Biotherm

The Blue Fountain, an In-Store Refill Device for Biotherm

We conceptualized, designed, and prototyped an in-store serum refill device for Biotherm.

The brief

Imagine, design, and develop the first in-store luxury cosmetic refill device.

At the end of 2019, after being connected through Surfrider Foundation Europe, Possible Future and Biotherm laid the foundation for a collaboration focused on their shared commitment to reducing packaging and environmental impact. Building on their environmental approach (embodied in innovations such as the Waterlover range of sunscreens, which are biodegradable and respectful of marine biodiversity), Biotherm wanted to focus on circular economy as a model and reduce the impact of their product packaging. The choice of product with which to test the refill device was not insignificant as it was the brand’s flagship product, Life Plankton Elixir. This serum is a special product, with patented technology, which has a very high concentration of natural active ingredients, including a natural plankton from the Pyrenees. The product is packaged in a glass bottle, in three formats, which had to be integrated into the design of the device.

Glass, plastic, metal, bakelite, composites: the materials used to manufacture luxury cosmetic bottles are often beautiful, heavy, and unique, but they reflect the brand’s positioning more than their environmental commitment. These bottles are resource and energy intensive, yet they are made from materials that are sustainable over time and often reusable. However, they usually end up being thrown away due to a lack of systems and services that might allow for their refill and reuse.

In addition to the technical solutions that need to be put in place―which are already complex in and of themselves in terms of microbiology and the durability of the formulas, the evolution of consumer behavior and economic viability are also at stake for an innovation such as this to find its relevance and place in the beauty sector. Biotherm commissioned Possible Future to work on all of these issues in order to create a functional, unique, and attractive prototype that met safety requirements.

The approach

Imagine, test, test… and test again. A close collaboration among scientific, technical, economic, and product design experts.

The team started out by conducting an international investigation. From Shanghai to Berlin, via Madrid and Paris, the objective was to find, explore, and understand uses and initiatives in the realm of responsible cosmetics, bulk processes, refilling, and zero waste. We wanted to get inspired, but also to think outside the box and analyze the best practices as well as the bad ones. Turning to another sector to put a use into perspective, collecting products and materials, visiting stores and immersing ourselves in various retail concepts were all part of the research phase. The second part of this month-long phase involved long interviews with Biotherm consumers in every geographical region, as well as with people with extreme profiles in terms of eco-responsible behavior. Finally, meetings with various experts as well as factory visits to our client’s premises completed the approach, helping the team understand the formula itself, its delicacy and design, and to better define the product’s positioning, all geared toward inspiring future designs.

This exploration led the team to identify challenges and collective assumptions that would be crucial to address in the design of the device :

  • In the collective mind, bulk and refill are mainly associated with the food industry, and as a result, with its ordinary, banal aspect.
  • Bulk and refill immediately entail a perception of large quantities, which is the antithesis of the rarity of ingredients and the sophistication of small luxury formats.
  • Bulk conveys the impression of a lack of hygiene, which is an oxymoron in the cosmetics sector.
  • Cosmetic-filling experiences are like technical black boxes, not very comprehensible as objects and devices.
  • With a zero-waste offer still in its infancy, consumers need to feel valued and rewarded for their eco-responsible efforts.
  • The action of filling is perceived as an industrial, dehumanized, mechanical, cold process.

From this, the team drew principles and lessons that were decisive in the conceptualization phase that followed:

  • The importance of people and service in relation to the future device.
  • The user-experience and sophistication angle, to make the device stand out from what is often considered industrial or technical.
  • The need to integrate bottle-cleaning actions into the device for this first in-store test, so as not to over-complicate the all-in-one refill process for the consumer.

It was at this point that the business teams began to imagine, challenge, and define the user journey and the plan of action to scale while ensuring the positive impact of the refill solutions, which are still in their infancy. Beyond the simple presence of an in-store prototype, the service dimension and the definition of a profitability model remained a priority and a challenge throughout this phase.

Once the process―including each step required and its specifications―was validated by Biotherm’s team, we began the mock-up and prototyping stage, working closely with Biotherm’s technical, quality, and regulatory teams for several weeks.

Once designed, the majority of the parts were produced in artisanal workshops in the Paris region: metalworkers, carpenters, glassmakers, and sheet metal workers all worked in tandem on the various parts and pieces necessary for the device to function properly. Following the production phase, the teams worked on the final assembly of two functional prototypes in our workshop in the 10th arrondissement. The last steps involved a series of electrical safety tests, a risk analysis, and a series of microbiological tests in order to obtain the final validation required to deploy the devices in stores.

The result

The Blue Fountain, a complete in-store refill system, including bottle washing, filling, personalization, and labelling.

The refill station is presented as an island with three steps that consumers and users can see from all sides. The first space, dedicated to bottle washing, stages a three-step journey so that each bottle can be washed, dried, and sterilized. The team chose to design each step so that it would be visible and understandable from the user’s point of view, but also representative of the mechanical actions that make it effective. The hand has a central place in these actions, which are purposely non-automated.

  • A visible water jet framed by a round bowl for rinsing
  • A mobile platform that slides up and down, and a blowing nozzle, for drying
  • A reflective puddle, for sterilization by UV light

These steps were designed to accommodate all three bottle formats, which makes refilling possible for the entire Life Plankton Elixir range.

Once the bottle has been cleaned, it is placed on the bottle tray to be refilled, in accordance with the legislation and metrological constraints (quantity compliance) in force.

The delivery system has been designed and tested to avoid contact with air and possible contaminants, as well as to ensure the durability of the serum’s delicate formula and its compatibility with the materials used.

Post-refill, the bottle is engraved with a line to confirm the refilling, serving as a testament to the consumer’s commitment via this eco-responsible act. The line makes it possible to count the number of refillings of a single bottle, simply and visually.

The final step involves labelling the bottom of the bottle to ensure traceability of the batch number and the mention of regulatory information.

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Strategic vision
on cosmetics bulk-and-refill and in relation to the possible consumer barriers in terms of adopting this new behavior

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Identified user challenges
to be addressed in the concept and execution

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Key ideas
pitched mid-project, presenting three possible layouts and three different experiences for an in-store refill system

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Functional device prototypes
created and assembled for initial in-store testing

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Initial 3-month trial
in Madrid from February 2021

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