L'Occitane Leading the Blind

The French beauty company is pioneering products and programs for the visually impaired.

By Michal Lev-Ram, Business 2.0 Magazine writer-reporter

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- On a visit to one of his company's boutiques in 1996, L'Occitane en Provence founder Olivier Baussan noticed a blind woman sampling perfumes. After marveling at the intensity with which she inhaled the scents, Baussan vowed to make his company's bath and body products more accessible to visually impaired consumers. L'Occitane was soon adding braille labels to a few of its packages.

A decade later the company, once concerned mostly with the sense of smell, has become a leading advocate for people lacking the sense of sight. Braille labels now adorn almost all of the products, from lavender body scrubs to shea butter hand creams, sold in L'Occitane's 650 stores worldwide.

The company also runs a summer perfume school for visually impaired teenagers near its headquarters in Manosque, France, and has donated proceeds from limited-edition products (such as a holiday candle in 2005) to charities for the blind.

Its initiatives help to create a symbolic and financial bond with visually impaired buyers, who often have a more refined sense of smell than sighted people. "It's about accessibility and making our products available to all," says Baussan, who began his career in 1976 selling essential oils at a small market in Provence.

With an estimated 10 million visually impaired people living in the United States alone, braille labels better inform a small but significant population of consumers.

So why aren't more companies following L'Occitane's lead? Because it costs money: Experts estimate that adding braille labels costs L'Occitane 4 to 6 cents per package.

Carl Augusto, CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, says he knows of just one other brand worldwide - French winery M. Chapoutier - that has decided to label its products in braille. (There are currently no regulations requiring food or cosmetics companies to make products accessible to the blind.) "Our hope is that L'Occitane will influence other companies to follow suit," Augusto says.

In 1998, Baussan launched the perfume school, in which five to 10 teenagers are flown to France each June for a weeklong workshop. Among lavender fields and a braille-labeled herb garden, the students learn the history of fragrance making from a blind French perfumer and are trained to concoct their own scents. The AFB co-sponsors an essay contest to select the American participants.

"Usually we have to beg companies to make their services and products available to the blind," Augusto says. "But Baussan, well, he did it just because he thought it was a good thing to do."  Top of page

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