A Sorbet by any other name

Would taste as sweet, with apologies to the great William Shakespeare. That may or may not be the case for Sorbet, the dynamic new entrant into the local South African beauty industry, which had some serious second thoughts at the time of launch of this highly differentiated brand name in a somewhat predictable category.

Sorbet logoLet’s first take a quick international glance, however, to contextualise the local play.

The Body Shop was an early forerunner in the retail cosmetics category for a brand with a deep seated purpose, centred upon ethical behaviour and strong consumer activism. The late Anita Roddick will be remembered for a feisty entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering commitment to a cause that ultimately yielded a sale value of £652m to cosmetics giant, L’Oréal, in a deal that some suggested caused a significant loss of credibility for the principles that she stood for.


Dynamic and competitive

In a dynamic and competitive industry, other entrants, such as British counterpart Lush, captured an evolving space on similar foundations: a support of ethical issues with a return to the fresh handmade craft of cosmetics, rather than the perpetual mass production seen in the industry. Every aspect of its brand reflects this freshness and dynamism, and is now available through a handful of locations in key South African cities. Competition clearly knows no boundaries.

Step forward local entrepreneur, Ian Fuhr, co-founder of the Sorbet brand, a uniquely SA proposition and rapidly emerging success story. It is currently opening its first outlet in London this month and potentially yields the start of the same traction internationally that it has had at home.

It is not directly retail cosmetics per se, but sits as an adjacent category defined as a beauty therapy hub, with an extensive array of offerings covering nail, body, hair and skin solutions — a far cry from the confectionary treat that the name suggests, but equally delightful by all accounts.

People and service

Apart from its differentiated name and visual style, which have been revolutionary in a category that Fuhr defines as having being bland and caught in the trap of parity and ordinariness, comes the real key to its success — people and service.

In a very humble admission while discussing the journey of the business founded in 2005, he confesses to knowing little about the nature of some of the product offering. He muses humorously that he doesn’t quite get the female preoccupation with nails and manicures, suggesting that this does little to draw the opposite sex, but nonetheless the business turns out approximately 1m nails a month in treatment at the moment!

What he does confess to understanding, deeply, is the principle of customer service and delivering a superior user-experience across his range of stores. This, he naturally suggests, has everything to do with people, and the training and effort that goes into preparing the Sorbet team to deliver this. He defines one of his primary roles and activities as taking personal responsibility for the induction of all new employees in the business, currently numbering around 1200 people.

Claim and maintain

How many executives can claim that, and maintain the belief and commitment to keep that central to the business, more so one that also deploys a franchise model as part of its distribution strategy?

In tracking some of the Sorbet story and Fuhr in particular, since listening to one of his interviews, it is abundantly evident that people and service are close to his heart. Consider one or two of his recent tweets:

What you do for yourself you take to your grave. What you do for others will linger on after you’re gone. Put Service before self-interest.

— Ian Fuhr (@ian_fuhr) March 10, 2015


#servantleadership is the best management style I have seen. Serve the people who are serving the customers and see your business grow.

— Ian Fuhr (@ian_fuhr) March 13, 2015


Crusade and commitment

Wise words indeed, albeit in a social media context — they are a reflection of a belief system and operating ethos in the business — one which will continue to serve them well in yet another category that is highly competitive and undifferentiated. A service crusade and commitment to deliver beyond the brand promise will surely enable competitive advantage.

It is early days for the Sorbet brand on the international scene and one doesn’t want to create the wrong karma ahead of this phase of its journey. One cannot help but feel, however, that we may have another SA retail franchise success story on our hands that could mirror the likes of the Nando’s tale.

Go well and boldly in service, Ian and the Sorbet team!


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