Karen Buglisi, global brand president of MAC Cosmetics, has her feet planted in her business and her heart poured into the world of makeup artistry that is MAC. And she is constantly circling the globe looking for undiscovered nuances that can arouse delight. It’s not her job; it’s her calling.
This story first appeared in the November 9, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What is your assessment of the global makeup-artist category of the business right now?
There is so much opportunity. If I just take it from a MAC perspective, we have strong businesses in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., continental Europe and so many emerging markets with emerging middle classes. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity and the future is very bright.
What is driving growth? Is it the emerging markets?
We have growth coming out of our core markets. In the U.S., the prestige category is on fire. We have a very strong department store business around the world, but we also have our freestanding stores, which is a very important— and faster growing—channel for us, which gives us the opportunity to go into Brazil. There are no department stores there, so how do you go in and recruit a new consumer? We go in with our freestanding stores. When we think about a freestanding store, it’s the purest form of MAC. It’s our DNA.
MAC has largely succeeded by nurturing its community of makeup artists all around the world. How do you keep so many artists inspired and motivated?
It’s not easy. You think about the way MAC was born. It was a small community and everybody was connected. It was almost like this little club that you had to earn your way into. When Frank [Toskan] and Frank [Angelo] founded MAC, they made sure that connection was always there. We have trainers and a developed structure in all our markets to support the artistry. One of the biggest challenges is that as we get bigger, how do we keep that connection with our advocates around the world? It’s very tough. I travel 70 percent of my time, because you have to be there. I don’t do my job sitting here. My least-effective place in the world is sitting behind my desk. When you go into a market you’re going to find something different, something you never knew. Consumers change from market to market to market, and there are so many nuances you would never pick up unless you were there. It’s a pretty complex thing to do.
The backbone of MAC has been service, and you have a very low turnover rate. Why is that key?
Our turnover is very low—20 percent. What happens with that is that we’re able to build scale. That’s really our point of difference. We can educate our artists and also certify them. What we can offer to the consumer feels different from what the consumer gets from another brand that has a higher rate of turnover.
MAC is always one of the busiest counters at Macy’s Herald Square store, too.
When you look at the MAC model, it’s not the artistry, but the amount of products that we offer, because our mantra is all races, all sexes, all ages. We really have to be all-inclusive. You have this breadth of product line and then you have this thing about fast fashion—new products arriving almost every week. Our customers know this. They know when they show up every week at our counter, there will probably be something new. And our collaborations surprise customers. We take 100 percent responsibility for entertaining the consumer—not only through our service, but through our products, through newness. It’s the way we bring the brand to life. We throw a party or event like nobody else, because customers want to get out and have some fun.
What criteria do you have going into a new market?
If we know that there are women who are traveling outside of their country to find the brand, we think it could be time to go and try a store. We think about our retail concept and our service model, and that we have entry-level prestige pricing. So when you’re thinking about Brazil, for example, where 98 percent of the market is mass, we are the perfect brand. Customers can come in and pay a little more for the product, but they also get the environment of the store and the service element. Brazilian women and women in some of the emerging markets have responded well to that, because they’re not getting that kind of education elsewhere.
What is your strategy with the global flagships?
We have Times Square, with 60 artists and millions of consumers. We’re opening a flagship on 54th Street and Fifth Avenue, in the old Red Door spa space, in the end of November. Champs Elysées in Paris will open around fashion week next February.
What feeling or spirit do you try to transmit to the organization that you want them to focus on?
I’ve said this to many people. If you think this is a job, you’re in the wrong place. This becomes a part of your life. I have such a passion and enthusiasm for this brand and it’s only gotten stronger. I’ve been here since 1998. If you spend any amount of time with me, my passion and enthusiasm are going to come through, no matter what. My message is hopefully what I sell. It’s “Put your feet on the floor and have some fun and love what you do.” If you don’t love what you do, you don’t belong at this brand because we work really hard. I do expect you to travel around the world, to know people’s names in the markets and to go in and inspire.
I’ve heard you say it’s not just inspiring the customer, but the team.
Yes, the artist behind the counter is our first customer. We put the whole business of this brand in their hands, if you think about it. If we don’t win them over, we’re dead. If they don’t buy in to what we’re doing, we’re dead. [Group president] John Demsey was the first person who said you have to pay attention to these people. If you can convince them and inspire them, they will share that with customers, and isn’t that what we ultimately want?
You’ve got these incredible product stories, like Hello Kitty and Marilyn Monroe. How do you decide what’s really cool and what’s too far over the line?
Sometimes there are ideas and we look at each other like, “Ugh. I don’t know. What do you think?” Sometimes an idea [won’t] work, but that’s the whole point. Even if it doesn’t work, the customer didn’t expect it. That’s the idea about retail. Look at Steve Jobs—give them something they don’t want yet. We have that philosophy. You have to surprise customers, because that’s what keeps them coming back. It’s not whether you get them in once. You have to get them in twice. When a customer comes in once and never comes back, I take it personally.
How have you harnessed social media?
We have a big community. Our Facebook fan base is close to four million. We have six million views on YouTube. Our senior artists are on Twitter. On Tumblr, we deployed fashion week assets. MAC was built on word of mouth. Remember way back when, when Madonna wore Russian Red on the Blonde Ambition tour in 1991 and everything exploded? Social media has created that word of mouth or buzz. There’s a whole community of people there who are hungry for the brand. More than 50 percent of our Facebook fans are outside the U.S. A lot of them are coming from emerging countries and so there’s an opportunity to speak to them that will resonate and spread the word of MAC.
Do you broadcast color stories over the web?
Sure. Our e-commerce and m-commerce channels are very important. M-commerce is going to explode in the next five years. About 10 to 12 percent of our e-commerce has been on mobile phones in the U.S. It’s just waiting for us. When we talk about how we can continue to grow, it’s about taking what’s available to us now and investing in it. Those freestanding stores, it’s about investing in them. And [capitalizing on] traveling consumers and travel corridors. Ten of our top 25 stores in the world are influenced by the Brazilians. Five are within the country for Brazil, four are travel retail and five are in the U.S. and we haven’t even counted Paris.
As you get more global, do you have to start worrying about whether a color story will resonate and in how many places?
We have our equity pillars—it’s makeup authority, it’s individuality, plus we have our own stores. It’s the communities that we exist in, it’s our fashion positioning and trend setting and it’s our social responsibility programs. All of those pillars are planted in every market we go in. But what happens is, some become more important. When you go to Brazil, trendsetting and makeup artistry is very important, because they didn’t have it. When you go to China, maybe they don’t care as much about social responsibility or Viva Glam. How do you take what the brand is and pull some levers of equity more strongly so we don’t change it? We just make something a little bit more prominent in the market. The Chinese consumer is very different from the Brazilian consumer.
What do the Chinese respond to?
Skin care. Even though we’re the color brand and should always be the color brand, face, foundation and skin care become a little more compelling to that consumer. It doesn’t change the brand, but it takes something that’s within our portfolio and emphasizes it more.
What do you see as the next frontier for the brand?
It’s really resonating with this emerging middle class. The shape of our business changes. I don’t think it changes from a product standpoint as much as from a geography standpoint. In five years, those emerging markets are going to be so much more significant to us. That means freestanding stores will be so much more significant to us. We’ll still have a very strong business in department stores, but look at e-commerce—we haven’t even launched our e-commerce in Brazil yet.
What changes do you have to make to achieve that?
We have to set our priorities. Brazil is our China. Brazil is where we have the largest opportunity immediately to expand.
Born in Japan, Karen Buglisi grew up an army brat, touching down in Taiwan, China; California, Augusta, Ga. and finally Washington, where she landed a job at age 16 selling Helena Rubinstein at The Hecht Company in Prince George’s Plaza. Following stints as a field sales manager for Borghese and national sales manager for the U.S. at Adipar, a division of the Escada fashion house, Buglisi joined MAC in 1998 as vice president of North America and artist training and development. She was promoted to her current position as global brand president of MAC Cosmetics in 2010 and is on the board of the MAC AIDS Fund.