How branding built Spa Esprit’s empire

It’s been almost two decades since Spa Esprit founder Cynthia Chua launched the spa brand in 1996 on Singapore shores.

Today, Spa Esprit has grown into a beauty and F&B empire that spans 16 brands, and is present in nine cities, including its home base of Singapore, as well as New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok.

Brands under the Spa Esprit Group should be familiar to most Singaporeans: wax parlour Strip, eyebrow grooming brand Browhaus, as well as food and beverage brands such as Tippling Club, Skinny Pizza, 40 Hands, Open Door Policy, Tiong Bahru Bakery, Common Man Coffee Roasters, Bochinche and the newest brand, Open Farm Community, among many others.

While each brand has its distinct theme, one thing runs throughout all Spa Esprit brands – novel designs, cheeky ads and creative retail concepts.

In a highly commoditised market such as spa treatments, Chua attributes part of the business’ success to its distinctive branding. For example, Strip has been marked by cheeky and sometimes controversial ads, some of which the brand has even had to apologise for. Since then, this is also the approach taken for each new café or food brand launched.

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“To me, branding and design is important – 20% of revenues go into it. For other business owners, they see it as a cost – why invest 10% that will never come back? But to me I believe this is commercially viable,” she says.

“I think about what I want to see when I enter a place. We treat a beauty salon like a fashion parlour – there’s always an element of discovery to it, there’s art, there’s design. We use this to connect with customers. To us it’s a necessity, while others may not see it that way.”

Taking Strip as an example, each new outlet has SG$150,000 to SG$200,000 invested in outfittings, campaign designs and finishings. While she did not elaborate on specific returns this brought, she says this helped to establish the brand in consumers minds. Marketing, meanwhile, takes up about 5% of revenues.

Also, most of its creative and marketing duties are done in-house by the Spa Esprit team. It only recently started looking for agency help, hiring Goodstuph for social media and Reading Room for digital. “It’s always good to learn from others what we can do better,” she adds, on looking to agencies for inspiration.

“Branding and design is always a box that needs to be ticked. My branding and design is a reflection of how I think. And we can’t repeat designs.”

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As of last year, Chua says the group pulled in SG$100 million in profit, with the highest earning brands being Strip and Browhaus.

Advice on launching new brands

Chua is open about brands that she has launched that have failed, for example, a fashion brand Potion at Paragon and health food concept 12 x 12.

She says she generally has at least “25 ideas in her head at once”, but one must be careful about deciding when to bring an idea to life as a business. For example, food trends are progressive, says Chua, talking about keeping her food brands fresh.

“What consumers wanted two years ago is not what they would want today.”

Chua doles out two pieces of advice on building a business and marketing. One vital thing is having strong partners in the business.

“Many brands fail as they don’t know what the resources they need. For example, I would not be able to run Open Farm Community if I didn’t have modern farmers.”

Second, a marketing message should be clear, uncomplicated and not too “high up” for consumers to relate to.

“We start a new brand as a response to what the community looks for. And the interpretation is important. You need something physical to show people what you have done.

“For example, we started Open Farm Community since people are getting more curious about where their food comes from – that’s when we started it. I saw how Singaporeans love new things, and how modern farming was coming together.”

Interestingly enough, Chua used to work in marketing when she began her career. But she claims she detested the nine to five job and office politics, and went into real estate to get the capital needed to eventually start her own business.