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Grow your own way

Before you joined WALA, you were a communication scientist. Prior to that, you ran your own agency, headed up the marketing team for a major retailer and worked as a copywriter. Is there a common thread between all these different roles and your work at WALA?

Dr. Fehse:

There are two, actually: happiness and freedom. Looking back, it seems like what mattered most to me was having the freedom to shape new developments, research new possibilities, try things out – and sometimes fail, too. My first two bosses were entrepreneurs who had taken the liberty of breaking the rules of their respective industries – with considerable success. They gave their juniors the same freedom as well. Rudolf Hauschka and Elisabeth Sigmund at WALA also ‘came across as rebels’. They have fostered a company culture based on individual responsibility, which surely has something to do with the Rudolf Steiner-inspired person-centred approach. ‘Have confidence in everything you do’ is the WALA motto. Not just because it feels good, but because it makes sense from a business perspective. Freedom generates much more vigour than order and obedience.

Does that apply to sales and marketing, too?

Dr. Fehse:

Yes, of course. Especially so. We just took another look at the numbers. Our marketing budget is only a fraction of what even our smallest competitors spend. We want our ideas and our independent approach to attract attention – we don’t want to buy it. Seeking out our own way of marketing our products is on brand for us, anyway. We go to great lengths to produce many of our plant extracts without alcohol; our remedies are so different, they are even attacked for it in some cases. So it would be crazy to start swimming with the tide in our marketing, of all things, especially when you remember that what unites our founders and our customers is a belief that, in life, nature plays a central role – alongside creativity, design and culture.

‘Culture’ comes from the Latin and historically means tending the earth and growing – as in ‘agriculture’. How much effort are you ‘ploughing’ into WALA?

Dr. Fehse:

Not all that much, when you consider workers who spend the whole week slaving away so that they can go dancing on Sunday. At WALA, we’re all ploughing our own fields – we aren’t working ourselves to the bone for any shareholders. We only work for our fellow beings; in the company, in our client base and on our planet. There’s also the fact that I simply love my job. I never needed work-life balance – because work has always been my life. I never had any hobbies, or even a TV. And I’ve only learned to switch off since the kids came along. My time with them is jealously guarded. That’s why I’m delighted WALA is so understanding of the needs of managers who want to ‘grow’ at home, too.

It sounds like a truly modern workplace, with plenty of freedom to grow – not a stuffy, old-school pharmaceutical company. Doesn’t a company like WALA have a conservative side to it, too?

Dr. Fehse:

Oh, for sure. But that’s what makes it so interesting. Here, we try to combine tradition with the future. We’re constantly applying the old to the new. Our remedies have been around since 1935 – some of them haven’t changed since then. We were pioneers of natural cosmetics back in 1967. That gives us a real treasure trove of recipes and processes – but we also have a brand and an attitude that need to be handled with care. My predecessors never really messed around with our logo, our packaging, even our ad layout. That’s very fortunate, because most new marketing managers, when they arrive, want to shake everything up right away – often making a total mess of things as a result.

Why have you set up a new department if you’re so keen on sticking with tradition?

Dr. Fehse:

Because now is the time to really shout about what the team here have been doing so well for so long. Right now, we need digital channels and social media to suit our incredibly niche, but potentially global premium cosmetics brand. We had to swiftly set up online shops for Germany and our global subsidiaries. For a long time, that hadn’t been considered worthwhile. We’re now sending live updates from our herb garden, which we previously kept under wraps. Being humble – and maybe even a little closed-off – has sold WALA short for a long time. Our Dr. Hauschka cosmetics have also attracted attention in Hollywood, kind of by chance. And WALA itself, our fascinating and unique organisation, has always had a sense of civic duty – but only recently got a proper website, wala.world. Our remedies now have their own Instagram account, too. Given the (justified) scepticism with which a good and honest business like ours approaches the concept of marketing, I’m delighted.

Your department doesn’t just handle WALA’s communications – it also covers cosmetics product management. What is your vision, and what are the marketing objectives for Dr. Hauschka?

Dr. Fehse:

We’ll never do marketing for Dr. Hauschka in the literal sense of the word. We don’t come up with short-term visions – we’re driven by a long-term mission. We don’t make our products for ‘markets’ – we make them for people. So we don’t need market research – we need real medical research. We really want to care for people’s skin. We don’t care that we could make lots of money marketing a specific product range for men, if it doesn’t make any sense from a cosmetic perspective. We don’t market any products as anti-ageing, as that would just be a lie. And more than 30 roses will still go into every tube, even if we could sell just as much of our Rose Day Cream using a single bloom. We are quintessentially stubborn farmers – not crafty marketing types. If you want to sell as many chocolate bars as possible, you can ask the market how much sugar they should contain. But when you’re growing carrots, you get as much sugar as nature wants to give you. Our job is to ‘cultivate’ those carrots as well as we can. Then talk loud and proud about how tasty they are.

Aren’t you losing out on lots of profit by doing it this way?

Dr. Fehse:

In the long term, it’s actually the opposite. We’re convinced that individual human beings, who, together, make up our global client base, are becoming increasingly discerning and mature. Or at least some of them are. And if we manage to get 0.01% of the human race on board with our unusual approach, we’ll easily have doubled our turnover. But then it would be pretty tricky to get the right kind of raw materials we need. No, there are plenty of brands that go mainstream and fight for the mass market with TV ads. We’re sticking to what we’re good at – and what matters to us. That’s what has always set WALA apart, and it was reaffirmed in writing by the foundation and our management a few years ago. When it comes to marketing, we have to strike out a little further, offer something different. Even if it takes more work than a big campaign with slogans that bend the truth to suit ourselves. Of course, in a competitive market like natural cosmetics, a small, principled brand like Dr. Hauschka has to put a lot of work into cultivating our client base. But, as I’ve said: we love to grow our own way.

Thanks for taking the time to talk.