Advance Copy

The Art of Decision-Making With Austin Austin

10.03.21, England

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Established in 2016, Austin Austin is a British line of six body care products crafted by the father and daughter duo Richard and Bessie Austin. Drawing from years of personal experiences, they have created a brand that is in harmony with philosophy, art and the best quality organic ingredients. Austin Austin also represents a refreshingly modern approach to distribution and communication based on intuitive decision-making.

We discuss integrity, longevity, and the value of social media in growing a thoughtful brand.

Advance Copy: I’m intrigued to hear how you would describe Austin Austin?

Bessie Austin: Austin Austin is a range of six body care products for hands, hair and body launched four years ago. The two Austins are myself, Bessie Austin, and Richard, my dad, the other Austin as he likes to call himself.   

Richard Austin: The brand is a combination of our work together. We set out to do this project and it’s become something to which we contribute from different areas, it’s still growing and changing. 

AC: What were your independent paths before embarking on this project?  

Richard: I studied law and philosophy, and in the early 70s – I wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I travelled a bit, then decided I’d had enough. I wanted to be part of what was then the “alternative society” and the best way of getting involved in that was to open a wholefoods shop. It wasn’t a decision taken for great reasons but it happened to be the right decision for me. It’s something I do to this day. Then I started a natural toothpaste brand, Kingfisher toothpaste, which gave me a lot of contact with people abroad. Austin Austin fitted with that one flow: organics and wholefoods, things that I’ve explored in my work life.  

Bessie: I went to University, starting at Central Saint Martins and then Cambridge where I read English. I was interested in the crossover between art school and a more traditional academic environment. Although they were two very different environments, there was a lot of shared ground. My dissertation was about the objectness of poetry: the formatting, the form, the physicality of the book. And in a small way, that thinking does carry through to Austin Austin, in terms of how do you incorporate, and is it possible to incorporate art into daily life? I went on to Chelsea College of Art and Design and studied interior design, which continued my interest in how we engage with objects, spaces and how influential they are in our daily experience. Undoubtedly that academic journey has played a big role in how I tackle the problems we come up against in the company.   

AC: Why did you decide to explore skincare instead of continuing the family tradition and creating an organic food product, for example?  

Bessie: When I left home I continued eating organic food; that didn’t leave my routine. But the cosmetic side did. I always felt held back when I was younger by the organic products that we had in the bathroom. It’s true to say that the science and the development behind organic has improved massively and allowed us to create something comparable to a more standard cosmetic product. It was a challenge to produce something that felt like it really worked, that felt contemporary, that I would enjoy using myself.

AC: With high personal standards – as well as the strict standards of the cosmetics industry – how much time did it take and how difficult was it to develop Austin Austin products? 

Richard: I think the answer to that is, a long time and very difficult, to some extent it’s an ongoing process. And for a young project, you are constantly looking to improve. Because of my background, and because of Bessie’s background, a keystone to this project was that it would be certified organic by COSMOS Soil Association. Once you limit yourself to organically grown materials, you’re dependent on people whose skills and experience you can use, and it takes a while to find them. I’d say we’re out of the woods now, but it’s been a journey of finding people with skills and with experience and values. If they don’t share our values, at least values that we respect, building that sort of infrastructure is difficult. I think we made our life more difficult, and of course, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.  

AC: You mentioned the difficulty of sourcing pure ingredients, could you tell us more about this? Do you source botanic ingredients from England or further afield? 

Richard: It simply wouldn’t be possible to get everything made in England or the UK. We focus on getting as much done in our area, which is East of England and Norfolk. But you couldn’t get vetiver from Norfolk; far less organic. So there are many ingredients coming from around the world. It’s organic-ness that we’ve really focused on when it comes to ingredients. 

Bessie: It was at times a real wrangling between keeping the highest environmental principles and also, I felt strongly that the products should look and feel as well as they possibly could, and those two things aren’t that often done. And not to the level that we wanted to do them. For example, our bottles are 100% post-consumer recycled material. Things have come a long way, but when we were looking for bottles that restricted us massively. Dad touched on the fragrancing. That was a really important element of the development for me. Often organic products use one, maybe two, essential oils. They are incredibly expensive and difficult to mix, they’ve got a life and a character of their own. I was determined that our products would have a more complex, contemporary scent, that it’s never going to be exactly like a chemical perfume that would live in the same world. We’ve got seven or eight organic essential oils in each of our products and that was a long part of the development.

“I followed the brand rather than led it.”

AC: I have come across your products in Merci in Paris and The Store in Berlin, high-end retail environments, even though I find the pricing of Austin Austin democratic compared to luxury cosmetic brands. What was the thinking behind your approach to distribution and pricing? 

Bessie: It evolved and happened naturally, I followed the brand rather than led it. We’re in shops that I could never have imagined we would be on the shelves of, and to say it just happened can’t be true, but somehow it feels as though that’s the case. The pricing was partly a philosophy that came from Dad truly believing that organic should be accessible to everyone or certainly to as many people as it can be, you don’t want to put an obstacle of price in the way. It’s difficult to describe organic because we are all so familiar with it; it’s a word that is used a lot. It’s front and centre of so many marketing campaigns, so it’s difficult for me to truly explain the processes and the care and the type of attention that we’re giving to these products without using these words that maybe don’t seem to hold their meaning anymore.  

Richard: Working in wholefood it is simply the law that you cannot use the word ‘organic’ or put it on a package unless the product is certified organic. Now it would only be fair to the citizens and consumers to do the same with non-foods because the use of ‘organic’ is so degraded by unscrupulous advertising and marketing 

AC: It’s a big problem for customers too, because they are trying to navigate their choices while there’s a hijacking of both words and visuals associated with organic products. We see food and cosmetic companies use packaging to create a perception of green credentials and to push customers to presume that the content is natural.  

Richard: I think it’s simply because there is marketing potential for people that view their project purely in a material sense. It’s cheaper to convince somebody that something is high quality than to create something that is high quality, and that gap is exploited by our present culture. Just because they’re a big company, they don’t have to have lousy values. They could actually deliver quality. 

Bessie: And I would say that the projected image is probably quite a good reflection on what there’s an appetite for. Hopefully, that gap can close between what’s being talked about and what’s actually being done. But isn’t it amazing that enough people are interested in a different way of doing things that even massive companies are adopting these words? 

“When you’re a small company, strategies come from a lifetime of decisions and experiences.”

AC: The organic certifications of Austin Austin products are only subtly mentioned on your packaging – you have decided to not make grandiose claims. There is a portion of sustainable companies that prefer for their products to speak for themselves and for customers to choose them based on other criteria. Do you agree with this thinking?   

Richard: I think the point at which natural-ness or the organic quality doesn’t need stating is in the future. I very much hope we do get there. I am evangelical about organic certification; I think it’s a really great thing. You need a standard that people can rely on and trust.  

Bessie: It’s a discussion we have a lot during our packaging development. Broadly, the stance I take is to adopt the ideal situation. I believe that our products should both look and perform as though they are not certified organic and that when it’s discovered that they are certified organic it can be an additional thing. Ultimately, our products are to be enjoyed by our customers and to be a small bit of beauty in a daily routine, I don’t want to interrupt that too much with our principles. I also feel like there is a lot that happens behind closed doors in the way that we choose to do things, we could have a whole Instagram account focusing on all of the reasons we make the decisions we do. I don’t talk about it perhaps as much as I should but it’s difficult to find the right tone of voice and to speak to those points authentically without sounding clichéd and without overburdening. 

AC: You’ve mentioned communication; what is your approach to advertising and promoting the brand? It seems like you are going against the trend of bombarding people on Instagram? 

Bessie: Most of the decisions that we’ve taken with the company have been led by what I like. I don’t like being bombarded and feeling intruded upon. I believe in longevity, in creating a good relationship with the world and with the people that come across us. I want Austin Austin to be an enjoyable company to come across, to buy from, and to have on your shelf. I see it not wholly but in a small way as an exercise in doing something beautiful. When you’re a small company and it’s personal to who you are, strategies come from a lifetime of decisions and experiences. 

“It’s easy to underestimate what a pleasure and what a gift it is to be able to make choices with the long view in mind.”

AC: I find that intuition is a big part of the equation when it comes to creative decision-making but it is often lacking in strategy building.

Bessie: I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve found my partner in my dad and that our approaches are very different. We’ve both had to stand firmly in what we believe in to make sure both sides come through the product. I think that’s given an incredible strength to us knowing who we are as a company, and that makes decisions easier. I don’t have anyone peering over my shoulder and I don’t have to do a monthly meeting in front of a board to explain why I’ve done what I’ve done, I just have to have faith in it myself. I think it’s easy to underestimate what a pleasure and what a gift it is to be able to make choices with the long view in mind. We just need to say, ‘Have I done the right thing?’ and that’s a nice tone of conversation to be able to have as a company.

Richard: Bessie had a really strong vision about what was the right thing to do: the harmonious pull of clarity about what should be. I hesitate to use the word ‘harmony’ because it’s clichéd, but if the decision feels right it will more likely than not be successful. But if it hadn’t been for the strength of Bessie’s vision we would have probably ended up looking like a lot of other things.

AC: It can be petrifying to follow an instinct over what is considered the right way to present a product. But of course, some of the most interesting and surprising things are created because someone decided to take that risk. Were there moments of anxiety, of feeling like you might miss out or even fail if you’re not constantly advertising on social media?

Bessie: Undoubtedly, the thing that didn’t fit easily with me was putting our name on the front [of the package]. It felt like the most public expression of who we are and who I am. We were working with different names, and it just didn’t feel right not to do it, but that was a big anxiety moment for me.

AC: Austin Austin is a tightly curated selection of six body care products and you are not jumping on the next ‘it’ product. So, I’m curious to find out what you think about growth?

Bessie: Someone recently talked to me about growth as one of our human needs. It’s something we’ve always been doing; the need to develop, to improve emotionally, intellectually. I guess the areas of growth that I’m thinking about at the moment are: how can we push the boundaries or work within ‘Certified Organic’ in a new way? How do we grow in the way that we integrate art and our relationship with it as a company? Maybe something that’s less talked about is how can the company support me as a working mother to engage with the world? How can it help me have independence? I’d like to see more conversations with women who’ve started companies who are also negotiating motherhood.

Richard: I would never question someone’s decision to go smaller. Or a decision to go bigger is also good. A decision to stay the same I would think is dodgy. If you can create a work environment in which people are satisfied and happy, then your project will develop appropriately. That’s what I focus on. Bessie is a big part of Austin Austin, if it’s working for her, then it’s fulfilling its object: one needs to put some energy into ensuring that is the case. Growth for me definitely doesn’t mean more material stuff, it means better texture.