THE STORY OF OUR FIELD & CAMP SOAP
An idea is just a seed. You have to plant it first and if it grows you have to nurture it to a plant. Sometimes you find a pack of seeds that has no label so you may not know what you're going to get when it start to germinate. You may not know what it is until the second set of leaves grows and still you might not know what it is until it flowers. That's what makes growing things so fun. Hell....it may die and that's ok because you can plant another seed and start over but this time you'll have all that knowledge you gained from the first go at it. In the case of the Field & Camp Soaps this metaphor is a perfect way to start the story. I knew I wanted to make this product but I never truly gave it a lot of thought...it just seemed to fit in with the whole mantra of Barnaby Black. Field & Camp Soap just seemed to ring of the outdoors...duh! It started with that name which I thought was just perfect. The seed grew and grew and grew and after all these years, the better part of fifteen, I finally know what it is.
That's the funny thing about stories (or products). Sometimes you have that initial idea but you have no direction. The many iterations of the Field & Camp Soap started with a simple idea - a simple Castile soap, in an easily packable bottle for your daypack or for travel and that was safe for the environment. Simple idea but it never seemed to work and although it was one of the first products created here at Barnaby Black and had endured the years, it was never a good seller. Plans to discontinue the product all together had came up but like all good things sometimes you just have to have a little grit.
Something as simple as soap should not be this much of a thorn in your fingertip. There are millions of companies making soap and everyday millions of people use soap without notice...they just wash up and move on without thought to this thing. I'll guess most people have not thought about soap as much as I have in my life. It's soap. Field & Camp or not you can use it on anything, anywhere, anytime you want. What it smells like doesn't matter as much as I used to think it did and I'm even beginning to think "certified organic" doesn't hold that much weight these days. If it suds and makes your hands feel clean well...I think that's all it needs to be. Whether it makes your hands feel dry or soft after you use it, well I don't think that much matters either. What I do think matters, after many years of evolving this thing, is how it looks in the bottle. How it sits on a shelf or in your pantry on on your sink ledge. How it dispenses. This has been my plight. My struggle in a small way to keep this product alive because I believe in it.
I've learned through experience, many years of such, that packaging goes a long way in the success of a product. It comes down to functionality, aesthetic and a basic heir of cool. The Field & Camp is functional in that it cleans and that is the sole purpose of soap but what does it offer in aesthetic or that trend following atribute? I mean maybe nothing at all but the question here is not is it cool but can it be marketed. I don't have to tell you how many things out there are terrible products but sell millions and make the maker of said product money. Truth is I never wanted it to be trendy...I could care less about that. What I care about is a good product that doesn't kill the planet. In that I succeeded so why does it not rake in the dollars or in my case the cents? I wish I had an answer to that question.
When I launched the first iteration of the F&C soap I wanted to appeal to the hiker and camper. Someone who would put it in their pack and it wouldn't take up much room once inside. I wanted it to be an essential carry for the outdoorsman. What happened after Barnaby Black sort of made a name in the world, after Urban Outfitters discovered us, was that it was going to end up on shelves in those stores and there may have been camping folk that shopped at Urban but it didn't matter because city folk shopped there as well. I realized that people would buy it because it was in Urban and not because they gave a shit about the outdoors. This made me realize some things about my creation...the first was that one of the two scents wasn't even outdoorsy smelling. It leaned well towards kitchen scented smells. More importantly I wondered how my soap would look in a sea of other similar products, on a shelf buried amongst the dozens of other bottles. Would it stand out because that is what matters when you start talking about end cap marketing or check out line spots because no-one is reading the label when they are browsing the isles. Being my labels are very minimal I wanted to spruce them up (pun intended). I didn't change the bottle but the label. I hand painted the names of the soaps to give it a more unique look. I wanted it to stand out and it certainly did that but that didn't mean it sold any better. As a matter of fact it didn't move the dial much at all. As some of my other products did better for me and started to concrete my brand into the soil of marketing the F&C soap fell to the wayside, buried in the wake.
It has always been for me and my brand, "the weirder the better". Keep the people looking at the spectacle. Keep them wondering, interested...maybe teach them something along the way. Working with plants can offer this without doing much else as many people don't know about them. Things like Atlantic White Cedar and Tasmanian blue gum just have a general tone of strange. Not because they are but because they are unknown to many ears. People know cedar and think about pencils or hamster cages and they know eucalyptus or Tasmanian blue gum but they often think about Vicks Vapo Rub and not the wonderfully woody, earthy smell the eucalyptus nuts have. I relied on this now to help with the soap. The labels were unique. The smells were intriguing. I was only using wildcrafted essentials oils in them now. They could really be something now but they were not. I can't remember that far back but I don't remember selling a single unit. So what do I do? I change the label again. This time I stepped it up a little and got my bottle silk screened to look a little more professional, less hand made. I was smart so not to spend the money on many different smells so I left room for a stick on label that could differentiate the scents and there were a bunch of them now. I added about ten to the line. Weird ones, single plant scents and familiar alike. I took all new photography and pushed it out into the world better, faster and more frequently. I thought this could be the one. Shit I traveled to the Mojave Desert for a photo shoot. This wasn’t the one.
Let’s talk about Body Wash. It’s just a word. It’s not a word that appeals to anyone in particular but it’s a word that everyone can understand. Field & Camp Soap are words as well and although most people understand what they mean they may not know, or more importantly care, about what the mean on a soap bottle. Anyone will use body wash. Anyone will use soap but not everyone will use Field & Camp Soap. So I make body wash now. Wildcrafted scents made with plants and trees I collect in the wild. Cool? Unique? Sure. I even changed the bottle. I made it more appealing to the home and less so to fit better in a pack. I had walked away from the camping vibe and stepped towards the home goods vibe. I put all the remaining F&C soaps on sale and wrote a farewell message to my customers from my F&C Soap. Not long after I relaunched ‘body wash” in my line up it started to actually sell a little better. It was less expensive now and approachable by the standards of the consumer. This realization was one that haunted me, bothered me and often crippled me. The question of what people want and why they make the purchases they do. I have always went into my business as a creator and not a business man. I create to appeal to myself and hope it works out. I had seen first hand that in the case of this soap it was the bottle and the cap and the way consumers had been conditioned over time to understand that. It wasn’t niche anymore. Or it was less niche. It was the words “Body Wash”. Familiar words seen everyday. Still though it wasn’t a best seller for me and now the original idea of my creation was lost. It was forgotten in the world of marketing. It lost its fun and was now conforming to the market shelf where it sat swimming in an ocean of body wash. What dictated another change was that I ran out of silk screened bottles. I didn’t want to spend the money again and I lost interest because I gave up on it. Remember I’m a creative. I don’t think about making money with my art. I should but I never do. I run on imagination…that wonderful steam that drives people to make things with heir hands.
So now I have no soap. No bottles in stock and I’m lost but now I have time to think about this. I started to think about that marketing BS. I became a semi-expert on bottles and packaging. I found out about things like gender roles in purchasing. Guys more often than any don’t spend money on self care…they didn’t back then anyway. Woman usually shop for their spouses. I found out that in Europe people would use glass bottles in the bathroom but here in the states no way. I found that certain kinds of pumps or sprayers worked for some things, certain room sin the house but not others. This had nothing to do with aesthetic or color or fonts just yet because that’s another monster all together. After all this stimulation and confusion and information, useless and not, I ran out of steam and what little fun was left in it for me was nearly gone. I didn’t give up though. I mustered the energy, tried to remember why I created this soap in the first place and I brought it back hard. New bottle. Again. New label. Again. New scents. Again. This time though not only was the soap ok for the environment so was the bottle. I ditched plastic and went aluminum. The pump was plastic but I offered info on how and where to recycle it and I encouraged reusing my bottle and if you wanted to order again I would send it with a metal cap instead of another pump…so go ahead and reuse the old one. I was doing good. I was happy again. The first of my early products had been revitalized. So what could go wrong? The beginning of a recession? Supply chain issues? Worldwide Pandemics? Corporate greed? Capitalism winning? Small business losing? All of the above. The positive take was that this iteration of my beloved F&C Soap sold the best. I can’t say it was one thing or another…the bottle, the intention of saving the planet, or the work I put into really explaining to my customers what this soap was and what was inside the bottle. I can say that I wasn’t making money on these things though. After all of that, after the increase in sales, when I did the numbers and tweaked the margins I found that it wasn’t worth the time and energy because the money wasn’t there. The bottle was too expensive now and so was the pump…it cost my nearly two bucks before the soap, essential oils and label. I really loved the product. It was solid and it was right on track to my original imagining of it. It wasn’t packable and it wasn’t really campsite aesthetic but hey it worked, it was biodegradable and certified organic and it smelled good. So I can’t save the world. Plastic is cheaper. Recycling is a sham anyway. You would think at this point I would walk away from it all together but like any good artist you keep painting or drawing or sculpting until you die and your works become priceless when you can’t enjoy the rewards of having money in the bank.
So here we are in 2023. The planet is falling apart on every level. The human experiment is coming to an end it seems. It’s a scary time to be alive. I realize that this all means…not all that much when you think of the reality we live in. When I started BB things were very different and yes making soap is a small thing but it mattered more when I started out because creativity was revered more back then. The take way here is evolution. The ability to adapt in any kind of climate. The motivation to keep going. Carry one and grit your teeth. Sometimes you just walk. You just trek on. You find a trail and go. There may be a fork and you can take it. Sometimes the wind blows you off that trail and onto another. Sometimes you get snow blind in the journey. What matters is that you keep on keepin’ on. Stay true. Be creative. Always. Use the tools you know how to use. Yes learn to use others but do what you do best and do it all the time. I’ve made decisions for my F&C Soap and sometimes decisions where made for me, things you have little to no control over, but I can’t let the dream die off. And so…here I am. Back at the beginning of the trailhead. It took many years and many storms but Field & Camp Soap is here to stay. I went back to the original idea in its truest form…the bottle, the concept, the imagined scent. Theres a new label and there’s one scent now…one and only one. Simple. I took the things I learned along the way and I applied them to my passion. This labor of love. It’s simple soap. Certified organic. Biodegradable. Packable. Geared towards outdoor usage but still could look good in the kitchen or cabin or bathroom. We added a gallon refill to reduce, reuse and all that good shit that keeps the world green and smiling. Full circle. Such is life. See you at the next sunrise.