Merle Norman, the 80-year-old Los Angeles-based company whose namesake makeup artist creator started a network of makeup studios long before MAC, Bare Escentuals and Benefit were in beauty industry petri dishes, is embracing the benefits of its rich heritage, while trying to erase the signs of age.
Merle Norman’s history is on full display at its headquarters near LAX that date back to 1952. There are employees whose careers at Merle Norman span decades, an on-site dentist that provides cleanings for as little as $2, a cafeteria that charges a quarter for daily hot meals, a Twenties-era Rover stove upon which Norman concocted her earliest formulas and a museum of ancestral products that includes Norman’s original “Three Steps to Beauty” of Miracol, Cold Cream and Powder Base.
Merle Norman executives are proud of the brand’s past, but they don’t want the brand to get stuck there and seem too “old lady,” a damning tag in a beauty industry obsessed with youth. President and chairman Jack Nethercutt, who is Norman’s great nephew, admitted the packaging “needed to get into the 21st century.” He has poured $4 million-plus into overhauling its look, which he views as an investment in the company’s future growth that is dependent on reaching customers younger than its stronghold of fortysomethings and studio owners younger than their current average age of 55 years old.
“Basically, I needed to take the business to that next level, and the existing packaging was not letting me do it,” said Nethercutt. “What gave me the opportunity to be frank was my father’s death [in 2004.] He [Merle Norman co-founder J.B. Nethercutt] died at the age of 91 and was, until the last year or so, still very active in the business. He was pretty set in his ways, and he didn’t want change. After his death, and I took over, that gave me the opportunity to move forward.”
The arduous process of renovating Merle Norman began with Nethercutt and his wife, Merle Norman vice chairman Helen, interviewing packaging designers, beginning with a few who had worked for Merle Norman in the Sixties. “They sent the preliminary sketches of what they thought the company should be, and it was very old-lady looking, very florally, and it wasn’t good,” Helen recalled. She said it took a recommendation from friend and fashion designer Bradley Bayou, who has designed clothes for her, for Merle Norman to “hit pay dirt” with Marc Atlan, whose previous clients ranged from Tom Ford to Comme des Garçons.
Atlan submitted six designs and six logos for consideration. A logo he first drew up for men’s products that has Merle Norman’s initials encircled and in a font inspired by the Art Deco structure that housed the company’s first offices in Santa Monica, Calif., ended up being the one the Nethercutts liked the best. “It was a bridge to the future without being an absolute revolution,” said chief operating officer Rosanna McCollough, who was brought on board last year to help execute the restage and develop product and marketing strategies after amassing a résumé crossing beauty and media companies such as Neutrogena and Twentieth Century Fox.
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