In Accidental Branding, David Vinjamuri looks at brands such as these that have achieved tremendous success despite having been founded by individuals without formal business training. Noting that New Englanders have a connection to the land that goes back nearly five centuries, the Connecticut native told us, “Probably for that reason some of these great accidental brands that are really connected to the land and to the environment have sprung up in New England.”
Interestingly, all four of these brands make strong appeals through their product offerings to sensory experience. Consider Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream or Tom’s of Maine’s honeysuckle-scented shaving cream. Numerous writers have noted, for example, that Thoreau was unique among the Transcendentalists in his sensual approach to understanding nature. His writings abound with accounts of sensory encounters with New England's natural world—including the scents, sounds, and tastes he found there. Thoreau discovered in these sensory experiences a conscious alternative to more intuitive ways of understanding the world.
Thoreau scholar Alan D. Hodder of Hampshire College in Massachusetts told us he could imagine Thoreau influencing some contemporary business strategies—especially those designed to appeal to the substantial baby boomer demographic. Said Hodder, “Thoreau has become something of a cultural icon, particularly among sixties' boomers, when his popularity went through the roof, so it's not surprising that [corporate] mission statements echo some of his values.”
Consider Burt’s Bees. With their tactile, scented and sometimes flavored offerings, Burt’s Bees’ natural skin care products provide heightened adventures in sensuality. We spoke recently by telephone to Roxannne Quimby, founder—along with beekeeper Burt Shavitz—of the company, about the influence that Thoreau has had on her own ideas.
Quimby told us Thoreau was a “prime motivator” in her decision to move to rural Maine, where she eventually met Shavitz and started Burt’s Bees. “I was living in California at the time, just graduated from college, and had read Civil Disobedience and tackled The Maine Woods a few times. Some of his essays were very inspiring to me.”
Like Thoreau, Quimby sees the natural world telling a story through the sensory experience. “It is difficult to control how we respond to the stimulation of fragrance or olfactory stimulation with anything but a very primal recognition, interpretation and action on that stimulus,” she told us. “It’s not an intellectual process. It speaks to humans in a very primal and important way,” she said. “If you’re a marketer, trying to reach the important areas of people’s needs and wants and desires—where they live, the deeper you can go into a person’s psyche, the better chance you have of reaching them and changing their behavior in some way.”
Elaborating, she told us, “At Burt’s Bees we use only real essential oils which are actually extracted from plant materials—not petroleum derivatives or knock-offs of plant materials. Our belief is that these plant materials, which were alive and contain the essence of something that was living and evolved through many, many, many generations, are more in alignment and have more areas of interface than just a petroleum fragrance.” Like Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield Farm also use natural ingredients in their products.
A decade or so ago, when brands began trying to engage as many senses as they could in their drive for differentiation—from muzak in supermarkets to artificially scented crayons—many if not most of these sensations were artificial. Much of the popularity of natural products like those sold by Burt’s Bees has been due to their ability to address the negative reaction that consumers have had to artificial sensations.