Conscious leader interview with Pierre-Alexis Delaplace, Kerzon
We are at the beginning of a global disruption in the way we live, work and consume and this is especially true in the face of the global health crises we are facing now. We see an emergence of a new generation of the so-called conscious consumers, who are mindful about brands' responsibility and the role they must play in our society. There is a rising demand for wellness products & services and the need to return to the core values of health and personal well-being.
At WellnessHub we are building a unique ecosystem to empower conscious leaders and drive more innovations and partnership between corporates and startups. I had a chance to interview Pierre-Alexis Delaplace, Co-Founder of Kerzon and one of our contributors, to discuss brand values, responsibility and digital innovations.
Philippe Garnier - Founder
Tell us more about your background, Kerzon's mission and your role within the company.
As for my background, it is very artistic. I studied Graphic Design at Arts Décoratifs school in Paris. My main areas of interest covered graphic design and brand identity. For about 15 years I worked as a freelancer, with a lot of clients in fashion and lifestyle segments, with a couple of clients in the fragrance industry. For instance, I redesigned the entire visual identity of a tea brand called Compagnie Coloniale. I also worked for artisan-perfumers and collaborated a lot with Diptyque, french perfume brand. Even though I always loved being a freelancer and working from home, a decade later I started feeling like the work was getting too easy, eventually becoming mechanical. Maybe I had less passion. Typically, the client would send me a product brief, and I would work on the graphics. What was the case for all my projects was the feeling of frustration: I wanted to be able to work on them more upstream, and to do a follow up afterwards when the product was out in the market. I wanted more and that is what pushed me to co-create my brand and fulfil my vision. That is how Kerzon was born.
You decided to launch your brand with your brother. Why?
When discussing it with friends and family, it became apparent that one of my brothers was in a similar situation as me. He has always been a regular employee. And even though he didn't know much about freelancing, he had the same remarks about his bosses and the lack of meaning in the position he occupied at the time. Talking about it more helped us realize that we both wanted to try and create something together. My brother has a background in accounting, with a degree in Business school, so we complemented each other perfectly to set up a project. What's key about co-founders is getting to know each other well. I'm often asked “What is it like to work with your brother?” and “Doesn’t it get complicated at times?”. I always reply that I wouldn't have done it with anyone else. First of all, we have a strong relationship based on trust. After all, we know each other inside-out. And what’s important is that we have something that is beyond business: we are family.
Tell us about Kerzon and its origins.
My story is quite typical. About 10 years ago, I became aware of the importance of food and nutrition and started to pay a lot more attention to what I ate. And as I tried to eat healthier, I realized that my awareness should also apply to other areas of my life. I realized that the shortcomings in the food industry have also been operating on the level of other products and industries and in particular everyday healthcare products.
What product did you start with?
Working with Diptyque and spending a lot of time with their former marketing director inclined me to do some research. I realized that I liked perfume and it became my passion ever since. As far as the first products are concerned, it was through conversations with my brother that we came up with new ideas. There's a personal story that became a turning point for us. When our grandmother passed away, we emptied her house and found plenty of lavender sachets in all of her closets. She would put dried lavender in her old stockings and place these scented bags all over the house. At the time, my brother and I were already considering setting up a fragrance-related project. And even though I didn't want to launch a niche perfume brand, we figured there's something about home perfume and laundry care, and the lavender bags that we found at our grandma’s house had a potential of being reworked and modernized. So our first product was the scented sachet, which is a very small part of our catalogue today. But that is what we started out with.
Today you're primarily working with wellness and home care products, is that right?
Exactly. Our mission is to deliver every day and simple care. That is why we don’t consider making products that are too targeted, like anti-ageing creams, because we want to focus on simple formulas and easy-to-use products suitable for everyone. Our goal is to offer "clean" and respectful products across the entire manufacturing and application processes. We are committed to offering a clean, positive and effective alternative to all the daily care products for home, laundry and body. As a brand, we are aware of the dangers of greenwashing and are therefore careful with how we position ourselves. The reason you would not find us in organic stores is that we value the beauty of fragrances and textures and don’t want to limit ourselves by being a 100% organic brand. It is important for us as a brand to preserve the sense of pleasure and joy in everything we do.
Do you see any major shifts in consumer expectations today?
Over the past couple of years, I have been noticing a tremendous ecological awakening. As consumers are getting more conscious, they expect products and brands to be more transparent about the company, its values and its mission. As we see with the increasing popularity of the Yuka app that everybody uses to scan their products, customers are not ready to compromise on the quality of goods they buy. Compared to the US, France is a little behind in terms of awareness and performance. I attribute it to the innate notion of pleasure and sophistication French have in the way they consume.
Big brands like Unilever don't have as much power as you do when it comes to delivering a message directly to consumers. How do you see this relationship between you and your community?
I increasingly communicate about who we are and what we do via social media. The ability to communicate with consumers in a direct and instant manner is our biggest asset that creates a sense of community and trust, whereas the large groups, like Unilever, don’t have this strength. Another major change in consumer expectations lies in their desire to buy local brands and to know who they buy their products from. Our customers prefer to purchase home cleaning products from us because they know where they were fabricated and share our values.
How social & digital help develop your brand?
Not long ago, I made an Instagram story, asking our customers what they wanted to see us share more. They had a choice between “following the creation of products, fragrances and formulas”, “seeing the life of the company” or “seeing everything”. Since these are our followers, most of them replied: "see everything". Around 35% of them answered “see the creation of products”, and about 3 or 4% chose to "see the life of the company". I find it interesting because it shows the consumers’ desire to learn more about us as a brand and to discover more about the products we sell. In the face of the COVID-19, the need to communicate brand values is even more important, because that is how you continue to engage the community.
Today we witness the rise of mission-driven businesses. How does Kerzon manage to reconcile business and ethical mission as a young brand?
It can be tough to combine these two principles. What is key is to have a very clear goal and try to move towards it every day. But from the moment you're in business as a consumer goods brand, it's impossible to be 100% ethical and flawless. You just have to accept it and spend your time questioning yourself. There are processes at all levels of the company, from logistics to product creation, that have existed for a very long time. That’s why you have to be prepared to re-examine each process and each stage of production. As a startup, we have the freedom to be more agile and flexible because we have this ethical mission at the heart of our business.
What are the main obstacles for brands that make everyday wellness products?
The majority of manufacturers are considered to be "clean". We always think about the large groups and tend to forget about French SMEs and VSEs. Our lab working on beauty products and formulas is very small compared to Unilever’s one. Nevertheless, it is extremely efficient and has all the technical advances in terms of formulas, along with the high ecological standards. Despite being the basis of each business, the most complicated thing is financing. We need to make investments to be able to improve our social responsibility. There are multiple issues that the industry hasn't yet come to grips with. For instance, plastic packaging still is a huge area of concern.
At Kerzon, we would have loved to completely eliminate plastic. But we have to put everything in perspective: glass is much heavier and therefore less convenient to ship. So we might as well invest in sorting companies to make 100% recycled material, and no longer need oil to manufacture plastic. If today we wanted to produce a bottle that is 100% eco-friendly, we would have to make more investments. I'm perfectly aware of the number of boxes that are being thrown away. But as we need our products to be protected, plastic becomes an inevitable part of the brand. There is a need for funding, and logistics remains one of our biggest challenges today.
Do you think that the French brand ecosystem is evolving in the right direction?
As I said earlier, no business is perfect. The one thing I find challenging in France is the short-term dazzling effect brands can have on consumers. Companies adopt marketing strategies on the verge of greenwashing and French customers tend to focus on it and even trust brands that put this forward in their missions. There is a danger of misinformation, so our mission is to teach consumers and to speak out.
Due to the changing consumer demands, do you think that big corporate groups will need to reinvent themselves and adopt new marketing strategies?
There is a regulatory part that needs to be emphasized. What has been done in the cosmetics industry hasn't yet been applied to household products. That is why it's still easy for household brands to do a lot of greenwashing. I recently noticed the list of ingredients on the package of baby powder: it was full of sulfates and contained alcohol. Industries that have built up such world-scale brand empires struggle to change the way they operate today.
Kerzon is an e-commerce brand. Do you think it is necessary to have physical stores to maintain the consumers online?
When we created Kerzon, our only distribution network was through resales. Customers could find us in department and concept stores, which is still a big part of our business today. First, we were present at the Colette concept store in Paris. And as we grew as a brand, we started to collaborate with perfumery and wellness shops. After a year, we set up a website that I developed myself. It had a lot of flaws, but it allowed us to start doing e-commerce. Once we realized that the best products sold online were not the same as those we were selling on the well-sale market, we decided to open a boutique and invest more in our website. The new site has blown up our direct sales. Meanwhile, the store is doing well and we start having more and more loyal customers coming to us regularly.
We managed to expand our network which allows us to have distributors in the US, Australia, China and Japan. There are so many possibilities to scale on the web that we continue to invest more in it, working on several solutions that we will quickly put in place. While physical retail allows us to fund a lot of our new digital initiatives, it remains limited. Today, retail can be impacted by multiple factors, such as yellow vests or Coronavirus. That’s why we choose to invest in e-commerce and the store.
Do you think that you might start co-creating some of your products with the community via social media?
I don’t think so. I talked about being selfish earlier: I would like to continue creating products independently. Today, a lot of brands involve their online community in the creation of products, but that's not entirely true. The creation process is extremely long, so before seeking the community’s opinion, the product has to be nearly finished. There are a lot of things that clients can not master and understand in just two Instagram stories. So I believe it will always remain the company's expertise to make all the choices upstream.
However, having the product tested and improving the formula and the ritual based on customer feedback is something we wish to do more. We always have samples that we distribute to people around us and then collect their feedback. But it's also potentially interesting to share it with our community and the brand ambassadors.
How do you define your brand ambassadors?
We believe in influencer Marketing and we work with an influencer who is responsible for the community management. So for each product launch, we do a digital campaign on social media, and she is the one linking us and the community. Over time, we have established a community of loyal ambassadors who are also our clients. So the goal is to find those who are already our customers instead of shipping products to everyone.
What is great about our store is that we know our regular customers. We can now afford to give them samples or products to test in order to get their opinions. It is a win-win situation: the customers feel valued and we get their direct and honest feedback.
In terms of tools you use to develop your community or to create content, are there any you would particularly recommend ?
We're still at the beginning of our digital journey. Internally, we have a person who manages our entire communications and does a lot of content creation. That's what fuels the website and social media. In terms of tools, we use basic software, like Mailchimp, to send newsletters. There should be a quality vs. scalability balance, to be able to keep up with the demands of consumers who are present on all digital platforms. So in the future, we consider making videos, using Pinterest, and of course improving the overall quality of our content.
We started the acquisition of Instagram, Facebook and the Marketplace in November, and we're getting great ROI. In March, we decided to suspend all social media activity and slow down during the global crises. We didn't want to continue with social media acquisition and e-commerce during these challenging times. But we are now picking up the pace, and it's one of our big drivers in the last few months.
Do you see the further development of Kerzon alongside the investors?
For now, we don't have any investors at all. We started with 20 thousand euros and reinvested each time on our earned products. A bank lent us money for the opening of the store, and we are very careful with our cash flow. At first, I didn't like the idea of having investors, but I ended up accepting it, as it is hard for us to let go of this independence. But if one day someone comes to help us, I would like it to be an industrial player or at least someone who knows our products well.
Are there any brands or companies that inspire you today?
When it comes to beauty products, I'm fascinated by the success of Glossier. What I see in particular with my friends who are loyal Glossier customers, these are people who only eat organic food and are very conscious about the way they consume. That really shows the strength of a brand's well-worked appeal. But instead of observing what other brands do, I prefer to pick up on my surroundings and on the slightest changes that could inspire us to do greater things.