I was raised in Senegal, educated in France, worked in San Francisco and New York, and live in Austin, Texas. My company, Tiossan, makes luxury skin care products that use all-natural ingredients sourced from Senegal. The women in Austin love it. And now Nordstrom, the nationwide department store, loves it too. Tiossan is hitting the shelves of Nordstrom in a few weeks.
I spent a lot of time researching the ideal launch demo graphic for Tiossan. In some respects the San Francisco Bay area seems ideal: globally-savvy consumers who care about the social and environmental impacts of their product. In other respects New York represents the ideal launch demographic: Sophisticated professional women who care about high-end skin care products. I found eager buyers in both San Francisco and New York. But after selling my products through selected boutiques in both markets, I’m now focused on launching in Austin.
Here in Austin I feel I meet my customers every day. They’re like me in that they love natural products, but they’re also very picky about performance. They want something that performs like the best brands in the market, but they want something that is authentic, healthy and natural — and also exotic. Women here tend to be down-to-earth and no-nonsense. But they are also open-minded. One lady once told me, “I’m so glad I came across your Tiossan, because it never occurred to me to equate Africa with beauty rituals and products.” She seemed a little embarrassed, but I loved her sincerity, albeit hard to hear. She spoke the honest truth, and what she said is exactly the challenge we face in building the Tiossan brand nationally. I see it as a wonderful educational opportunity.
I asked another customer in Austin for her opinion on our packaging, which goes in an opposite direction from most premium beauty brands. We use dark, matte materials that are recyclable. Other brands use a lot of bling-y silver and gold bottle tops, as part of this obsolete notion that for something to be luxury, it has to be shiny. I asked this woman if people still associate luxury with bling. She said, “I’m tired of that. It signals ‘crass’ to me.” She said that our packaging was “earthy, but elegant-earthy.” Elegant-earthy is how I would describe the style of many professional women in cities like Austin.
There are clusters of this type of woman all over the U.S. and the world. Is every woman in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (or New York, for that matter) going to buy Tiossan? I don’t think so. Maybe when celebrities make it cool. But I am building up Tiossan here in Austin, and I’ll do the same work in Northern California and some pockets of Southern California as well as some areas around Denver. I will let these areas do what they’ve always done: lead national and international trends. Austin is at the cusp of where the “cultural creative” demographic is moving, to as it redefines luxury goods.
Large diamonds, exotic furs, exquisite perfumes, sports cars. These are all traditional luxury goods favored by elites. For a long time the line has been blurry between goods that are “luxury” by virtue of fine craftsmanship and goods that are “luxury” simply because they are expensive. One definition of luxury goods are things that are unattainable to the vast majority of consumers. That definition, however, no longer works.
The past fifty years have seen Louis Vuitton and other traditional luxury brands scale up their production lines using mass-production techniques. While they may still be regarded as luxury brands, they are no longer in any sense elite or unattainable. As hundreds of millions of people can now purchase a $5,000 handbag, luxury brands are increasingly mass-market brands. At the same time, mass-market brands are using the same production and marketing techniques as the traditional luxury brands. Thus there is no longer a sharp boundary, with respect to quality, between luxury brands and the better mass-market brands.
Especially in the U.S., the whole concept of luxury has been changing over the past fifty years. It has changed to include elements that go beyond price and fine craftsmanship. There has been a growing movement toward considering the moral implications of our purchases. Concerns about social impact, environmental impact, and perceived fairness of trade have changed the marketing message of the diamond industry, reduced the animal species that are acceptable in the fur industry, and filtered the exhaust that comes out of sports cars (as well as introducing a Fair Trade niche to coffee and other food products).
At the same time, consumers are pursuing authenticity. This elusive concept of ten focuses on the origin stories of products, whether they are authentically industrial products from Detroit or authentically spiritual products from Bali.
To some extent this movement arose out of the counter-cultural passions of the 1960s. Companies in the US began selling products that they believed took a morally justifiable approach to business – and they advertised it as such. The health food industry in the U.S. emphasized organic agricultural techniques in part because of the belief that pesticides harmed the environment. Development of solar and wind energy was based on the belief that these energy sources were not only better for the environment, but also were also not implicated in the violence associated with many oil-producing countries.
By 2000 a cohort of young professionals – along with an older generation committed to conscious purchasing – represented an important market demographic that is still emerging. This is the “cultural creative” demographic, defined as those consumers who include moral or environmental considerations in their purchases. Cultural creatives are now estimated as nearly 30% of US consumers. They include consumers who only occasionally pay attention to non-materialistic aspects of what they buy. But they also include consumers who have developed sophisticated ways to track the treatment of workers, women, and the environment in supply chains around the world.
As an entrepreneur, I have seen up close how cultural creatives are changing the market. I launched my first company, Adina World Beverages, after a trip home to Senegal. I discovered to my chagrin that Senegalese people were no longer serving bissap, our hospitality beverage made from hibiscus, when guests came to their homes. Instead they regarded bissap as a low-status beverage for poor people. The middle and upper classes all served Coke, Fanta, or other western beverages. I love Senegalese culture, and I was saddened that our own healthy and delicious beverages were disappearing.
I joined forces with the founder of Odwalla, the juice company, after he sold it to Coca-Cola. We started the Adina brand with a hibiscus beverage inspired by bissap. People who I would identify as “cultural creatives” loved our beverage. Investors capitalized the brand with tens of millions of dollars and we were able to roll out the beverage nationally at Whole Foods, Wegmans, and other retailers.
I created Tiossan, my second company, in order to focus on my true goal: the creation of the first authentically African luxury brand. Tiossan is based on the skin care recipes of the traditional healers of Senegal. These recipes use very unusual ingredients, appreciated by the most discerning customer. While running Adina I realized that although I could afford the best skin care products in the world, I preferred the traditional products that I brought back to the U.S. with me from Senegal. I also knew that in their traditional form, U.S. consumers would not purchase them. They would certainly not be considered luxury products.
So I began working with the best “clean” chemists in the U.S. to update the old Senegalese formulas. Traditional pastes, which often looked like grey mud, were transformed into beautiful, silky creams, while maintaining the integrity of the ingredients. The traditional products smelled earthy, but not in an elegant way. So we developed natural scents based on wild-crafted essential oils in order to make the scent profile of our product appealing to our demographic, while enhancing the potency of the formulas. (I also found a practitioner of scents in Grasse, the traditional perfume region of France, and worked with him to create a custom perfum line to complement our skin care products). We have spent a lot of time on formulations. And I don’t want to mention how many packaging iterations we have been through, as we refine the message and feel of our brand.
The result is Tiossan, a luxury brand based on indigenous recipes from Senegal and created by a black Senegalese woman. In a certain niche of the U.S. luxury market, Tiossan is compelling not only for what it does to your skin, but also because of its social and environmental profile. Our products feature the most authentic, organic ingredient. Most chemists, even those who have worked for L’Oreal for decades, have never formulated with black seed (not flaxseed) oil, a crucial ingredient in Senegalese healing recipes. Each of the ingredients is vetted to ensure that it is both good for your skin as well as good for the environment.
I want to establish the African woman, the black woman, as a beauty ritual authority in the world. Women have no problem buying products inspired by the beauty rituals of the Japanese geisha. That is what we can surge on, and the tool is culture.
And here is another reason why I love my Austin customer base. I have strong beliefs about the right and wrong ways to aid economic development. A lot of cultural creative people interact with cultures around the world in terms of thinking: “I want to help them. I can help them by building a mud school.” Or they get excited by Tom’s Shoes, the espadrille company where you buy a pair of shoes, and Tom gives a pair to a needy person somewhere in the world. I don’t respect the approach Tom’s Shoes takes. I think building a school that provides young people with 21st century skills is a much better solution than giving away shoes. That message is troubling to a lot of people in my core demographic. But people in Austin are more willing to hear me out. They’re frank and no-nonsense. Our approach to doing good is the new model and at the cutting edge. I am pleased to have found a customer base that is sophisticated enough to understand and embrace this new direction and paradigm.
The cultural creative effect is reshaping the luxury market in many directions and in many ways. The trend is multifaceted, but the overall impact is obvious. One small indication of this is Tiossan’s recent deal with Nordstrom.
“Nordstrom saw us right away. Their “emerging brands” buyer told us that Nordstrom had nothing like our products.”
On the scale that would interest a national store, the natural beauty niche is not really there yet. All-natural products in the market today are often too “granola”. Then there are masses of beauty brands that are very sophisticated, but that don’t really care about natural ingredients or the environment or social impact. And just to extrapolate from the buyer’s reaction, I think she thought Tiossan was a marriage of natural and sophisticated, and also something new in the market.
We are introducing products and ingredients and old knowledge from a particular place in the world that U.S. consumers haven’t had access to so far. And just as individuals Americans are excited about that idea, you can see this ricochet effect where buyers are also feeling the pulse of demand. Buyers feel they have to bring something different.
Nordstrom saw us right away. Their ‘emerging brand’ buyer told us that Nordstrom had nothing like our products.
We talked to other department stores too. By no means are all stores ready for products like Tiossan’s. For a lot of national stores, luxury is decidedly about “bling”. Maybe Nordstrom sees it a different way because their customers are more the sort of creative, down-to-earth people that I see in Austin. Tiossan is going online first at Nordstrom.com. And we are rolling out store by store starting in Austin.
For several months now, Nordstrom has seen everything we’ve gone through as we’ve intensively reworked the packaging and the branding. They have been a catalyst for refining the whole identity of Tiossan. Something hit us a few months ago, and now we have finally reached an identity we are comfortable with. In many ways it feels like we’re only now launching the company, even after two years of sales.
Our breakthrough on brand identity was about culture: about how we should go even deeper in to Senegal. I want to go beyond just being a natural ingredients company and delve in to the idea of the knowledge and wisdom of ancient people back there.
“I want to establish the African woman, the black woman, as a beauty ritual authority to the world. White women have no problem buying products inspired by the beauty rituals of the Japanese geisha. This is what we can surge on, and the tool is culture.”
The cultural part of the message becomes: everyone can have their own journey; everyone can have a wonderful cultural journey.
I realized that up until then, I was avoiding being pigeon holed into being a black brand for black people only. We were trying to avoid too much mention of Africa – to balance it out by mentioning the ingredients from France and other places, so customers wouldn’t not put us into a limiting box. But when you do that, you find yourself in no man’s land for branding. Frankly, our branding was confusing. It’s not that I lacked the courage to go stronger on the Senegal story; I love my culture. It was about mustering the strategy to execute it in the right way.
The challenges we faced here are by no means unique to Tiossan. This is something that all brands from developing countries are struggling with, including those from China, as they try to show what it means to be a contemporary Chinese or a Senegalese. On one hand, these brands are hearing their customers say that the global luxury brands do not really understand them – do not necessarily reflect their style. On the other hand there are pitfalls when presenting these brands as being totally about a particular country or region. Even something as simple as a color can send the wrong message. In our case, adopting a certain set of colors on our packaging might make us look “reggae” because of some preconceived notions.
This is part of the reason why Tiossan avoided going out there in a big way until I knew we were very strong on the brand identity. You get one shot at this when taking a brand on to the national stage.
The next few years will show how successfully the Tiossan brand can tap in to desires and curiosity among a growing subsection of consumers in the US market. Nordstrom is the first step. Who knows what sales will be like. But living in Austin I have a good feeling about it, and that is because it is not the East Coast and not the West Coast, both of which I know well. It is because Austin is a creative hub in the middle of the country. A woman meets me and is introduced to Tiossan, “It never occurred to me to equate Africa with beauty rituals and products.” And then she wants to buy something. And keeps on buying it. This is why I love consumer brands, for they have the power to enter one’s mind and heart to another culture in the most loving way.