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Pete Unplugged: Love, Love Me Do

WWD's executive editor of beauty, Pete Born, gets in touch with his soft side.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 06/17/2011

Building a brand is like being in love; it takes an irrational devotion and a willing partner.

That was an undercurrent running through a day of speeches by industry leaders at the WWD Beauty Forum, entitled New Brand Brand New, on May 17 at the Asia Society & Museum in Manhattan.

Annalise Quest, general merchandise manager of beauty at Harrods Ltd., pulled on that thread of passion when she opened her speech with the comment, “One of the things I want to talk about is love.” She was referring to the intimate interplay between manufacturers and retailers on the selling floor to nurture and sustain brands after launch.

The beauty industry has tended to be product-centric, with a focus on the hero in a jar and the magical powers it is said to possess. But what came out of the Asia Society that day was an appreciation of the transformative power of brands that can tell a compelling story to consumers and promise a richer experience in their daily lives. If not actually alive, they certainly have the power to trigger the emotive power of memory. Brands have an aura exceeding the sum of their product parts; they are coherent bodies of feeling.

And in this increasingly wired age with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the more people broadcast their opinions, tics and pet peeves across the digital universe, what comes through is a magnified sense of humanness and the self’s state of oneness in the world. Vassiliki Petrou, marketing director of trends & innovation for the P&G Beauty & Grooming division of Procter & Gamble Co., opened the meeting with a pulsating presentation of a series of social-cultural movements and counter movements—ranging from medical advancements that will prolong lifespan to demographic trends that spell the “re-birth of humanity” through intermixing of ethnic and racial groups. She had one underlying observation: “We are reshaping what it means to be a human being.”

One of the historic examples of branding power is Clinique at the Estée Lauder Cos., which has risen to dominance several times since its launch in 1968. Lynne Greene, global brand president of Clinique, Origins and Ojon, gave tips on the process of rejuvenation and bared the emotional essence of what it means to be a brand.

“Commodities are things,” said Greene. “Brands are human. Feelings matter.”

She was outlining her approach to modernizing a heritage brand. To her mind, staying true to how a brand makes a customer feel is what needs to be preserved during reinvention, rather than its hero products or familiar procedures.

Deborah Lippmann said her fashion-driven luxury nail enamel brand was built “by understanding expectations, recalling emotions, telling stories and building relationships.”

Speaking from another industry all together, Joe Bastianich, co-owner of B&B Hospitality Group and a partner in Eataly, New York, drew parallels between the wine and food industries, dubbing them “the first truly luxury goods.” He added that these products are not marketed as necessary for existence, “we are a step above.” He called wine and beauty items, “products of nicety.”

All this talk of humanness resonated with at least one member of the audience. Retail expert Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, said she was struck by the common theme of revitalizing brands by playing on the emotions behind the brands—to tap into the passion and leverage it. The solution lies in feelings, not the objects in order “to create a sense of arousal.”

The other message that came across—building consumer relationships through service at point of sale—was delivered by speakers like Jo Horgan, founder of Mecca Cosmetica in Australia. It has been Liebmann’s observation recently that true innovation is happening at retail. “We have said the retailer is leading the way in innovation,” Liebmann said, noting that stores are also becoming brands.

While Horgan has built three different retail formats—Mecca, Kit and Mecca Maxima— she sees herself in the brand building business, primarily because the only way she can obtain exclusives, while battling two huge department store chains in such a far-flung, distant market, is to become the sole manager and caretaker for the 80 or so brands she carries. That leaves her wired into the DNA of the brands on one side and the confidante of the customer on the other, or as she put it, acting as “the lightening rod between the two.” She added that her goal is “to leverage every single customer coming through the door and make them our raving advocates. To do this we have to wow them.”

One tactic is to constantly mount storewide product stories. “Our windows are our headlines and our catalogs are delivered by the stores,” she said during her presentation. But the linchpin is service, which requires exhaustive training. Realizing that the staff is “our greatest differentiator,” Horgan works tirelessly to make them experts. Three percent of the company’s turnover is spent on training. New employees get 200 hours of schooling on the brands and veterans receive 100 hours. Horgan said the number-one reason customers shop her stores is the attraction of the brand assortment, but the second reason is desire for advice on those brands—“unbiased help.” As the Australian retailer noted, “If you look after the customer, the sale will follow.” Drop me a line at peter_born@condenast.com and let me know what you think.