Launched in a basement
It started in a basement in 2000, but the HQ of cosmetics brand Rituals now fills several hundred square metres of prime Amsterdam canal district. Behind an imposing Golden Age facade on the 400-year-old Keizersgracht canal, the modern interior could for a moment be one of the thousands of spas worldwide that stock Rituals goods. There are scented candles, bamboo dividers, and large, leafy green plants.
But this is a place of work, with the steady hum of people going about their business. The vast windows let natural light pour over the clean, white workspaces and standup desks. ‘We launched with three people in a basement that was covered in graffiti,’ says founder Raymond Cloosterman, of the office that was home to the company for its first four years. ‘The journey we've made with our offices is reflective of the journey we've made with our company. On day one of our first store, it was not working at all. We turned over 140 units, of which 100 were from the sister of one of our partners because she felt sorry for us.’
Since then, Rituals has built up 350 stores in 15 countries, and reached thousands of shops, spas, department stores and hotels.
‘Our biggest challenge is building a global brand without an advertising budget,’ says Cloosterman. ‘I took inspiration from Starbucks and Ben & Jerry's: global brands that did that. But you need time, because our products need to be so good that people start telling their friends. It needs to grow organically.’
Reinventing everyday products
Rituals now opens one or two new stores every week, which suggest that the organic growth is doing just fine. ‘We've never lost faith, but four years based in a “dungeon” is quite a long time. People advised us to give up, seeing how hard we worked to bring this idea to life, but I've never doubted it. When I was in doubt I just went into the store and started selling and talking to our consumers. Then I saw the sparkle in the eyes of people, and I knew that we had something special. We know that once people try our products, they fall in love and they come back.’
The variety of those products is part of what distinguishes Rituals from rivals such as Mac, Body Shop or Aveda. Alongside the shower gels, perfumes and skin care, you can find more prosaic goods, such as washing-up liquid. ‘Our passion is helping people to enjoy the little things in life, to rediscover the magic in the everyday. So often, we live life on automatic pilot. We have to change those routines by reinventing these everyday products into something special. That's the philosophy of the brand: changing routines into rituals.’
The original seeds for that brand were planted while Cloosterman worked for Unilever. As a vice president for new business, he had a secure corporate career based between Paris and Brussels. One day his boss tasked him to investigate new ways of brand building and setting up business lines. His mission took him around the world, to boutique stores, trend gurus and R and D labs. ‘I came back completely hyper with a lot of new insights to take back to Unilever. Those insights, today, you will find in Rituals,’ says Cloosterman.
‘I decided that I would resign and do this myself, because a small, very special idea is very vulnerable in a corporate environment. In a big corporate environment it's all about consensus. That’s a good thing, but for new ideas it's a very hostile environment.’So he gathered input from investors and talent, including leading perfumers, anthropologists and others, and took himself off to a basement. As the firm grew, it took office space above shops, until finally taking up residence on the prized Keizersgracht site.
‘I checked out airport locations that, from an efficiency point of view for me and the people who travel internationally, would make sense. But in the end, we want to be in the inner city, on the canals, because of the energy. In our creative company, we need this kind of energy.’ That energy was key to staring out in Amsterdam in the first place. ‘For me, Amsterdam is an eclectic place. Everybody who is raised here is born with an outside perspective. It's an open society from a cultural and design perspective, so a lot of new things happen. People are open to that. At the same time, people don't want to pay. It's a very tough mix of price-quality expectation.’
Meeting that expectation of high quality at reasonable price has been a key part of positioning Rituals, according to Cloosterman.
We start with stories
‘We have elegant stores, very chic products, but at a fair price. It's still very affordable. That's a unique proposition. It feels like we are the only brand that is in the middle. More and more people are looking for this prestige experience, almost as a form of escapism. They'll buy an expensive purse from Louis Vuitton, and then they don't eat for three days. We are making that trend a bit more democratic and accessible.’
Cloosterman describes the business as a ‘hobby that got out of control,’ and his dapper appearance suggests that he knows his products. But it’s also a brand that tries to steer away from the typical formula of the beauty industry.
‘We put the creative pyramid upside down. We start with stories and things that are out there to discover, and then start creating products. That's how we innovate, instead of in a laboratory.’
To illustrate his point, he highlights the Rituals ‘shower mud’.
‘We do a lot around spas, and so we said, "Let's go back to the mother of all spas, the hammams of North Africa and Turkey." We studied back though the Roman Empire, we visited ancient hammams, and discovered that they used mud. We now have the first shower mud in the world: a beautiful product that fits in the bathroom of today.’ As Cloosterman’s own empire grows, those early days in a basement seem a long way off, but Rituals is not yet ready to rest on its laurels. ‘We're not there yet,’ he says. ‘There's still a long way to go, but we're on a roll.’
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