LONDON — Hands. Face. Space.
It’s been the British government’s germ-busting chant since the pandemic began, and while those three words may be saving lives, they’ve nearly killed businesses that rely on physical contact — at the spa or the beauty counter — to engage customers and sell products.
Noella Gabriel, cofounder and global president of Elemis, said in an interview that it broke her heart to see the spa business suspended during lockdown, because “we built the brand on it. It’s a great way of getting product into people’s hands. It’s a service that brings brand loyalty. If you fall in love with the service — and the girl delivering it — you’re hooked for life.”
With the spa business on hold and beauty counters closed off due to COVID-19, Gabriel and her two cofounders gathered their wits and ramped up Elemis’ digital offer. In just eight months, the skin-care brand that L’Occitane International SA purchased for $900 million in 2019 fulfilled its five-year digital plan, according to Sean Harrington, Elemis’ chief executive officer and cofounder.
Gabriel said the brand had already been “tilting into the digital space” — but at its own pace. Once COVID-19 hit Europe, the company immediately began investing heavily in digital, pivoting the focus to the client, producing more quality content and examining the data more closely than ever.
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“It was really about taking ownership of that Elemis consumer. Whether she shops in Sephora, Ulta, SpaceNK, or in a beautiful, stunning spa spot, she is our client, and we really wanted to put our virtual arms around her, entertain her and communicate with her at every touchpoint we possibly could. We became a digital-first business,” Gabriel said.
The team quickly built up a community on Elemis.com, and re-platformed the site with more “storytelling and vibrant content,” Gabriel said. In response to consumer demand, Elemis also put a big focus on education and one-to-one interaction.
The new e-commerce platform has a mobile-first focus, and the company describes it as “very fast and very intuitive,” with more educational content, visuals and video aimed at showing off the efficacy of the products. Elemis also overhauled its model imagery to reflect the consumer more accurately, showing ranges of skin types, genders, tones and ages of its clients, and making its visuals more representative of the audience the company has observed shopping and interacting online.
Leveraging its expertise in TV shopping — Elemis has a long history with QVC — the company introduced live broadcasting with episodic content from brand advocates and experts. The new video chat functionality connects customers directly with highly trained “skin wellness” consultants.
“We have a savvy consumer, a great breadth of consumer and they really want to be engaged on an educational level. They are asking ‘Why is this product for me?’ ‘Am I using it properly?’ ‘How do I get the best out of it?’ ‘Should I use something else with it?'” Gabriel said. “It’s about owning the community, talking to them, engaging with them and really understanding the breadth of your demographic, your audience.”
Elemis is also thinking hard about digital distribution, too. The brand is mulling opening on Amazon Luxury Stores, which launched in September as a by-invitation-only platform inside the Prime app. Elemis already has a digital shopfront on Amazon, in the luxury beauty category, and plans to continue trading through the main site.
“If you’re a brand trying to get global dominance, it’s a very costly, slow experience to do on your own. With Amazon, we’re piggybacking on their customer reach. They have a luxury spend and it’s fascinating to see [how high] it is,” she said, adding that Elemis has enriched its content and service offer on Amazon to match that of its new e-commerce flagships.
Gabriel said she and the team are “definitely very interested” in working with Amazon Luxury Stores, but noted the beauty offer is limited, and said she’s interested in seeing how they expand it. Clé de Peau Beauté and RéVive Skincare are the two beauty brands to have joined so far, and they sell alongside fashion names including Oscar de la Renta, Roland Mouret and Car Shoe.
She also pointed out that Luxury Stores is not cross-merchandised, “so it will be important to be able to offer a point of difference to this [luxury] audience, and some differentiation” to the customer experience Elemis already has on Amazon.
“What would be beautiful is if Amazon became a destination for beauty, and we can only benefit from that because it does bring more traffic. Competition is the spice of life. It keeps us all on our toes,” she added.
In its quick pivot to digital Elemis has also forged closer ties with The Hut Group’s Ingenuity platform, which builds end-to-end e-commerce sites for brands, and partners with them for the day-to-day operations.
Gabriel said Elemis had originally budgeted for Ingenuity to set up sites in six countries in 2020. “Currently we are at 12 and we have four more still to do this year — so we’ll do 16. It’s been an incredible learning curve, and fascinating to be involved in the process,” she said of the sites, which have launched in Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
Harrington described THG Ingenuity as “a game changer in speed and cost efficiency to market; service to end customers, and delivering the dream of Elemis.com in a box globally, profitably and successfully. For once, a technology business partner who delivers what they promise,” he said.
Elemis’ rapid digital transformation has spilled off-line and into physical spaces, too.
The brand has opened its first concept boutique in Jakarta, Indonesia, the first Elemis outpost outside the U.K. The company created a ground-up bespoke blueprint for its new concept stores — including a digital-first interactive salon wall and “No Touch” Facial tools developed in response to the pandemic, using patented Elemis technology.
The brand has also opened a shop-in-shop location at Siam Paragon, Bangkok’s largest premium mall, and inked a deal with Sephora China for a rollout in Asia of the new concept.