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Since joining Bare Escentuals as chief executive officer in 1994, Leslie Blodgett has become synonymous with the company, transforming it from a bath and body retailer with six stores into a mineral makeup authority. Not afraid to take risks, she forged a new distribution path—one that included QVC, informercials and retail—and the rewards were handsome, indeed. Blodgett took the company public in 2006, coming off a fiscal year when Bare Escentuals generated nearly $260 million in revenues. Four years later, with its sales topping $557 million, Bare Escentuals was bought by Shiseido for $1.7 billion with the goal of building a global megabrand that crosses regional and cultural barriers. After introducing skin care in the U.S. in February, Bare Escentuals is readying its launch in Asia. Blodgett remains deeply involved in marketing, product development and customer relations, but she has left the numbers up to Myles McCormick, who was named chief executive officer in January, when Blodgett became executive chairman.
This story first appeared in the December 9, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What’s your assessment of the current state of the beauty industry?
It feels good. In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, everyone got a little scared and there was very short-term decision making, lots of discounting. As in all situations like that, when they look really dire, a lot of good ideas surface. People took a deep pause, and now we’re seeing some cool innovation in retailing and product. The industry’s doing really well right now, consumers are out there, and beauty is a good place to be.
Why is beauty doing well while so many other sectors are still suffering from the strain of the recession?
There’s a lot of good product and great choices. There’s a lot of interaction on the Web. Women are intrigued with what’s happening. As an industry, we’re doing a good job of getting women interested, and it’s an easier purchase than some of the really high-ticket items.
What do you think the beauty industry needs to pay attention to in the year ahead?
I have a Facebook page, and I asked the people on my page a couple of these questions. One was, “What do you think the beauty industry needs to pay attention to in the year ahead?” The other one was, “How have you changed as a beauty consumer in the last 12 months?” The year ahead isn’t that different from what we’ve seen. Financially, they are tighter with their expenses. They’re looking for products that are dependable. The older women are staying more brand loyal and not trying many new things. The younger women are looking for more antiaging products, but with value. It’s not so much the price of the product, but what kind of value am I getting from the brands I trust?
What else is important to pay attention to?
Women expect a more realistic look at what beauty really is from the marketing side. There’s a lot of that “Come on!,” rolling your eyes kind of thing. “Stop hiring these gorgeous models and then doing something to them to make them look even better than they are.” When we went into our “Force of Beauty” campaign, we could have easily fallen into that trap, but we agree with the people who say, “Give us something more realistic.”
How was “Force of Beauty” different? Did you use fake eyelashes or retouching?
This was a huge issue for us. We did a photo shoot, and we had blind casting. We signed on the models without even knowing what they looked like. When we got the pictures back, they were retouched, and they weren’t the people who we hired. We hired them because of who they were, and all of a sudden they didn’t look like who they were. We made a decision right there to do extremely minimal retouching. It’s a fine line, though, because what if women say they don’t want [retouching], but maybe they really do want it. No matter what they want, we have to do it this way, because if it doesn’t feel like us, we could never live
with ourselves. So, you’ll see in the ads, for example, [the lashes] sticking together a little bit because normally they do.
You’re famous for your renegade approach to marketing. What are women looking for in the ways that brands communicate to them?
I used to love the word authentic, and I don’t like it any more because it’s become so watered down. Everyone’s using it, and people and things that aren’t authentic claim to be. Now the customer is going to have to decide what is real and what’s not real. They’re going to decide between authentic marketing and just authentic. I’d love to come up with a word that describes what the real authentic is.
You were a pioneer on QVC. How have you seen the channel change?
They have really upped their programming, and they’ve made it entertaining, more like regular TV programming. For us, it’s been a great launching pad for new products before we even go into retail stores. We did that with the skin care. It’s just great to see instantly what people are getting.
Were you nervous the first time you were on QVC?
Oh my God! I remember it totally. The night before, I was in my hotel room at the Sheraton, and it was my birthday. I was alone, and I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t want to tell anybody I was doing this in case it failed. I only had 10 minutes anyway, so if it bombed, no one would even know. The first time was very scary, but we sold out.
What are some key emerging channels of distribution?
Those retail outlets that are combining editorial content with online retailing, where they give you a lot more information about how to use things and why. There’s also a company that I’ve been talking to that is truly social networking, like the psychology of how your friends in the social scene online works and then you take that to a shopping level. With your best buddies, you see what they’re interested in. They don’t necessarily have to buy, but it’s about what the most popular kids are buying. Those kinds of concepts are very interesting.
Why do you think that you were successful in infomercials where so many companies have failed?
We knew going in that one in 20 succeed, and we weren’t this powerful, highly profitable company at the time, so it made it even more scary and risky, but we had an extremely unique, innovative product and passionate people telling the story. We had 28 minutes. That’s a long time to be able to talk to people about what’s unique about this product. Luckily, we didn’t listen 100 percent to the people we were working with, who were the real infomercial people. That’s what made the show more believable and less gimmicky. We still do the infomercial for many reasons. It can’t hurt to keep telling the story to people who have never tried the product before. Back in the early days, people would tell us they would watch it for six months before buying, and that’s still the case.
In the last year, you’ve also gone deeper into traditional department store distribution. What are the key lessons?
People who shop there are loyal to those stores. They have very strong beauty businesses, and if we want to reach that customer, we have to be there. They are unique customers. I was just shopping at Macy’s, and our store is two doors down. Customers come in, shop at Macy’s and leave. They don’t even know we have a boutique in that mall. Department stores have great loyalty programs, and they know how to keep their customer in the destination. By the end of the year, we’re going to have 14 Dillard’s stores, 102 Macy’s and 54 Nordstroms.
How has your role changed in the move from ceo to executive chairman?
I’m not running the company. So, I’m coming in in a different place, but it’s been very fun for me. I’m more entrenched in it now. I’m going to South America, Asia more, learning about cultures. For me, it’s important that I go into people’s homes and not just do short tours.
You’re like a beauty anthropologist.
Totally! If I could do it all over again, I would be an anthropologist. I love, love, love it. I was in China this year. I’ve heard that they buy a lot of stuff, but in their homes, there’s nothing there. I was looking under the bed, literally. When I went into the bathroom to look at their makeup, it was just a couple of things, but they’re really into their skin. It was surprising for me. It’s going to be interesting how much actually they’re going to buy. The women I met have very simple beauty routines.
How would you describe your management style?
I prefer people not being on their best behavior. In fact, when I go into a meeting, I like to see some feistiness going on, so I will maybe cause trouble. If it’s too normal, then please don’t even go there.
What are some pieces of advice that you have for somebody who wishes to follow in your footsteps?
Well, I wouldn’t follow my footsteps. It was too much stress. I didn’t have boundaries. It became one with my family, and they sometimes resented that a little bit, that I would bring my work home so much. I wanted them to feel like they were a part of this too, but what ended up happening was that they didn’t see the line drawn, and I often chose work over home, thinking it was for the good of the family. I don’t know if I would advise that. I don’t know how to have work and then have home. I’ve never learned how to do that; maybe some people do, but I don’t know if I would have been successful if I had been able to have a clear definition on both sides.
What do you do for fun?
I spend a lot of time in Napa Valley wine country. We just got involved with the Napa Valley Film Festival. I also work out. I have this new thing called The Dailey Method that I do. I love it and hate it. The holidays are coming, and every year my mom comes. She used to be a home ec teacher, and she reminds me how to knit and crochet and we make Christmas cookies. That’s what I love doing in December.
IN BRIEF: Leslie Blodgett grew up on Long Island and was raised by her mother, Sylvia Abualy, after
her parents divorced when she was 9. A tough woman whom Blodgett credits for her success, Abualy was a home ec teacher. Although Abualy disapproved of Blodgett’s love for makeup, she informed her daughter that the Fashion Institute of Technology had started a cosmetics marketing program, and Blodgett enrolled. While there, Blodgett took several part-time jobs, including at the Ultima II counter at Macy’s, before heading to the corporate side at Max Factor and then Neutrogena. John Hansen, a partner in the investment firm that owned Bare Escentuals, tapped Blodgett to run the struggling Northern California retailer that had developed a mineral-based makeup line, which Blodgett later reintroduced as bareMinerals.