By  on May 20, 2011

After a long drought of consolidation and recession, beauty is looking back to the glory days of the late Nineties, when brands created compelling stories that drove consumers into stores eager to experience the transformative promise.

Chief among the key proponents of this strategy is Lynne Greene, the global brand president of Clinique, Origins and Ojon at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. Over the last two years, Greene has transformed Clinique from an industry stalwart into uncontested star, staying true to the key components of its heritage while simultaneously positioning it as a thought leader. At the WWD Beauty Forum, held on Wednesday at The Asia Society & Museum in New York City and titled New Brand Brand New, Greene outlined her approach to modernizing a heritage brand.

“Commodities are things,” she declared. “Brands are human. Feelings matter.”

Rather than implementing a strictly analytical approach, Greene focused on how the feeling that a brand elicits is the most important equity to preserve during reinvention—rather than a signature product or procedure.

“A heritage brand can get stuck on its icons,” she said, relating an encounter she had with a young Chinese executive who worked for The Coca Cola Company, and managed to convince her bosses back in Atlanta to change the color of a particular juice bottle. Meant to convey a sunny blue sky, it was the wrong blue for China’s sky. Coca Cola changed the packaging.

Greene then showed Clinique’s classic slide-rule skin diagnostic tool, which the brand launched in 1968 and still calls a “computer.” Clicking through a variety of slides showing the evolution of digital computing, Greene landed on Clinique’s new at-the-counter iPad, which is attached to a printer and is a 21st-century version of the at-the-counter prescriptive tool. “It’s smart, clean and authoritative, and it’s intimate, because a woman can take it anywhere,” she said. “Focusing on the computer was not what made it come to life,” she continued. “It’s not about being a beauty diagnostic tool. It’s an intimate experience, and the woman is there to have the emphasis on her.”

Greene next moved on to a point she called “I am who I am, when I am, where I am,” which demonstrated the futility of a cookie-cutter approach to global marketing. “Which would you rather lose,” she asked the audience, “your wallet or your cellphone?” While in the U.S., the loss of a wallet would be traumatic, in China, the answer would be the cellphone. “When Chinese people lose their cellphone they lose face. Possessing means one thing in China, another in the U.S. It’s the emotional connection.”

She related a story in which Clinique’s brand manager for India came to her begging not to run the brand’s iconic “Twice A Day” ad for its three-step skin care regimen, which depicts a toothbrush in a glass on one side and a bar of soap, Clarifying Lotion and Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion on the other. “He said, ‘Don’t make me run this soap ad,’” Greene remembered. “‘In India, soap is a 2-cent commodity. If we run this, they’ll see us as a mass brand.’” Although the campaign is a Clinique signature that has been with the brand almost since its inception, Greene agreed to go with a more modern version, which features Clinique’s liquid facial cleanser. “There are differences in how we see and perceive things,” she said.

To that end, follow a consumer’s behavior, Greene counseled, but “lead the thinking and capture the heart.” Using digital marketing as an example, she noted that it’s not about being covered in every conceivable medium from Facebook to Foursquare, but rather making sure that the right message in the right medium is being conveyed. “We need to lead the thinking and capture the consumer’s heart,” she said, citing an app that Clinique has launched in Asia, and will soon introduce in the U.S., that enables users to find out the weather anywhere in the world and how it will impact their skin. “It accommodates and fits into the consumer’s life.”

Finding the “white space,” or keying in to opportunities that others turn a blind eye to, has been a key pillar of Greene’s reinvention of Clinique. In a point titled, “I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” she emphasized that sometimes, people aren’t even aware that they have the problem a product corrects until it’s brought to their attention that there’s a solution. She explained that when she asked Clinique’s Italian marketers about the potential of Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector, they were skeptical. The product is now a runaway bestseller, in Italy and around the world.

Greene wrapped up with a deafening vroom, the unmistakable sound of a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine. For six years, Harley tried to trademark the sound, but gave up the effort in 2000 after being stymied by competitors. “Brands have a sound, a voice, a music,” she said, reiterating “Commodities are things. Brands are human.”

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