British beauty and fragrance brand Molton Brown is moving forward with its vision for a more sustainable and digitally engaged future with a new aluminium bottle and artificial intelligence (AI) tool among the latest innovations helping to drive growth in travel retail.
“We expect to exceed 2019 sales levels in the channel within the next six months,” revealed Mark Johnson, President, Molton Brown, Global, at a rooftop reception during the TFWA World Exhibition & Conference in Cannes in October.
“Our global sales are already ahead of 2019 by about 7%.”
Travel retail is seen as a key pillar for growing and acquiring new consumers while, at the same time, ‘keeping and serving’ existing loyal customers for whom travel is key.
“It’s also a tremendously powerful and impactful way to acquire newness into the brand,” said Johnson.
The company is bolstering its travel retail business, from providing a ‘low single digital’ share of the overall pie into a more significant contributor, thanks to a ‘large’ investment strategy that continued in full force during the pandemic.
“Brands had two ways to go: dial it back or double down,” said Johnson.
“For us, we said we need to double down. This has put us in a really good position and that investment is starting to pay off.
“Due to the nature of what was happening during the pandemic, our products were very relevant, so those rituals of taking a bath and having ‘me time’ and pamper time resonated strongly and we performed extraordinarily well.”
Its Heathrow T5 space – which Johnson describes as ‘the ultimate experience’ of the brand in travel retail – is being refitted this month (November 2022) and will set the tone for future refits in the channel.
The brand recently opened at Hamad International Airport in Doha – just in time for the FIFA World Cup – and is due to open in Abu Dhabi International Airport in Q1 2023.
Expanding its footprint in the US is also in focus, with openings at Miami International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, as well as into Mexico and the Caribbean.
How AI can help to deliver a more inclusive shopping experience
A key new digital innovation from the brand is its AI tool, named Caroline – a prototype of this was unveiled in Cannes.
“The pandemic has given us all pause to reevaluate what is important and how we want to engage with each other and brands, as well as navigate the shop,” said Johnson.
“For me, this is as important as our beautiful products: the experience and providing an inclusive experience for everyone.”
Part of this involves “obliterating the lines between the physical and the digital”.
“It’s about how we have the same inclusive experience in-store, online and in the metaverse.”
Caroline is helping to bridge this gap.
“We thought it would be very interesting for our travel retail locations because we don’t have staffing all the time and even if you do, there’s a need for multiple languages,” said Johnson.
Shoppers can ask Caroline a question in their local language about the brand or the products and a live person in the customer service team will type back their response for Caroline to speak.
The tool takes it name from the style of the existing voice profile the company selected. Coincidentally, it also happens to be the name of one of the company’s founders.
“The ultimate experience [of the AI] will be in the metaverse,” said Johnson.
“It has the potential to be very, very cool.”
The company is currently gathering feedback with the intention of placing it at a variety of consumer facing touchpoints, from its travel retail points of sale to its unstaffed wholesale locations and its own e-commerce website as a more personalised way to interact, compared to the typical chat bot message pop-up.
Sustainable packaging innovations and eco-friendly initiatives
Molton Brown is continuing on its sustainable journey with a key new innovation: the Infinite Bottle made from aluminium.
It’s the latest step forward in the company’s greener packaging evolution, which hit a milestone in 2020, when every plastic bottle the company manufactured became 50% recycled PET, significantly reducing its use of virgin plastic (by the equivalent weight of approximately 6.2 million Molton Brown 300ml bottles in 2021).
This brought a challenge to the fore, in terms of showcasing the vibrant formulations the company is known for, with the recycling process naturally adding a tint to the packaging.
“You may notice that your recycled drinks bottles have a slightly grey tint to them,” said Johnson.
“For us, this was a challenge, as we have these beautifully coloured products, so as a brand we had to ask ourselves: ‘What is the right thing to do?’”
Molton Brown introduced glass bottles for its hand washes but, of course, wanted to avoid glass packaged products in the shower.
“We looked at all of the various option, from plastic to glass to sugar cane products and really looked at the challenge between the consumer perception of what we’ve been taught is good versus a real lifecycle analysis – understanding the full lifecycle of the material from extraction to transportation and what the real impact is, in a holistic manner,” said Johnson.
“Aluminium – and particularly recycled aluminium – has the lowest impact from a life cycle analysis point of view.
“The original carbon footprint of the extraction of aluminium is quite negative, however it is recyclable infinitely and some 75% of the aluminium that has ever been produced is still in use today.”
The Infinite Bottle is launching in 2023 and in-store navigation will be signposted with colour tags.
The company also runs a reverse logistics programme in the UK, which involves picking up its used hotel miniatures when making deliveries, and putting the empties back into the recycling stream.
Whether it can be scaled up is something that is on the radar, among its other ongoing sustainability goals.
The company has already come a long way. Its Elsenham facility is carbon neutral and has used 100% renewable electricity since 2016.
All the formulations are 100% vegetarian, free from parabens and cruelty free.
The recently launched hair care range features ingredients, such as chamomile and rosemary, grown hydroponically in disused subway stations.
“My position on ESG is brutal transparency,” said Johnson.
“No one individual organisation has the answer. No one single person has the answer. It is interconnecting. We all just need to try to do better and these little initiatives will add up to a bigger impact.”