The Asia vice president of Aromatherapy Associates talks to +852 about encouraging self-care among staff and the airport as a retail space

Words: Denise Li

Image: Mike Pickles (Main)

To say that beauty is big business in Asia would be quite an understatement. In China alone, sales of cosmetic products were over RMB250 billion (about HK$283.8 billion) for the year 2017, with skincare being the fastest-growing sector in the cosmetics market, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in China.

Numbers by market research group Euromonitor also showed that the Chinese skincare market is trending towards premium products. The category captured 31% of the market share in 2017, up from 27% in 2012.

Such statistics bode well for UK-headquartered Aromatherapy Associates, which offers luxury skin, body, bath and home care products infused with essential oil blends. While the brand introduced its products to Asia close to two decades ago, it only established its regional headquarters in Hong Kong in 2012, with Hongkonger Noelle Cheng coming on board to head the team as its vice president in 2016.

“The brand was established in 1985 and co-founder Geraldine Howard was involved in the business for a long time,” explains Cheng. “For years, she dealt directly with the spas and retailers in our Asian markets.” With the brand expanding so quickly, however, the company quickly saw a need for its own office in Asia.

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As a corporate high-flyer, Noelle Cheng is well-acquainted with the stressful lifestyles of city dwellers. Before her over-14-year stint in the luxury beauty and wellness industry, she was a business consultant for Arthur Andersen LLP (now Accenture), formerly one of the Big Five accounting firms.

“Fourteen-hour days were the norm for me. There were moments in my life where I suffered from insomnia because of stress,” confesses Cheng.

She says, however, that she’s more mindful these days – both in her professional and personal lives. “For a few moments each day, I ground myself in the present by observing my thoughts, needs and feelings. Allowing myself a moment of reflection always leaves me feeling more positive.”

Cheng is probably reminded of the importance of mindfulness on a daily basis – it is a tenet that underpins Aromatherapy Associates, and one that is constantly emphasised in its rigorous training of retailers, spa therapists and counter staff. Where other beauty and wellness brands might reinforce points on P&L and how to drive sales, Aromatherapy Associates stresses wellness from the start – recognising that staff need to believe in the philosophy that underscores the brand before they can be effective at selling. That’s the reason they conduct regular workshops for frontline staff, which encompass everything from stretching to breathing techniques along with tips on how to sleep and eat well. “Our philosophy has always been ‘self care is health care’,” Cheng says.

Putting a premium on education – rather than a direct approach like ads or celebrity endorsements – to drive sales has paid off handsomely for Aromatherapy Associates. It has consistently experienced year-on-year double-digit growth in Asia – impressive for a brand that has grown organically and without the backing of behemoths like L’Oréal Group.

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But Cheng knows better than to rest on her laurels. “The Asian consumer is discerning, knowledgeable and can be very critical,” says Cheng. “You have to offer a lot more than an immediate solution to a problem. The message also has to be about empowerment and confidence building.”

Other than Hong Kong, key markets for the brand include China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, but Cheng says there’s potential for skincare and wellness labels in emerging economies like Indonesia, India and Vietnam, due to the increased spending power of the rising middle class.

To stay competitive, Cheng is of the opinion that wellness brands have to evolve to keep up in a challenging retail environment. “Take travel retail as an example. In an environment where people want to grab and go, we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can simplify our messaging without diluting it,” she says. “As an increasing number of airports develop to become lifestyle destinations, and not just a place to catch a plane, brands need to start developing experiential spaces to make the act of buying a product more meaningful for the customer.”

Find out more about Aromatherapy Associates at aromatherapyassociates.com. Products from the brand are available on inflight duty free.