L'Occitane leading the blind

The French beauty company is pioneering products and programs for the visually impaired. And therein lies a tale.

By Michal Lev-Ram, Fortune

(Fortune 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 accessible to visually impaired consumers.

L'Occitane was soon adding Braille labels to a few of its packages. A decade later, Braille labels now adorn most 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 create a 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.

With some ten million visually impaired people living in the U.S. alone, Braille labels better inform a small but significant population of consumers. So why aren't more companies following L'Occitane's lead? Maybe 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. "Our hope is that L'Occitane will influence other companies to follow suit," he says.

But the company has done more than change labels. In 1998, Baussan launched its perfume school, in which visually impaired teenagers are flown to France for a weeklong workshop. The students learn the history of fragrance making from a blind French perfumer and are trained to concoct their own scents.

"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."

_________________________________

To learn more about Braille, living with vision loss, and the American Foundation for the Blind, visit afb.org. Top of page