2017 Brands to Watch: How Saje struck oil

The natural skincare company is sprouting up everywhere.
Store 14

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of strategy.

Saje has built a business on the idea that if you can’t make a product that’s 100% natural, then don’t make it at all.

The company, which sells completely natural essential oil and skincare products, was founded in Vancouver by husband-and-wife team Jean-Pierre LeBlanc and Kate Ross LeBlanc in 1992. The impetus came after Jean-Pierre got into a car accident and was seeking more natural remedies for his health challenges.

While it experienced moderate growth in its first 18 years, business began to skyrocket between 2010 and 2015, a period that saw revenue jump 1,012%. In 2016, the company entered Profit magazine’s ranking of Canada’s fastest-growing companies at #74, and this year, Saje is opening five new stores in Canada and 11 in the U.S., bringing its total to 71 at the end of the year. It is also making a more mass consumer play by opening new mall locations, including a large presence in Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall.

A mix of internal and external factors are behind the wellness company’s recent growth spurt.

First came the money, with Saje bringing on undisclosed Canadian financial partners to help fuel the expansion about seven years ago.

Next, the company did a review of its brand identity, hiring the co-founders’ daughter, Kiara LeBlanc, as VP brand and creative director. That addition led to a redesign that Katie Drechsel, VP of marketing, digital and customer experience at Saje, says makes its stores and packaging match the feel of the product. Saje incorporates nature into its store design, with natural elements like plant walls, as well as wood furniture and clean aesthetic.

Externally, Saje was responding to a shift in how people approach their health, moving from treating symptoms at the doctor’s office to being more preventative in their everyday lives by using natural oils, for example.

“I like to joke that we are a 25-year startup,” says Drechsel. In the past two years she has been at the company, Saje has grown from 12 to 160 employees at its Vancouver headquarters. The 12-person in-house creative team works on everything from product packaging to photography and website design.

Beyond its ubiquitous jute bags that act as a marketing vehicle, the company typically uses social media posts, community partnerships, influencer events and in-store seminars to promote the brand. It also recently started testing paid Instagram advertising this summer.

As part of its sampling strategy, Saje partners with like-minded health and wellness-focused companies, such as fellow Vancouver-founded brands, including Lululemon and YYoga, as well as SoulCycle and Nike. Partnerships include pop-up events, product seeding, gifting and locker room takeovers. It’s also collaborated with TED for the last two Vancouver TED Talk summits, creating a wellness lounge and educational breakfast on natural healing.

“Whenever we [enter a new] partnership, we look at how we can elevate an experience, create a new experience or how we can educate,” says Drechsel.

In addition to the larger partnerships, Saje has local community specialists on the ground in key markets like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and L.A., who are tasked with finding opportunities for customer connections in those areas. Jean-Pierre still hosts about 50 educational seminars at Saje locations each year.

Drechsel says Saje is nowhere close to the top of its growth trajectory, and is planning to increase brand awareness in Canada and the U.S., where the company opened its first physical store in 2016. She says efforts will be focused on the areas where Saje can have the biggest impact, which is measured by product trials, conversations about wellness, and how many people they can help feel better.

“There is a lot we can still do to grow the natural wellness sector and our brand in the next three years,” she says. “We want to continue to be a thought leader and sharing with them how they can improve their wellness.”