Video and Image © Hall Powell 2014

Sabon has created a brand of belonging rituals and sensory excitement that is allowing it to find explosive growth in the beauty products industry.

I fell in love with Sabon the minute I walked into the store and was invited to “wash my hands”. As humans, we’re innately social beings who seek community through shared experiences and rituals – and Sabon succeeds at creating community through a proprietary “belonging” ritual – as soon as you walk in the door!

You see at Sabon, once you’ve entered the premises you are treated to an “insider ceremony” – that of a shared sensory hand washing ritual that takes place around a heavy, old-fashioned, hand-crafted Jerusalem stone basin while a Sabon sales person treats you to a luxurious pampering treatment of salts, soaps and creams. In the end, your hands have never known this type of extrasensory kindness – nor have they ever felt so soft and smooth.

On a recent visit, there were four of us, all strangers, washing our hands at the same time, sharing the experience and comparing the luxurious sensations of the various products offered. We felt like secret members of a new club – all enjoying the experience and forming a momentary bond – that of having shared together in this washing ritual. We had unconsciously become part of Sabon’s “community”, before we had even bought one thing.

PASSION IN THE DETAILS

Not only does Sabon excel at this welcoming “belonging” ritual, the store itself is a well-curated sensory delight. Where other stores opt for minimalist sleek, Sabon goes straight in the opposite direction. They present you with the feeling of an elegant, aromatic knick-knack shop, uneven and cluttered… but in the most delightful and, ultimately, well-organized way.

With carefully chosen details, each Sabon store has a sort of mythical air. The consistency in design extends from their use of Jerusalem stone, which has been used as a building material since ancient times, to their consciously eclectic displays. Antique sconces and chandeliers cast a warm amber light over colorful rows of soap blocks sold by the slice, aromatic oils sold in reusable glass bottles (no plastic!), and glycerin-dipped loofah sponges. It’s the kind of place that delightfully interrupts the day through enticing smells, soothing sounds (world music mixes) and exotic textures.

GENIUS BY THE SLICE

Sabon’s concept of “old-style soap” was brand new to the beauty market when founders Sigal Kotler-Levi and Avi Piatok launched their first little soap-by-the-pound shop on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv in 1997. In those days, you would walk in, point to a slab of soap you wanted, and then have it cut to the size of your liking. It was then weighed on a scale, wrapped up, and you simply paid according to its weight. The store was soon booming in popularity.

THE FUTURE FOUND IN THE PAST

The idea for Sabon, which means soap in Hebrew, came to Piatok while traveling in New Zealand, where he came across a man selling blocks of soap the old -fashioned way. When he got back to Israel, Piatok found someone who could make natural soaps using minerals from the Dead Sea. He teamed up with a friend from high school, Sigal Kotler Levi, and launched the business selling their first soap in large blocks and using reusable thick glass bottles, eschewing plastic, for their mineral oils. Their first soap product inspiration came from an “aboriginal” lavender soap recipe Piatok’s parents had recreated after traveling in Australia in the 1970s. The founders have consistently developed their new product ideas from that original, authentic vision.

Piatok primarily handles the business side, while Kotler Levi oversees the company’s design concept, from the décor to the bottles. After the upscale chain thrived with 31 shops across Israel, they boldly landed in New York, confident their idea would catch on. Characteristically, Piatok and Kotler Levi didn’t advertise and didn’t have a business plan, but they had all the right instincts and a knack for the right location. They also found some early luck when Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon noticed their brand. This in turn drew interest from beauty and fashion magazines, like Women’s Wear Daily, which praised the company’s “rough-hewn luxury”. Sabon now has 12 stores in New York City and 130 stores worldwide with plans to expand to 400 stores by 2020.

Sabon has relied on word of mouth and hews consistently to the founders’ core branding ideals—those of promoting the “many ways in which we can love ourselves – through a relaxing bath, a perfumed scent around the house, or lit candles…” Sabon tells us “to stop for a moment, feel serenity, joy and revelation” – and they help us find the way there through the rituals and multisensory shopping experience offered in their boutiques.

Now, hours after my visit to Sabon, the gentle fragrance from the hand washing ceremony continues to delight, and so does the warm sense of belonging that stays with me now.


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Megan Kent founded the Megan Kent Branding Group in 2013. Having held leadership positions at many of the most highly respected advertising agencies in the industry (Chiat/Day, Riney, Fallon, TBWA Chiat/Day, JWT), she’s developed game changing strategic platforms and go-to-market plans for brands such as BMW, Coca-Cola, Nikon, The New York Times, Sotheby’s, Clinique and Microsoft.

Megan’s greatest passion is creating desire for brands – she’s developed a proprietary branding approach dedicated to doing just that.  Her BRAIN FRIENDLY BRANDING® System is designed to give clients the ultimate competitive advantage by using the latest findings in behavioral and brain science to help companies create the most powerful emotional connection possible with their customers.

Follow Megan on Twitter @megkentbranding