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Bath and Body Works: Scents For Every Season
On a mission to “make the world a brighter, happier place through the power of fragrance”
A brand considered the pioneer synonym for self-care, Bath and Body Works saw humble beginnings in a mall.
In the late ‘80s, in a mall in New Albany, Express, an apparel retail brand sold a bath and body range that consisted of shower gels, lotions, and fragrances. This line of products was so popular that its parent company at the time - L Brands (which also owned Victoria's Secret, PINK, Abercrombie & Fitch, amongst others) decided to open an exclusive store for them. In a mall in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bath and Body Works opened its first store in 1990.
Their initial branding with green colors and an eco-friendly message got off to a rocky start as The Body Shop noticed similarities between the companies’ brand designs. This led to the founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick suing them in 1991.
Following the lawsuit that was won by the British company, Bath and Body Works was forced to rebrand itself. Embracing a theme of American country living, and an image that involved a lot of gingham, barrels, and natural scents, their iconic Heartland Era products hit the shelves.
In 1991, Beth Pritchard was hired as the CEO and thus began their ascent. The first Bath and Body Works stores were built adjacent to the Express stores in a way that you could walk from one store to another.
The ‘90s saw the strengthening of the Bath and Body Works’ image, but how was a ‘Kate’ involved?
When it came to branding and the company’s image in the ‘90s, their new home-down country style didn’t fit with their actual corporation mall origin story. To tackle that, the company created a fictional character ‘Kate’, who would personify the sensibilities the company wanted to establish in consumers’ minds. The story goes that Kate grew up on a farm in the Midwest, and enjoyed creating her own beauty products using the natural ingredients she found on the farm. She majored in biology in college, to learn about the properties of these natural ingredients, and on graduation, she returned to open up a store to sell her natural homemade beauty products and that’s how Bath and Body Works was born.
Although most customers aren't aware of the existence of Kate, her story embodied everything that Bath and Body Works stood for, and the employees used it to keep themselves from straying from the brand’s image during work. Each store was to be treated as Kate’s home, and each customer, Kate’s guest. They were pampered with the latest products and encouraged to stay longer. She embodied the brand’s conscience, and each decision essentially boiled down to one question: “Would Kate do it?”
They changed consumer expectations and redefined the experience
In the ‘90s they dabbled with product innovation by popularizing the concept of using a shower gel and loofah over a traditional soap, and body mists over perfumes. Customer loyalty was slowly cultivated through carefully designed store experiences. The practice of sampling the product before purchasing it was normalized and wasn’t just confined to fragrances. Each shop had a sink for the consumers to try on the hand washes, lotions, scrubs, and shower gels as well. The shopping experience was further aided by discount coupons and excellent customer service.
In the marketing world, there is a phrase that goes, “It costs twice as much to acquire a new customer than retain a current one”, and Bath and Body Works’ primary agenda was to keep their customers happy. It also has a savvy discounting strategy, like Candle Day ( A Bath and Body Works event where for two days all their 3-wick candles are available at a massive discount. Dates are announced a few days prior, and this event is one that’s eagerly looked forward to by the brand’s loyalists) that constantly drive customers to stores looking for deals.
Nostalgia is a huge factor that drives the creation of their scents as well as their inbound marketing. Patricia Bilodeau, the vice president and senior perfumer of the Scent & Care Division in Bath and Body Works said her “love of music, cooking and baking have provided inspiration behind different fragrances.” Who wouldn’t like a bottle of nostalgia?
Keeping up with the times
Following Beth Pritchard’s departure in 2003, the heartland theme was discontinued for a new ‘Modern Apothecary’ theme to explore new scent directions and revamp their look to embrace a more modern approach. There was a heavy emphasis on holistic ingredients and started an extended aromatherapy line- True Blue Spa. Their logo saw a change as well, from its former sunburst logo to a text-only version.
Post-2003, Bath and Body works went through numerous phases of experimentation. They housed other luxury American beauty brands such as Le Couvent Des Minimes and Goldie in their own stores. Later they phased that out to introduce more fun, splashy image to appeal to a younger audience. By 2008, they completely changed their aesthetic to a blue and white gingham. Since 2011, they’ve been reintroducing a few of their classic fragrances along with new scents.
Although women account for 90% of their sales, Bath and Body Works has its own men’s range with colognes, body washes, sprays, shaving foam, and perfumes as well. In 2014, they partnered with Essence Corp as their distribution partner and expanded globally. 2018 saw Bath and Body Works’ entry to India, as a collaboration with Major Brand (other collabs include Aldo, Charles, and Keith, La Senza, and Victoria’s Secret) with two stores in Delhi. Now, you’ll notice a Bath and Body Works store in almost every major mall in a tier 1 city.
BBW is a $7.6 Bn brand in sales, growing still at a 15% CAGR in the last 5 years
Owing to the controversies that marred Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works’ steady rise, on 3rd August 2021, L Brands (parent company of BBW) officially split into two publicly listed companies: Victoria Secret & Bath and Body Works. This split was initiated to enhance growth and boost the shareholders’ value (as they now hold stocks in two separated companies as opposed to one).
Despite these hurdles, Bath and Body Works has enjoyed increased revenue and sales every quarter despite recessions and pandemics. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they saw a further rise in their business as consumers migrated towards their hand sanitizers and the affordable luxury of body care as they were confined in their homes.
A core product and the classic recipe for constant growth
Scent: Our olfactory senses are the most evolved, and the scent is processed by the limbic system, the same area of the brain where memory is stored. Therefore, the smell is the sense that is most tightly linked to memory. A leader in the scented space, Bath and Body Works has managed to hit the sweet spot of nostalgia-inducing scents. They release new scents every month, while also periodically re-releasing old scents, to keep customers (old and new) engaged. The anticipation of new scents has prompted the creation of numerous fan pages on social media dedicated to predicting new scents based on old patterns.
Discounting & Sales: Bath and Body Works has designed its discounting process to maintain consumer retention. Many customers claim to have never paid full price for a candle. Although the store discounts frequently, they never do flash sales apart from their highly anticipated semi-annual sale. Whether it be Candle day, a free lotion with a purchase or their buy 3 get 1 offer, they’ve gamified the process to keep it interesting.
Marketing & advertising strategies: You will be hard-pressed to find a Bath and Body Works commercial on TV or an advertisement in a magazine or billboard. Once social media and digital marketing hit the scene, they’ve been consistently achieving increased social media engagement through targeted marketing and understanding their audience’s personas.
They’re able to do this successfully by correctly identifying their target audience very early on. A niche segment termed ‘mastige’ that is a notch above mass commercial consumers, but not in the luxury segment. In India, that translates to the middle and upper-middle class who are willing to pay a slightly higher price for a brand delivering value.
While retention and customer loyalty are great, are they keeping up with the competition?
The Body Shop with most of its products lands in the more affordable range along with their natural, vegan, and ethical practices. The Body Shop has constantly re-invented itself to the beat of its consumer’s pulse, to be a major force in the beauty industry. Bath and Body Works could be accused of being stuck in the past. Comfortable in their market positioning and loyal customer base, it will be interesting to see how Bath and Body Works navigate newer trends and ever-increasing competition in the future.
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