Editorials

What happened to Crabtree & Evelyn?

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From seasonal fragrances, ginger biscuits, hand cream tins and lavender fragranced draw liners to linen robes, ceramic dishes and rice exfoliating cleansers – what happened to Crabtree & Evelyn? This Victoriana-inspired and once timeless American brand (yes, American, not British as it perpetuated) was founded in 1971 by an international film distributor and businessman, boomed in the 90’s and has been in tumultuous decline ever since.

At its height, Crabtree & Evelyn had 350 brick and mortar stores across 40 countries with 41 of those in the UK alone. But now they’re gone; every one closed and only an online store remains. On the store you’ll find only a handful of the original best sellers with many of the most loved gone forever.

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Crabtree & Evelyn catered largely to an older demographic with products such as the aforementioned drawer liners as well as lavender scented cushions, gardener’s hand creams and a variety of bath and body products in very traditional scents such as rose, lavender, jasmine and simple aquatics.

Outdated branding and resistance to meaningful change

The branding was filled with vintage French and British Victorian hand drawn botanical prints, often in soft pastel shades. This Crabtree & Evelyn branding changed very little from its inception to the beginning of the end. This was the first problem.

One of the final itterations of Crabtree & Evelyn’s seasonal collections

The branding catered to a fading generation of those born in the 20’s, 30’s and possibly 40’s. And unfortunately, this generation started to fade around the turn of the millennium, resulting in the brands core demographic fading fast. Crabtree & Evelyn did very little to appeal to a younger demographic, and by younger I mean those born in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, despite having some fantastic fragrances and formulas.

Everything they tried, including the men’s grooming range that I had a lot of love for, featuring the notable West Indian Lime range, verged on good. It was so close but you could feel the internal struggles of the new-blood wanting to take the brand in a new direction and then old guard, with their unwavering white-knuckle grip, resisting change. In the end, product launches that stepped outside the heritage ‘box’ felt half-arsed and compromised, appealing to no one. I feel this was then the excuse the higher-ups needed to justify that “doing something new doesn’t work for us”, and thus Nero started fiddling.

Strange Sales & Acquisitions

In 1996, the founder sold Crabtree & Evelyn to Malaysian multinational palm oil plantation company Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad. It was their only retail brand. KLPB were only the money behind the brand supposedly, with business operations being split between the UK and US.

In 2009, Crabtree & Evelyn filed for bankruptcy and a good chunk of the US stores were closed. The UK was unaffected, but anyone at the time will remember walking past their stores and seeing them completely dead. A fan of the brand then, I remember on my many visits to their store in Leeds, being one of the only one or two people shopping.

7 years later, announced in 2016, KLPB sold the brand and it was acquired by Nan Hai Corporation of Hong Kong who specialise in property investments. I’d argue that not being part of an investment portfolio of other retail businesses, they didn’t benefit from the sibling support many similar brands do and went it alone, with owners that cared only about the investment, possibly at all costs.

Crabtree & Evelyn is still owned by Nan Hai to this day and it was from 2016, big changes started to be made. In a few years, all store were closed; US manufacturing was ceased and the brand went fully online. It was in 2019 that the brand was made over, focusing on a much more modern, Balinese inspired ethos, shedding everything it was known for with the exception of a few classic products. That gets me to my third answer…

The New Crabtree & Evelyn lacks soul

With everything that made Crabtree & Evelyn stripped away except the name and a few classics, the brand has gone all ‘Balinese’ meets ultra-modern, departing the shores of London to the islands of south Asia into the poor-mans Aveda. And as we all know, nothing represents Balinese and Indonesian culture more than a brand called Crabtree & Evelyn…

The brand still sells predominantly cosmetics and home fragrance, but now also a pair of earrings, a pair of bookends, a ring, a towel, some bowls and an om symbol – no, I don’t know why either. When they rebranded, all the old stock ended up in TK Maxx and Home Sense, I know this because I bought it all, and given what they’re now selling, it seems this was a swap deal with a lot of the cheap tat you can pick up there in the clearance bins.

It doesn’t make sense to those who knew the company or those who’d never heard of it until now, and that’s the problem. Crabtree & Evelyn was named after a British 17th Century author and adopted into its entire soul was old-English culture with drippings of classical French inspiration. It’s for gardeners and those who read Harpers Bazaar, Tattler and The World of Interiors; it’s Cotswoldian and English.

Whilst Indonesian culture is fabulously fascinating, rebranding this iconic British, American brand, by seemingly throwing a pin at a map seems ridiculous. But my suspicions are that it was attempting to tap into some American beachy, hippy, gap-year, ayahuasca-smoking crowd that finds ancient Asian cultures ‘quaint and exotic’ in that patronising, eyeroll inducing way that they do – you know, the ones that wore Kabballah bracelets in the 00’s and attend spiritual and mindfulness workshops; anything to compensate for the lack of a discernable personality. Harsh? Maybe. True? Absolutely.

South Asian, Indonesian interior art style entered and left the western cultural zeitgeist a good number of years ago – it’ll be back, but should you base your entire brand off a passing trend? I am such a passionate believer in the sharing, learning and interweaving of cultures — Hispanic and east Asian language academia was and still is such a huge part of my life — but it’s times like these you notice what cultural bandits some corporations can be. It appears therefore, this rebrand is nothing more than a patronising bastardisation of Balinese and South Asian culture to sell 50 year old hand cream (excellent hand cream, but still) and a pair of questionable earrings. It’s hardly the mark of a successful, international beauty empire when you look at those who’ve survived for generations.

The brand has no reason for being, no identity and no message and that’s why it fails to resonate with customers. If they wanted to go in this direction, they should have rebranded completely, with new name, vision and ethos and sought how to adopt Indonesian history, art and style into its very soul; share the word their story instead of a thinly veiled masquerade.

They went from too old to too young

Millennials and Zoomers don’t have money; we fritter what money we have on unnecessary frivolities because so many of life’s key milestones are becoming increasingly out of reach. Social media, for example, is one of the poorest drivers of transacting users.; dabs, tik-toking and doing ‘the floss’ doesn’t equate to sales. Yet so many brands seem to focus solely on them. It seems the rallying cries of women in their 50s of “stop marketing to us with images of 20 year olds with boobs under their chins” was only listened to in part: “stop marketing to us”.

This generation of beauty buyers between the ages of 45 and 65 have the money. My mother bought a Guerlain fragrance a few months ago, gave it a sniff, wasn’t loving it and passed it to me; she also did it with a £199 wireless BaByliss hair curler – she gave them to me firstly because she knew I’d love them, she’s unwaveringly generous, but I’m also aware that a small part was so she could clear some space to go online and buy more! This generation are retiring/retired earlier and have decades of hard earned income burning holes in their tailored Jigsaw drape trousers.

Crabtree & Evelyn, in wanting to correct past mistakes, are trying to feed younger customers in the front end, in the hope they can keep them from cradle to grave. But it’s like a teacher in ironed jeans and the whitest off-brand trainers they could find, sporting a backwards facing baseball cap — this particular meme comes to mind — trying to relate to the youth of the day.

Is this the end for Crabtree & Evelyn?

It’s hard to know, but the appearance of book ends on the site hardly fills me with confidence. I would say yes if it wasn’t for the fact the brand sits on some of the industry’s best formulations and fragrances.

‘Noël’, their orange, cinnamon and clove Christmas fragrance, was the scent of my childhood. I miss it with such vehemency and passion that if it came back, Crabtree & Evelyn would have to have some pre-printed postage labels of my address done as I set up a monthly direct-debit for candles, creams, oils and diffusers. This isn’t a joke by the way, I mentioned a lot of their stock went into Home Sense and TKMaxx…

All the Crabtree & Evelyn stock I could find in Home Sense and TKMAXX

As I’ve been writing and researching this article, I have placed my first online Crabtree & Evelyn order ever. I’ve ordered all new products including a candle, body wash, powder body exfoliator (never seen one of these not for face) and a lip balm. My expectations are high and I’ll link to a little write up of them when they arrive. Update: here is a link to the review of the products purchased.

So there we are, Crabtree & Evelyn, the rise and the almost fall. What are your thoughts? Have you tried any of the products in the new range or are there any old school favourites you’re pining for?