Provence and branding through craft

Tania Messell


The region of Provence, located in south of France, has been and still is subject to a cultural myth stemming from its exuberant nature and material culture. Authors such as Goethe and Alexandre Dumas indeed hailed the clarity of the air, the lush lemon trees and mountains covered with an ‘angelic glory’[1], and since the 19th century there has been a wide interest for Mediterranean vernacular architecture, built in an organic dialogue with the landscape, climate and local materials, which later inspired the discourse of critical regionalism[2]. But while artists, craftsmen and thinkers have helped build a regional identity, entrepreneurs have similarly done so through the use of pastoral images of Provence to sell products to the global market, eager to consume the region’s art de vivre. The sensorial experience associated with the latter has for instance been widely used in the marketing of L’Occitane’s shops and products, which since 1976 have reflected the characteristic ‘sun and generous soil’[3]. But beyond the depiction of Provence through graphics and layout, L’Occitane has now started to promote the region and its crafts online. This interestingly takes place just as the company has fully penetrated the Asian markets, where fifty percent of its products are sold[4]. But as we will see, its association with local workshops, both as a marketing strategy and simple sub-contraction participates in blurring the notion of global and local in the commodifying of Provence today.

L’Occitane saw its birth on the markets in south of France, where its owner sold essential oils, after which it has expanded to two thousand stores in fourty different countries. Its marketing has mainly relied on the (partial) use of local ingredients and packaging illustrated with local plants and the rustic environment developed for the stores where lavender and burnt tiles reminisce a Provençal environment. The customer’s senses are furthermore sollicitated by a pungeant scent of everlasting flower which is regularly vaporised throughout the space (which a friend of mine working there blamed for her acute headaches).

As I was browsing through the company’s new website ‘Fantastique Provence with l’Occitane’ (which features short articles on regional crafts, and provençal lifestyle) a video promoting a faience ceramic workshop in Moustiers Sainte-Marie caught my attention. It indeed featured the Atelier Soleil, which as the other twenty workshops in the village produces traditional and contemporary ceramics, Moustiers having been known since the 17th century for the superiority of its production.

Owner of the Atelier Soleil, still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’.

Owner of the Atelier Soleil, still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’.

Still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’

Still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’

To begin with, the video, which exists with both Japanese and English subtitles,  shows many sequences of the owner himself working with the clay and dipping it, while giving an account of the family business and the beauty of making processes. The studio is shown as a quiet and clean place, furthermore giving a pastoral image of the craft, which more than anything ressembles a hobby activity. Added to this, the video reveals in a short sequence that the Atelier Soleil also produces branded soap dishes for L’Occitane, where the company’s typography appears. After a quik search I discovered that L’Occitane distributes these online, but does not mention their origin. Smaller production has thus suddenly joined mass produced goods, and no mention is made of this, as if going that far wouldn’t be in the company’s interest. Thus, while L’Occitane promotes local craft, it is at the same time kept at safe distance, in order to keep the company’s slick image of Provence and itself. A design historian could thus wonder how, why and when did place-based craft become a marketing tool in today’s global context?

Soap-dish, still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’

Soap-dish, still from ‘Atelier Soleil, faiencerie à Moustiers-Sainte-Marie’

One way of explaining this renewed interest for local production may be found in Arjun Appadurai’s book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization[5] in which the cultural anthropologist attempts to define today’s renewed interest for regional culture. In the complex economic, political and cultural context which appeared in the 1990s, he indeed argued that while transcultural exchanges always have existed, enhanced communication technologies and the dissolving of nation-states have transformed the act of consuming medias into a collective practice in itself. Of relevance to our case study, according to him, these medias feed on a nostalgic imagery refering to a ‘long-lost community’, which is often reduced to a semi-fictious, even pastoral representation. The translocation of production processes, furthermore leads him to suggest that these have become fetichised[6]. This could explain why the marketing of commodities increasingly refers to places and methods of making, as found in the video of the Atelier Soleil, where shots of the ceramicist’s hand working the clay play a central part. There is much work to do on this relationship between craft and branding, and Provence is a prime exemple of their co-dependance. Many questions are still in the need for an answer among which: how did a company such as L’Occitane change its visual identity in its ascension from the French open-air market to foreign high streets?


[1] Thaon, Bernard, ‘L’invention de l’école provençale d’architecture dans la seconde moitié du XIXème siècle’, Images de la Provence: Les représentations iconographiques de la fin du Moyen Age au milieu du XXème siècle, symposium at the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille, 30 May- 1 June 1991, (Aix-en-Provence: Publication de l’Université de Provence, 1992),  p.25

[2] Lejeune, Jean-François, Sabatino, Michelangelo, Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean : Vernacular dialogues and contested identities, (New York: Routledge, 2010), p.xvi

[3] Floor, Ko, Branding a store: how to build succesful retail brands in a changing marketplace (Amsterdam: BIS Publisher, 2010), p.113

[4] Stewart, Anna, ‘How L’Occitane went big in Japan’, CNN online,

[5] Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions og Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

[6] Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions og Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p.42


Tania Messell – 

Tania studied both graphic design and fine arts in Switzerland before joining the V&A/RCA MA. She has since then written on the relationship between craft and corporate identities by examining the Wiener Werkstätte’s visual identity and the marketing of Provencal ceramics. Her current research investigates the development of the first corporate and institutional identities in France (1950-1975), focusing on the encounter between design, fine arts, management theories and technology.


© Tania Messell, 2013. All Rights Reserved.


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