My two favorite brands

Today I had a very good customer service experience, and a very bad one. The company responsible for the bad one shall remain nameless, but the very good one reminded me of a blog post I've been meaning to write for a long time.

I've been thinking a lot about brands lately. What makes a strong brand? What makes you keep coming back to a company? What companies make you feel good when you do business with them?

It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that knows me that the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my two favorite brands out there are Lush and Trader Joe's. A handmade cosmetics company and a specialty grocery store wouldn't seem to have a lot in common when you first look at them. But they do!

Both of them are constantly innovating their product line. They're trying new things, and adding new products. Sometimes, unfortunately, that means old favorites have to go. But there's always a sense of excitement in going to the store or to the web site and seeing something new to try. I have plenty of old favorites at both places, but I almost always try something new when I shop at Lush or Trader Joe's. They're also both liberal with samples, so I don't always have to buy to try.

You feel good about using their products, old or new. Trader Joe's avoids excess preservatives, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and all that other similarly cruddy stuff. Lush also avoids excess preservatives, and is pretty innovative in this area — selling many products that are solid and "naked" because as soon as you have water, you need preservatives. Both companies try to use wholesome, organic ingredients whenever possible.

They're both quirky. They're not afraid to name their products with hilarious puns or plays on words, like "Strawberry Feels Forever," or "So this Strawberry Walks into a Bar" (guess which product goes with which company). At Trader Joe's, employees wear Hawaiian shirts and use nautical terms. And if a cashier needs assistance, they ring a bell rather than droning an announcement over the PA. At Lush, they'll fill a splash pool up with a mountain of bubbles, or henna dye someone's hair in the middle of the shop. And they both — and this is important — NEVER play muzak. It might be classic rock, or 80s music, or reggae, but the music selection always seems to have been put on by somebody with a soul. And often with soul, too.

It's FUN to shop at Trader Joe's and Lush. And the employees seem like they're having fun, too — like they're genuinely well-treated and believe in the company they work for. I don't think I've ever encountered someone at either brand who wasn't genuinely enthusiastic about their products, from discussing Cabernet Pot Roast with a Trader Joe's cashier to the new facial serum bars with a Lush employee.

Perhaps most importantly, though, and probably because their employees are so happy with what they do, both companies have outstanding customer service. I wore an air cast for awhile due to a foot injury, and Trader Joe's was the only place where someone offered to help me out. Not only did she offer to help, she literally ran up to me and asked if there was anything she could get me. Trader Joe's also has a ridiculously liberal return policy, and employees never give you a hard time when you bring something back — even if you just didn't like it.

Lush, meanwhile, was the company I referenced at the beginning of this post, the one that I just had an ace customer service experience with. I'd ordered some perfume samples from their UK site (okay, so I really like to check out their new products, and they're available in the UK before the US), and two had arrived with issues with the bottles, one having fully leaked out. I emailed their customer service team, and they apologized profusely and promised to send me new ones, along with some other goodies. Said perfume and goodies arrived today, and let me tell you, they were pretty liberal with the goodies. Even more impressive, with two of the items, it was clear they'd matched the scents of the products — violet and vanilla — to the two perfumes. They didn't just throw any old thing in the box; somebody took the time to put some thought into what I would like based on the perfumes I wanted.

So here's to you, Lush and Trader Joe's, for getting it right in oddly similar ways. Lush, I should also commend you for your brilliant expansion into spas, and your vast and impressive commitment to the environment. Perhaps that's a topic for another post, but at the very least I'll close with this cool video Lush posted recently on its environmental policy.

PS, if you think violet is iffy as a product scent, I would like to introduce you to Tuca Tuca.


Monticello gets it right


After my experience at Colonial Williamsburg, I have to admit I didn't have high hopes for Monticello, my next and nearly last stop. If a place devoted to multiple founding fathers sidestepped important issues like slavery, how could one focused on Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves and whose stance on slavery shifted throughout his life) do any better?

And here is where I was pleasantly surprised. The guide of my first Monticello tour, the main tour through the ground level of the house, brought up Sally Hemmings before anyone on the tour could ask, and the official Monticello position was that Jefferson probably did have children with Hemmings. The plantation tour, which I took next, went even deeper into the slavery issue, telling fascinating and often sad stories of the slaves that lived on the plantation and their relationship with Jefferson.

The grounds were filled with flowers, and also had an extensive vegetable garden.

Overall, I felt the experience was very balanced. There was plenty of coverage of Jefferson's accomplishments as well, and on the grounds of Monticello, it's easy to see what an accomplishment the house itself is. I toured a lot of typical colonial houses in Williamsburg, and, well, Monticello really stands out after you've seen a lot of those. Filled with innovations and architecturally distinctive, the genius of Jefferson is evident inside and out.

First and second-story windows

I took an additional house tour that went up on the second floor, and although it cost more, I was glad I did. The tour featured a smaller group, and we were allowed to take photos (I realized that the no-photo rules on the ground floor were probably more about moving tour group after tour group after tour group through than any historic preservation reasons). The bedrooms on the second and third floors were mostly unfurnished, but in them I could see how what looked like a one-story house on the outside was actually three. On the second floor, windows were near the floor, so they were immediately on top of the first-floor windows. On the third floor, skylights provided the natural light.

Skylight and roof access

The highlight of the whole tour was the rotunda room, the room inside the rotunda that makes Monticello look so distinctive. When our group walked in, I think every single person either gasped or said, "ooh!" It's painted a vivid yellow, and an enormous, bold space. Unfortunately, prior to the days of air conditioning, it could get up to 140 degrees inside during the summer, so it was mostly used for storage — its primary purpose was in fact to provide the distinctive rotunda.


I also enjoyed the self-guided portions of Monticello, wandering around the support areas. Rather than being in different buildings scattered across the grounds, all of the support areas were housed in a U shape, hidden underground behind the house. Everything from the kitchen to the wine and beer cellars to the horse stables were hidden from view. Again, it was a sharp contrast to the buildings of Williamsburg.

Support area, hidden under the terrace behind the house.

After I finished up at Monticello, I made one more stop, to Jefferson Vineyards, just down the street. I'd had their cabernet franc before at a wine bar, and really liked it, so I did a $5 tasting (unfortunately the cabernet franc is not included), and left with a few bottles of wine and a souvenir glass, the latter included in the tasting. It was a lovely way to wrap up my Virginia trip.