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Building a Beauty Brand in an Age of Uncertainty

Pete Born distills the major messages from the recent WWD Beauty Summit.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 06/21/2013

Creating a vibrant, winning chemistry for a brand can be tricky business. The process depends on a company’s creative impulse quickening at just the right moment to pick up on the consumer’s latest whim or fantasy or fit of angst. The right mixture of inspiration and daring can reap a golden payoff or turn into dread, as nagging existential questions creep in, like “Are we delivering real innovation? Are we pursuing the customers we will need in the future? Are we keeping pace or just sleepwalking? Are we losing our edge?”

This story first appeared in the June 21, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“You have to have a vision of where you want to be,” advised Leonard A. Lauder, during the sweeping, landmark speech he gave at the recent WWD Beauty Summit in Manhattan. Lauder, who is now chairman emeritus of the industry giant he built, delivered arguably the most-quoted line of the summit: “A business without a vision isn’t a business, it’s just a pastime.”

He gave the keynote address during a day and a half of cogent, analytical and thought-provoking speeches. One prevalent theme was that the beauty industry, which prides itself on continuous innovation, can never take its foot off the gas. In fact, it needs to push harder on the accelerator right now. Much harder.

Deb Henretta, group president of the Global Beauty Care Group at the Procter & Gamble Co., called for a digital revolution. She sized up the beauty industry’s level of achievement in the world of digital and found it sorely wanting. The industry may “evangelize” the digital way, “yet still under invests. The music does not match the words,” she said.

Invoking memories from beauty’s revolutionary past, like the advent of metal lipstick tubes and at-home hair dye, she declared, “We have to step it up and innovate at the speed of digital, lest we risk becoming the Polaroid camera, the analogue telephone or the business pager of our industry.” Her solution is a fundamental shift, from thinking of digital technology as purely a marketing tool to it being fully integrated into all phases of brand building. She calls it General Purposes Technology. “Digital must become integral to everything we do—how we think, how we design, how we manufacture,” she said. “The world is no longer moving at a linear rate, but an exponential rate. It is the pace of Generation Y and all generations to come.”

Speaking of generations, Julia Goldin, Revlon’s chief marketing officer, harkened back to the golden era of Charles Revson in the Fifties—pointing to seismic shifts triggered by provocative products like the Fire and Ice and Cherries in the Snow makeup collections and Charlie fragrance, which trumpeted women’s liberation. Goldin then compared that era to the present mood. “The beauty industry has been very safe,” she said. “Are we ready to shock?”

Taking a page from her prior experience at Coca-Cola, Goldin stressed that long-standing brands have “an enduring perspective.” For marketers, it’s no longer about having a point of difference. “It’s about a point of view,” she declared. “If you don’t have a strong perspective of who you are as a brand, that’s when things start falling apart at the seams. Brand point of view sits at the heart of cultural relevance, universal values and consumer relevance.”

Individual brand identity is a subject dear to the heart of Wende Zomnir, chief creative officer and cocreator of Urban Decay. She found cause for complaint in the number of documented times that her best-selling Nakeds eye shadow palette appears to have been copied by her competitors. But Zomnir came up with a universal suggestion. “I propose using all the creative bandwidth of the beauty business to create something fresh and new and forge a genuine connection with your customer,” she said. “If we all stay true to our individual brand positions, there’s plenty of room for everyone to create an original that’s a home run.”

Few topics are more relevant than the world we live in. “There used to be a very narrow definition of success, which was being number one, no matter what the cost,” said Gina Boswell, executive vice president of personal care, North America, at Unilever. “It’s our belief that that model doesn’t work in today’s world….Businesses have to learn to be successful while contributing to society and supporting ecosystems and biodiversity and livelihoods.”

Unilever took action by unhooking financial performance from environmental performance and creating a “plan for sustainable living” with three goals: to halve its environmental footprint while doubling the size of the business; to help one billion people worldwide improve their health and well-being, and to sustainably source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials by 2020.

What Boswell called “purpose-driven brands” are at the back-bone of the plan, because social consciousness is built inside the brands. “It’s always been imperative that businesses create value,” she said. “It’s now even more critical that we create value for the communities where we operate.”

Listening to consumers enables companies “to empower consumers to own our brands and adopt our brands,” she said.

As an example, Boswell showed Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches spot. It shows a police artist drawing pictures of seven women based on their own descriptions and those of others. The video has become the most-watched on the Internet, and led to a key insight: “Only 4 percent of adult women think they are beautiful,” Boswell said. “We also learned that this is a universal truth,” she said, “and a universal truth is the best basis for any kind of brand campaign.”

Now is the time to reinvent the very nature of marketing for the post-sustainability, post-developing and post-emerging markets, and the post-digital world, Boswell believes. “We must help people tell their brand stories rather than simply listening to ours,” she said.

The one speaker who has both the experience and insight to bridge the generation gaps was Lauder himself. His speech—Tomorrow is Today—was structured to demonstrate that the events of today can be used to read the future. He described how the creation of interstate highways and the invention of third-
party credit cards ripped the supports out from under the cozy world where big, established department stores long ruled. “No one at the time realized what was happening,” Lauder said. “The concept is tomorrow is today and today is tomorrow. The things that happen today inform us for the future and where we are going.”

He illustrated the last point by recalling a Neiman Marcus buyer who tipped him off to how powerfully Lauder’s Youth Dew bath lotion was selling. That inspired Lauder to gamble all the money the company had to turn the fragrance into a sensation that rocketed Lauder into orbit. “There are opportunities everywhere you go,” he said, “if you just listen.”