The refill pioneer saying no to blanding
What’s black, white, and sounds like Dean Martin? It’s Fill Refill, the zero-waste closed loop household refill company, of course! Not only has Fill Refill helped spearhead an eco-friendly way to clean your filthy clothes and home, they’ve done it with style. Their brand features bold illustrations and punchy writing. We sat down with MD Phill Kalli to talk brands, blands, and bands. (Yes, really).
Where did the idea for Fill Refill come from?
My dad is a formulation chemist. He worked with commercial laundries, supplying bulk liquids and then bringing the packaging back. He was already doing a kind of closed-loop system [one where no waste is produced because materials are continuously reused or recycled] without realising it.
And how did you get involved with the business?
My background is very different to what I’m doing now. I never wanted to do what my dad did (despite him buying me chemistry sets when I was a kid). I wanted to do something related to writing, or music, or painting. And had a go at all three, really. I did a degree in English Literature. Then I ended up as a photo editor at a music magazine. And then I managed my friend’s band for about five years. We did quite well – we signed to EMI and did a load of tours and stuff.
I came out the other side of all of that and wanted to go back into education and maybe do something to do with design or painting. But my dad intercepted me, and said, ‘Why don’t you come and see what I do for a year or two and see how it goes?’ And I did.
It’s been 14 years now, and it’s been brilliant. My dad’s been open to all the ideas I had, and really cool about letting me put my own stamp on things.
Is your dad still involved?
Not in the day-to-day stuff – he’s 80 years old now – but he is involved. And he’s so excited about what we’re doing. He walks into his local refill store and, you know, announces his presence.
When you choose Fill Refill, you’re not just choosing the product inside – you’re choosing a different way of purchasing.
Can you tell us a bit about the Fill Refill brand?
I find it hard to see Fill Refill as a brand. When you choose Fill Refill, you’re not just choosing the product inside – you’re choosing a different way of purchasing. And that’s what a lot of the messaging is about.
How do you bring that through in your writing?
We don’t over-describe what we do. It’s hard to resist, especially if you’ve worked hard to get an accreditation, or you know that you do something that another brand doesn’t do. But you have to wind it back, and say, ‘Do you know what? People that choose Fill Refill already know this stuff. They don’t need to be told’. I’ve always said I wanted Fill Refill to be a product that I would choose. And I don’t want to be lectured at.
Also, you have to write these things every day. You don’t want to be bored. In 2020 I took maybe two months off Instagram. It’s old-fashioned, but if you’ve got nothing to say, then you should just take a break. Because when you’re excited about what you’re doing, it comes through. We have purple patches where there’s so much stuff happening, and we’re really proud of it. I feel like that comes through in the way we talk about it.
How else would you describe the Fill Refill voice?
It’s quite idiosyncratic, our tone. There are certain words that I do and don’t like. Maybe it’s being fussy or, or maybe it’s just being aware of how much blanding there is. I feel like a lot of brands just merge into one language. I don’t want to speak that same language.
We want to communicate the idea of refill without any bullshit.
We’re impressed by how Fill Refill sounds sincere without sounding schmaltzy.
That’s a good word – ‘schmaltzy’. So a word like that, I’d use in a second. I’m into words that sound cool, that have a musicality to them. We use a lot of rhyme too, like ‘choose to reuse’.
I’m obsessed with that kind of stuff. I have notebooks full of little phrases that I’ve collected – words in a song, or a turn of phrase, or a line from a poem. I’ve always done that since I was in my early 20s. It’s a bit like sketching, I guess, in the hope that you’re going to use those phrases at some point.
I remember when I was working in New York I got a phone call from some guy whose name was Burton Schatz. Which is the coolest name, so I wrote that down and I’ll be using it for the rest of my life.
I joke with the team that all of the stuff that I write for Fill Refill is riddled with things that we probably shouldn’t have stolen, like little song lyrics. I guess it’s like a collage.
But I think people can be annoyed by words and phrases I use too. I’ll say ‘dig’ instead of ‘like’ – I like jazz slang. I use ‘cool dudes’. I used to say ‘folks’ instead of ‘people’. I probably do use way too many Americanisms for someone who isn’t American.
I guess that started at a young age – listening to Bob Dylan in the car when my mum was driving me to school, I used to ask her ‘what does this word mean?’ I remember she was playing this Leonard Cohen tape once and I asked her what barbiturates were. How do you explain that to a six-year-old?
What else? We cut to the point quickly. Prepositions piss me off. Too many prepositions are uneconomic. Just get rid of them. Get to the words that are doing the actual describing. We used to use ‘Fill. Clean. Repeat.’ as the call to action. And the descriptions on the bottles were as short as possible. I didn’t want anything that said, ‘This contains wonderful-smelling essential oils from blah blah blah’. You can smell it. It smells good. I don’t need to write that it’s glass on the bottle. It’s glass. It gets boring if you’re telling everyone everything. And I think it’s disrespectful to your customer.
As part of that no-nonsense approach, we elected to go for every accreditation we could. There’s so many things you can say about what you are, but they don’t mean anything unless you prove them.
We also write in capital letters a lot. Which is terrible. It’s the original sin of usability, but it seems to work, because again, it’s about economy – getting the message across. We wanted to communicate the idea of refill without any bullshit basically.
And do you find that no-bullshit approach works? Do people always get what you’re talking about? Especially when you’re communicating something unfamiliar, like the idea of refill?
The wonderful thing is: the people that get it really get it. I think a lot of it is to do with our model. Most of our community are zero-waste stores. So our dialogue has been with people that already understand zero waste, closed loops, logistics, and all that kind of stuff. And it’s their job then to interpret Fill as a brand for their customers. And some of them do that really well, exactly as I would want them to. And some of them do it in their own way, which works with their customers but may not be perhaps the way I would do it, but that’s fine too.
I think if we were controlling about it, that wouldn’t be cool. Part of being cool is working with people and meeting them where they are. People are going to take Fill, they’re going to put it in their shop, and they’re going to make their own posters, and they’re going to say their own stuff about it. There is still a core Fill voice that stays on the bottle and in any direct communication with us. But the rest of it, that floats around the idea of Fill Refill, is like a community voice of the refill stores, and it can be their own.
It’s a refreshingly laid-back approach to branding.
It’s the only way refill can work. We’ve had a lot of conversations recently about, ‘what is it going to take to make refill available to everyone, to democratise it?’ And it is going to take brands chilling out a bit. The biggest barrier to getting refill into supermarkets is brands wanting to make sure they’ve got their logo in front of people. The minute you introduce refill machines, they lose point of sale branding. Think how many brands of rice there are at the moment. If you replaced all those bags with one rice refill, they’re not gonna like that.
You’ll have to engrave ‘Tilda’ onto each individual grain.
Exactly. That’s the challenge.
We haven’t approached the brand with a massively commercial view. We’ve just gone ‘let’s make the best product and let’s make it as cool as possible’.
It seems like that same economy you apply to your writing comes through in the visual branding too – the monochrome and the naive illustrations. It’s all pretty different to typical household product branding.
We haven’t approached it with a massively commercial view (it hasn’t come through any sort of research or consumer consultation of any kind). We’ve just gone, ‘let’s make the best product and let’s make it as cool as possible.’
Eleanora [Marton] who does all of the illustrations, who designed the logo and almost all of the website, gets what we’re doing. I love everything she does, beyond what she does with Fill Refill. She doesn’t do anything cute. There’s a harshness to her illustrations. So, it feels like everything’s in tune – the look, the sound, and everything else. And it seems to work.
It’s why I often say building a business is a bit like running a band. When someone writes a song, they’re saying what they think. And they’re hoping that other people feel the same. That’s what I think a brand should do. There are bands people love that I can’t stand listening to. And that’s fine. If we don’t land with everyone, or they don’t like the fragrances we choose or whatever, that’s cool. There are other refill brands they can choose.
I guess what it comes down to is pride. If you’re going to put your name on it, then you want to make something that you would choose.
Speaking of putting your name on it, is the Phill/Fill thing deliberate?
I’m Greek Cypriot, and my Greek Cypriot friends all joke that it’s a very Greek thing to do to name something after yourself.
But I promise it’s not as narcissistic as it sounds. I guess it’s kind of nominative determinism. It really is a very logical name for the brand.
What’s next for Fill Refill?
We’re going to be working on more personal care products. It took two years to make our first shampoo and conditioner, which is crazy. We had so many zero-waste stores begging us to introduce them. But we put so much work into trying to get them right and get all the accreditations.
We’re trying to get Ecocert for everything that we make right now.
We’re working on designing our own biodegradability tests. Everything in our products is biodegradable, but we’re working on ways we can test that ourselves. Which would be pretty cool. I don’t think anyone else does that.
We’re working with some cool alternatives to plastic. You know how a lot of soluble things are wrapped in PVOH film? We’re not convinced those are the answer, so we’re working with NOTPLA (winners of The Earthshot Prize!) on that.
Oh, and we’ve launched a digital passport tracking system for the drums. So you can scan the drum at any point in its journey and see where it’s been and how many times it’s been round the loop. A lot of people just trust that we take the drums back and refill them (and I mean, they look pretty scuffed, so it is pretty obvious) but I want people to have that transparency.
The William Carlos Williams poem This Is Just to Say
Afternoon In Paris by John Lewis & Sacha Distel – the perfect laid-back listen
Ask the Dust by John Fante
Painter Wayne Thiebaud and his thick cakes
This specially-made Fill Refill April Showers playlist (just in time)
The illustrations of Jean Julien (Phill’s son is also a fan)
Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, especially the scene where Blue Moon plays over the passing of one moody night in Memphis
No-waste jacket makers Paynter
Crate-digger haven The Record Album in Brighton
Mylos Restaurant, Gialia, Cyprus
Zero waste shops, all of them.