Excuse our excitement, but in less than two weeks Canada turns 150 years old. Feeling extra patriotic, we’re pushing aside Canadian modesty to bring you a series of merchant success stories from the true north, strong and free.
Recently, we featured an illustrator and her husband running a studio and retail shop in Toronto. We also spoke to a merchant on the East Coast of Canada—a personal care brand embodying the true spirit of the Canadian Maritimes.
3700 miles west, on the opposite end of the country, another brand is repping local in its own way. Woodlot is a lifestyle and body care brand steeped in west coast culture and Canadian pride.
If you’ve never been to Canada, you might not know that province to province, the country feels as if it’s made up of different planets. The vocal inflections, the architecture, the landscape, the food—every part of Canada with its own culture. The only constants? Snow and humility.
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Vancouver is a multicultural melee with a California ease gently clashing with Portland bohemia. It’s Canada’s third largest city, and maybe due to its milder weather, it has the laid back vibe of a much smaller place. Bordered by mountains and oceanfront, it naturally draws and cultivates a more nature-conscious population.
When Sonia Chhinji and Fouad Farraj began building Woodlot, they knew that their hometown Vancouver would be the best testing ground for their products. Their freshman line of candles was inspired by their surroundings, after all. And, most importantly, a city that leaned towards healthy living would relate to the values of a naturally-derived brand.
I spoke to Sonia, Woodlot’s Co-Owner and Creative Director, about cultivating a modern homegrown brand rooted in tradition.
The Origin of Woodlot
As a child in the Mediterranean, Fouad played among the olive trees in his own backyard. His family pressed the resulting fruit for oil used for many purposes including soap-making, Sonia tells me.
"A lot of the soap bars that are made in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe are typically olive oil based. So, different from a lot of the bars you find in North America that contain palm and other ingredients that aren’t necessarily as good for your skin. Fouad went back home when he was in his early 20s to learn how to make soap, and had since been making it for friends and family.”
Fouad went back home when he was in his early 20s to learn how to make soap, and had since been making it for friends and family.
On the other side of the world, in Surrey, BC, Canada, a young Sonia would help her mother hand roll candle wicks, a craft passed down from her grandmother in India.
When Sonia and Fouad, now partners in business and life, began exploring the idea of building a brand, they infused elements from both ancestral cultures and from their life together in Canada.
A few years ago the couple’s life looked very different. They both worked in the startup space, gleaning knowledge in many aspects of small business operations respectively. As Sonia travelled frequently for work, she and Fouad grew the new relationship slowly and mostly long-distance. She began learning about his family history and soap making tradition.The two started creating soaps together, first as a hobby and a way to connect as a couple.
"It was something that I was missing in my life for a while, because I was working in this really busy industry. It was go, go, go all the time. I felt that I was quite disconnected from a lot of things. When we started making soap, it was a really nice form of therapy, and also a way to spend time together, be inspired, and to activate a sense that has been dormant for a while.”
I felt that I was quite disconnected from a lot of things. When we started making soap, it was a really nice form of therapy, and also a way to spend time together.
The new-found hobby reignited a long-held desire in Sonia to start a product based company. And, while shopping, they saw a gap in the market—cleaner products for home and body that were well-designed and accessible. They saw opportunity between the luxury market and grocery store natural brands.
"We just got really into making these products. We were excited about our product, and started sharing it with friends and family. We started to work with a friend on a design, and the name. We had fun with it while we were both working full time.”
Sonia and Fouad quietly began selling their inaugural products online—one candle in three scents—and building a brand on social.
When Sonia’s company recognized her passion in her side gig, they approached her: would she consider doing it full time? The company’s own pay-it-forward values inspired them to invest in entrepreneurial people like her. Leaving the comfort of steady employment was at first a scary prospect for Sonia, though.
"I was a bit afraid but it was an opportunity that I couldn't say no to either. Woodlot was starting to gain momentum, and people were really excited about the design and minimalism. We were able to get into a number of stores, too.”
I was a bit afraid but it was an opportunity that I couldn't say no to either.
Since the leap, they’ve been growing the business into new markets and have added more retail partnerships. The product line has expanded and production has graduated from their home to a manufacturing facility.
Building a Lifestyle Brand from Scratch
Though industries like beauty, once dominated almost exclusively by major brands owned by even larger companies, have become democratized by technology and access to manufacturing, they are also still largely saturated markets. In 2017, launching a new brand in one of these crowded markets is no small feat.
Woodlot entered the market with candles, a product with $3.2 billion in US annual sales alone. Candle making has a relatively low barrier to entry, too, meaning competition ranges from massive candle manufacturers to mom-and-pop home-based brands.
Standing apart in the noisy candle industry relies largely on three factors: scent, ingredients, and most importantly, branding.They started with clean burning coconut wax, cotton wicks, and essential oil scents, packed into simple, minimal packaging with thoughtful design. But branding transcends design—to reach an audience for the brand, they would have to define that audience and speak their language.
Sonia and Fouad cared deeply about the ingredients that went into their products, a reflection of west coast values and their own buying choices. What they didn’t expect: not everyone felt the same way.
“We just feel that the products that you are putting on your body and bringing into your home should be natural by default. It was tough for us in the beginning to find that not everybody around us cared about that. Some people care about brand, some about price, some people don't really read the ingredients, and some people buy products based on how much it smells like vanilla or flowers. It was one of those things that was really challenging, because you can't necessarily assume that everybody cares about what you care about.”
You can't necessarily assume that everybody cares about what you care about.
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They identified an audience that did care about their values: the Whole Foods customer, the Lululemon customer—those already embracing a healthy lifestyle.
“That was easy audience for us to identify in the sense that these are people that care about their everyday well-being, people that shop at Whole Foods, or are looking for better versions of the products that they may have been buying from the superstore. We can tap into that customer that's already convinced.”
Sonia’s background in marketing was an asset in building the brand, but she relied on her own instincts as a consumer. She put herself in her customer’s shoes.
“I asked, ‘How do I want to be spoken to? How do I want to be convinced of these products?’ That really helped shape how we were going to talk to our audience, what visuals we were going to use.”
The approach, as an emerging brand was “not overly strategic”, says Sonia. They used their growing social audience to help gauge their content and brand decisions. Reaction to their posts helped them pivot and tweak over time, defining the voice and aesthetic.
“We’re always tinkering and experimenting. We're young, so the wording that we use, we're not set in any way. We have brand values, brand ethos, but in terms of being like a large company that's constrained by bureaucratic stuff, we're not there. That’s really exciting for us to be able to identify that our demographic at the moment is someone who already cares, but that we could move into a category of people that isn’t going to naturally fall into that, and that opens it up for us even wider.”
We have brand values, brand ethos, but in terms of being like a large company that's constrained by bureaucratic stuff, we're not there.
For audiences outside their loyal core, they’re leaning on education, and banking on a shift in the beauty industry towards transparency and savvy consumerism.
Finding the Right Sales Channels
The lion’s share of Woodlot’s revenue is derived by wholesale. Sonia and Fouad realized that while an online presence was extremely important for the brand—they do sell direct to customer via their Shopify store—their product was experience-based and would rely on offline channels, too.
The products are tactile, designed to be touched, smelled, and experienced in way that the online store model could never replicate.
Choosing their retail partners was a strategic process. Sonia relied on her business background and her knowledge of the local market, targeting her hometown for the brand’s first foray into the retail space.
“Vancouver is a great test market for our type of product. We have these neighborhoods, these specialized communities within these neighborhoods. You have your go-to coffee shop, you have your go-to boutique where you buy your gifts. So, I was able to really identify in our city: what were these neighborhoods? What were some of the stores that I go to myself?”
They researched the neighbourhoods in Vancouver, creating a target list of shops to approach. At the same time, inbound requests began trickling in, and the demand helped them identify strong markets outside of their comfort zone.
"It makes sense to start in your home city—it’s the one where you're going to get a lot of attention, a lot of support, and also a lot of opportunity, but eventually, you're going to need to expand and grow. We were able to take that neighborhood idea, and bring it to Toronto, to Montréal, and then other cities across Canada and the US. We had a lot of learning. We didn't even know what a line sheet was.”
Approaching stores was easy because they did their homework, Sonia says. It’s all about fit, and asking yourself the right questions:
- Where do you fit in with other brands in your space, in terms of pricing, design, and target audience?
- What are some of the other brands that the store is carrying? Are they complementary to yours?
- What’s the aesthetic of the shop, and how is it merchandised? Does your product fit in?
- Where is the store located? What are other retail opportunities in that area?
It makes sense to start in your home city—it’s the one where you're going to get a lot of attention, a lot of support, and also a lot of opportunity, but eventually, you're going to need to expand and grow.
The business is thriving on wholesale orders, and they’re happy that the online business pulls its own weight without much investment.
Cultivating a Homegrown Brand
As Woodlot grows, the couple has invested a lot of thought into manufacturing. When they started the business, they were hand-making products in their home before moving to a larger space. They initially weren’t planning on focusing on production, and assumed that they’d eventually manufacture out of province or overseas.But, as their brand began to take shape, it was clear that the origin of their product was a massive part of its identity. The products are now all made in and shipped from their facility in Vancouver, while they continue to update their equipment and systems to improve output.
Product development, too, has taken on a deliberately Canadian flavor.
“For our upcoming products, we’re sourcing things like glacial clay from BC. We also have some of the most amazing hemp, and other ingredients in our own backyard that have really allowed us to capture the essence of Canada. A lot of our product is inspired by Canada. Access to nature has helped us shape the brand identity.”
Woodlot found its customer right at home, cultivating their brand on local pride.
Their success in growing beyond the Vancouver market has hinged on a deep understanding of and empathy for their audience, a strategic approach to sales channels, and authentic branding rooted in personal values.