With a history that spans over 100 years, Ach. Brito continues to entice one and all with its unique soaps. Combining know-how and creative strategies, the company has stood the test of time and is making a name for itself around the world.
“Forget me not” says the label on a bar of soap. It is but one among hundreds of soap bars found in a display which contains fragments of the history of the Portuguese. They go to Ach. Brito in Vila do Conde to hand over a little piece of their past, and although time has changed the smell of these soaps, it has not managed to erase the memory of bygone moments and sentences that once gave meaning to everyday life. This is why these soaps have been kept there over the years and not been used despite their renowned quality.
Towards the end of the 1990s – a critical period for the company – an international consulting firm set out their destiny: they should either invest heavily in order to achieve large-scale production and compete with multinational companies, or they should simply give up and close down the company.
The market had become carried away by liquid soap and suggestive advertising aimed at persuading consumers to always try out the latest novelties. Soap bars were no longer fashionable and Ach. Brito had no money to invest in advertising. Thus, the company turned to its one and only asset: a century of history and expertise in the making of soap bars with natural ingredients and which guaranteed fragrance and consistency right to the end. Hand-wrapped soap bars in packages boasting wax seals or high-relief embossments, as if they were jewels.
That was the path to take in their struggle for survival. “Authenticity, genuineness and confidence in its know-how” have always defined the brand since it was first created in 1887 by Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder, who saw in Portugal an opportunity to set up a business that was flourishing in countries such as France. Having targeted a wealthy elite, accustomed to buying imported toiletry products, they founded the ‘Fábrica de Productos Chimicos Claus & Schweder’ (the Claus & Schweder Factory of Chemical Products) in Porto – the first soap and perfume factory in Portugal, with foreign-sounding labels. At that time, Porto was a city filled with “oxcarts and barefooted people, and most of the population didn’t even have a bathroom,” explains José Fernandes, CEO at Ach. Brito, as he emphasises the bold choice made by the Germans to invest in refined products. The quality of the products, however, immediately received international recognition and awards – first at the ‘Universal Exposition Saint Louis’ (USA) in 1899, and then at the ‘Exposición Internacional de Higiene, Ofícios Y Manufacturas de Madrid’ in 1907.
During World War I, Claus and Schweder fled Portugal and closed down the factory, but its ‘know-how’ was (re)invented by one of its employees, the Portugueseman Achilles Alves de Brito, who created Ach. Brito in 1918. He acquired Claus Porto, turned it into his premium brand, and created new products that have marked generations of Portuguese people – such as the ‘Musgo Real’ line for example, a vetiver-based fragrance with a hint of patchouli, which was created in 1920 and has remained on the market ever since with the same aroma and distinction, and for which a new collection is now being prepared with different aromas and different-coloured packaging. Or, for example, the Lavender Water Cologne, the classic fresh lavender scent and the first cologne used by many Portuguese.
Today, there are over 500 references and 150 fragrances, and around a third of the company’s production is exported to over 50 countries on all five continents. Although the USA represents Ach. Brito’s main international market, markets such as Canada, England and Germany are also important. The company has 56 employees and one of its premises is to “make them happy”, and according to José Fernandes, as long as they continue to do so “Ach. Brito will be a successful company.”
Packaging that is a charm
In 1953, and in line with its differentiation strategy, Ach. Brito created its own lithography process on the premises, and thus took control of the entire process from product manufacturing to packaging, including labelling. In fact, its labels were so unique that Ach. Brito started making labels for the major Port wine companies, too. Equally innovative was the creation of hand-painted labels, which can still be seen today at the company’s new premises – the factory in Vila do Conde. An enormous display cabinet with soap bars and boxes reveals the history of an image that has been worked on right down to the smallest detail. An image that has been readapted over the years, by using different colours and adding other elements, but the essence of which has not changed, emphasises José Fernandes.
Ten years ago, Ach. Brito turned to that image bank when it drew up a strategy to conquer new international markets based on placing Claus Porto products in the best design stores around the world. The company was obviously present at international fairs, but it focused mainly on drawing up a map with points of sale in which it was interested, and set off to conquer these. “I’m not saying it’s been easy, but when we tell people about our history, they are always surprised: this has been going on for a hundred years?” says José Fernandes, as he recalls their first forays on the international market. And he adds, “It doesn’t matter if the store where we insist on being doesn’t give us the best conditions. We believe in our product.”
After being in stores such as Saks in New York, Christian Lacroix in Paris, and A Vida Portuguesa in Lisbon and Porto, “everything happened naturally,” recalls José Fernandes, “and the message continued to be passed on”: from stores to the media, and from there to public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Nicholas Cage, Kate Moss and Molly Sims.
With all the media attention surrounding Claus Porto, the Portuguese, who had the brand engraved in their memory, began to take a new-found interest in these historic soap bars. And it is at this point that Ach. Brito’s CEO emphasises the fact that having no money to advertise their products led them to seek out more creative strategies and take a gamble on excellent points of sale so as to draw and entice new customers. And Ach. Brito is using that very same excellent-points-of-sale strategy with ‘Confiança’ (Confidence), another historic brand from 1894 that the company acquired in 2008 and which is now beginning to be exported to an intermediate segment of consumers. Just like Ach. Brito, the company ‘Saboaria e Perfumaria Confiança’ tells the story of the Portuguese and their preferences. Portugal’s typical figures, the flowers associated with iconic places such as Sintra, the Tower of Belém and São Pedro do Sul, the memory of the beaches in the 1940s: all of these are printed on packages for the exclusive collection “Portugueses Confiantes” (Confident Portuguese People), a partnership with A Vida Portuguesa.
But it is the soap – the old blue or pink bar of soap – that has most surprised Ach. Brito. When the company invested in the product that made ‘Confiança’ the biggest and the best national manufacturing company, Ach. Brito could not have imagined the outcome. It started production in October 2010, and by the end of that year it had sold everything it had planned for 2011. “Once again, we didn’t carry out any market studies and we didn’t know there were various uses for this soap. It can be used to wash clothes, as well as dishes and floors, and it’s also used for bathing. It’s a fragrance-free soap, a powerful disinfectant,” observes José Fernandes, emphasising the fact that the product continues to be made as it was in the past: it dries naturally for two weeks before being cut by hand, and only then is it packed.
What does Portugal smell like?
Red poppies, roses, carnations, jasmine, orchids, violets, acacias, grapefruit, ripe figs, sandalwood, tuberoses… Mixtures that are sometimes sweet, sometimes sensual, delicate and sophisticated, gentle or intense – mixtures that induce a host of different sensations. Some of these fragrances have been kept over the years as a result of consumer loyalty. While in the early years of the company’s history there were mainly floral aromas, today, a sign of the times, the aromas reflect a mixture of ingredients – accentuated basic extracts, mixed with various fragrances – which are often indiscernible to the average person.
There are fragrances that are universally appreciated, such as the citrus scents dominating the Bath line, which includes Ach. Brito’s best-selling soap in the world. But surely different peoples and cultures are distinguished by their aromatic preferences? Yes, would be the expected answer. However, without market studies, José Fernandes once again emphasises with a smile, it is not possible to determine the preferences of their consumers. It is obvious that in the 50 points of sale that Ach. Brito has around the world, the products – and the scents – are not the same. Ach. Brito has a vast array of fragrances, and all distributors select what they find more interesting for their particular market. The company’s strategy, explains the CEO, does not include creating exclusive products for certain countries. “In Bahrain, Japan and Oman or, for example, in Canada, the product is the same. What may happen is that you don’t find the product you want depending on the country where you are.”
As for the future, Ach. Brito plans to develop markets that are still in an embryonic phase, such as Asia and countries like Korea and China. It has also set its sights on Brazil, a traditional target for Portuguese exports, with which it has never worked before as it is a market that prefers other types of products – although things may be changing, judging by the number of Brazilian visitors to the company’s website. José Fernandes also goes on to say that in the future some products will be repositioned and others will be created, such as diffusers for example.
And the scent of Portugal? When will there be a bar of soap with the scent of Portugal? “Perfume de Portugal”, currently in the display cabinet at Ach. Brito, was once the label of a soap bar. Over the years, its scent disappeared. “Intensely Fragrant” is printed on the blue and white paper. What did it smell like? “Perhaps we will (re)invent the smell of Portugal one of these days.”
by Ana Serpa