This kind of self-important pretentiousness is fitting for the brand that has a cult following of lovers and haters alike. Instagram account Overheard Le Labo captures both real and imagined overheard conversations about the types of people who are attracted to the perfumery. Some reek of both biting sarcasm and Santal 33, the signature fragrance from the Grasse, France-founded company.
Modern-era DTC brands consume entire categories. Away isn’t just hand luggage anymore - they now have 5 different types of bags, and are expanding category into apparel. With this category expansion Away sees itself as the travel company. Casper doesn’t just sell a mattress anymore, no no no. Having launched their CBD gummies this summer they now see themselves as specialists on all things sleep.
In much the same way, Le Labo are the scent company. Scent is powerful, and Le Labo are using scent to allow consumers to create their own personal brand. Santal 33 is a statement that says more about a person than “I smell good”, it communicates, via olfactory senses, a person’s intangible cool factor that transcends clothing, hairstyle, and gender.
After sampling a number of products I purchased a 15ml (0.51 fl oz) bottle of Santal 33, hoping to join the hordes of intangibly cool kids from Brooklyn. It cost me a whopping $89. For a half-ounce. Can you put a price on cool, though? Rachael gets to work mixing and bottling, right in front of me, my new purchase. She asks me to hand-write a 23-character-maximum phrase to personalize the package. Tony suggested “Chief Commerce Officer”, which barely fit, and… it’s not hubris if someone else suggests it, right?
Rachael included their newspaper, which is the reason I’m writing this piece. Produced in collaboration with the Overheard Le Labo instagram account, the newspaper is full of ironic and self-aware humor poking fun at the brand and its ideals, while somehow also taking itself seriously. The newspaper headline proudly proclaims:
Consumerism stinks, but you smell AMAZING.
If consumerism is the preoccupation with a society on the acquisition of goods, I’d say that Le Labo makes a pretty bold statement that it could only possibly exist in that society. Brand is irrational, and luxury more irrational still; Le Labo is firmly at the apex of that irrationality. And yet, Le Labo appeals on every level to those who shouldn’t spend their money on its wares. But at the apex of luxury and brand is, essentially, art. And Le Labo is a work of art.
If you know me, the self-proclaimed “ecommerce nihilist”, then you’ll know that I am fascinated by my own fascination with the brand. Yay capitalism.
CARLY and Le Labo
We wrote about CARLY in Insiders #018. CARLY (Can’t Afford Real Life Yet) is a consumer segment who is typically younger, cares deeply about social issues, has little of her own money to spend (while we refer to CARLY as female she is, in fact, a psychographic, and therefore has no gender). The brands she aligns with typically care deeply about social issues, have tightly knit and diverse social groups, and values authenticity and transparency above all else. This desire for authenticity leads to her having deep appreciation for musical artists like Post Malone and Billie Eilish.
Le Labo directly appeals to CARLY on four levels:
- An appreciation of uniformity
- Her fascination with revival trends and vintage motifs
- The desire to be unique while still fitting in with her social circle
- Her social values
Le Labo’s products have a uniform aesthetic. Every modality comes in a uniform size and package with near-identical color. Rows and rows of glass bottles. Shelves of tall tubes arranged in height-order. This appeals to CARLY’s need to have organization and uniformity in an otherwise tumultuous time in her life, as she enters full-fledged adulthood.
The typeface on the labels looks like it was hammered out on a Remington from 1947. The baseline on a scant few letters looks like it’s raised up. It’s vintage while still being modern. The gilded hand-lettered signs, the Edison bulb diffuser, the accordion-armed lamps on the wall. Like a siren, it lures CARLY in.
Her individuality is able to be expressed in the variety of choices that are on offer. She can use solid perfume, diffusers, or candles, even laundry detergent, in any one of two dozen scents. The scents outside of the core collection rotate frequently. The scents themselves are branded with names + numbers: Lys 49, Rose 31, Baie 19. There’s a mysticism in the copywriting that implies there’s something deeper in choosing your scent. Perhaps it’s personality-based, perhaps it’s based on your astrological sign, or your enneagram number. CARLY is free to decide for herself which scent is uniquely CARLY, and she still can claim she’s part of the Le Labo tribe. Tribes are important to CARLY for her sense of identity and belonging.
CARLY sees the world as flawed and in need of repair. She enjoys deep intellectual conversations with people who are transparent about their own flaws and their journey of self-discovery and improvement. She openly discusses therapy sessions and encourages others to share their real feelings. In this vein, the design of the Las Vegas Le Labo boutique speaks to CARLY. Everything seems very intentional and well-designed, meticulously chosen. But there’s no polish. It’s raw and in need of repair. The tiles are cracked, the enamel peeling off the cast iron sink. It’s beautiful, but flawed, just like CARLY.
Lastly, CARLY believes that the world is too divided. Republicans, Democrats. Climate-deniers, climate activists. Anti-vaxxers, and everyone else. To CARLY, removing those divisions helps bring people together - and she desperately wants people to come together. Le Labo’s gender neutrality is like a beacon of hope for her. Every scent is designed to be unisex. The design of the brand itself is also gender-neutral. To a person deeply invested in social issues, this is the equivalent of a “Jeep wave” - a subtle nod to a knowing passerby that you recognize what’s cool, or what is important. To CARLY this is like the Bat-signal, and it beckons her.
As all modern brands should, Le Labo have a sustainability angle. Their products are packaged in refillable glass containers or in recyclable plastics. You can return with a spent bottle and save up to 20% on repeat purchases. Refills can be purchased for travel kits. Their shopping bags and filler are also made primarily of post-consumer recycled fibers.
To CARLY it is unthinkable to not purchase products from a brand that speaks so deeply to her on every level, and she will willingly part with wads of cash, spending less on other things to make room in her budget for Le Labo.
HENRY and Le Labo
Let’s talk about how Le Labo approaches HENRY (High Earner Not Rich Yet). Unlike CARLY, HENRY has money to spend. A recent market research study performed by retail media outlet 2PM shows that HENRY’s make between $100-300k annually and spend up to 4% of their income on personal grooming, health, and wellness. That’s between $4,000 and $12,000 per year for Peloton, Soul Cycle, and Le Labo.
Where “old luxury” was about belonging, “new luxury” is about being. Le Labo appeals to both ideals. Let’s review what the traditional definition of luxury is:
Le Labo makes itself scarce in two ways: price point and city exclusives. City Exclusives are a way of encouraging souvenir-like purchases in cities where physical brick-and-mortar exist, or where the brand has boutiques in department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. City Exclusive scents can only be purchased in their namesake city. It has also created a secondary market for resale of the fragrances, which is a topic of discussion itself for another time.
The parfum averages out to about $100 per fluid ounce, a firmly luxury price point for a company that became famous for its candle. In the Las Vegas store a four-wicked Santal 26 candle in a large concrete votive retails for $479. It comes with its own wooden crate. This makes the products highly considered, which lengthens purchase consideration time with a customer, and therefore keeping the brand top-of-mind for much longer than its more modestly-priced competitors.
I’ve not owned the products long enough to give a first-hand account of its quality, but I perceive it to be a quality product based on the small amount that I own. The pomade, hand lotion, and soaps I’ve used also seem to be of superior quality, on par with offerings from Malin + Goetz, Aesop, brands I frequent.
I’ve mentioned the personalization of the box with a phrase or title. I think that the personalization goes deeper than that, though. The relatively narrow category that the brand operates in forces them to go deep into the scent category to reimagine ways of packaging and delivering new experiences. Their depth in the category actually captures customers they may otherwise not have encountered. Solid perfume is a good example of this, as is diffuser oil. It packages the product in a way that makes it appeal to a broader customer base. Those folks will have their own view into what Le Labo is all about, which will differ from those who see them primarily as a perfumer.
HENRY will appreciate the on-demand formulation. All of Le Labo’s fragrances are mixed and packaged on-site. A jeweler’s scale and pipette are the tools of the mixologist, as they package up to 500ml bottles on-site. That half-liter will set you back about $998. If you have questions and need personal service, but happen to be in a market that doesn’t have a physical store, you can email their concierge to get the white glove treatment.
This is all standard HENRY fare, but very few brands can appeal to all of his sensibilities, and Le Labo does it in such an effortless way.
Finally, HENRY can’t help but keep running into Le Labo wherever he happens to be. For a high earner spending $40 a day on Soul Cycle when they use the bathroom or take a shower they’ll be treated to Bergamote 22 lotions, shower gel, face wash, shampoo and conditioning creme. High-end collaborations with SoulCycle, Anthropologie, Fairmont Hotels, and The Laundress keep reinforcing to HENRY that this is the brand for him.
Nobody needs this, right?
At Future Commerce we’re on a journey to try to understand the modern consumer, and to help give brands insight into that shopper’s perspective. Brands like Le Labo are standard-bearers for execution. The focus of this report has been on the physical store experience, but their digital execution is stellar, too. They’ve captured the voice of the brand in a way that makes me hear it in Rachael’s voice. The subtle designed-but-flawed, cracked subway tile aesthetic is present, but in ones-and-zeros. The typewriter font is present, too.
When going down the rabbit hole you have to wonder - where do we go from here? Le Labo and its ilk are newcomers in a category that is dominated by luxury players who have licensed their brand to fragrance giants. Dior and Tom Ford alike have fragrance lines, but they’re used as low-price-point entries to establish brand affinity in a younger consumer at an affordable price point. This is exactly the playbook in eyewear, too. The label says Dior, but at $35 per fluid ounce, the price point doesn’t.
Le Labo is a truly luxury brand that it owns and operates, and is vertically integrated. They are newcomers, yes, but they’re authentic and are doing it better than other players like Gucci, Prada, Dior, and others who have gone the license route. They’re competing with other giants like Dyptique, who are struggling to appeal to Millennials and Gen Z. They have a decidedly cool vibe that is simple and also difficult to replicate whereas I vaguely mistook Dyptique’s store at the Plaza Shoppes for a Hallmark. Yes, it’s that bad. Dyptique are beginning to follow an all-too-familiar playbook by creating more accessible products and in 2018 even dipping into sale events like Black Friday.
Nobody needs a $479 candle. But, for crying out loud, everybody seems to want it right now. It has broad appeal to the segments that matter most right now - the extreme high-ends and the extreme low-ends of the market. That’s what makes it irrational, and that’s what makes it such a stellar brand.
Consumerism sure does stink. But gosh darnit. We all smell amazing, don’t we?