Jean-Jacques Lebel: Man of the World

L’Oréal’s executive vice president and managing director is leading the charge for mass-market domination.

Jean-Jacques Lebel
Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 03/08/2013

From his office in L’Oréal’s corporate headquarters in the Paris suburb of Clichy, Jean-Jacques Lebel is leading the charge for world domination in the global mass-market beauty business.

This story first appeared in the March 8, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We are the division that is spearheading [the company’s] conquest of [another] 1 billion consumers, and my ambition is to become the number-one player in mass-market beauty products,” declares Lebel, executive vice president and managing director of L’Oréal’s consumer products division, the biggest branch of the largest beauty company.

It is a bold goal to be sure: Today, L’Oréal ranks third in the category, behind Unilever and Procter & Gamble, according to company estimates.

Geographically, the L’Oréal consumer products division is the leader in the United States plus Western and Eastern Europe. It ranks second in Latin America’s four major countries and third in the zone comprising Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Lebel has been in his current role for almost six years now. As such, he’s overseen a steady stream of innovation that has helped the division post record gains despite turbulent economic conditions around the world.

The proof lines his windowsill. There lies a treasure trove of colorful bottles and jars from the brands he oversees—L’Oréal Paris, Garnier, Maybelline New York, SoftSheen Carson, Essie and Le Club des Créateurs de Beauté—the collection encompassing just a smattering of his division’s latest products.

“Consumers want innovation first and foremost; they want the best quality at the best price to satisfy their beauty needs,” says Lebel.


Given the financial results posted by the consumer products division—with major categories including skin care, hair care, hair color and makeup—Lebel and his team of 22,375 people successfully satisfy those desires. In 2012, the branch rang up sales of 10.71 billion euros, or $13.78 billion at average exchange, posting on-year growth of 8.9 percent in reported terms and 5 percent on a like-for-like basis.

Driving the success are products like L’Oréal Paris’ Préférence Mousse Absolue, billed to be a revolutionary mousse colorant requiring no mixing, and the brand’s Advanced Haircare range, offering a multistep approach to hair care based on the skin-care model. Of note in the treatment category is Revitalift Laser (or Triple Power, as it’s called in the U.S.), antiaging products that contain the highest levels of L’Oréal’s proprietary ingredient Pro-Xylane, said to enhance collagen production.

Garnier’s Skin Renew Miracle Skin Perfector B.B. Cream, the first BB cream on the mass scene, has been a huge hit, while the brand’s recent launch Olia is positioned as the first oil-based at-home, ammonia-free colorant. From Maybelline, there’s Super Stay 14 Hr Lipstick, purportedly with tremendous staying power, and the Mega Plush Volum’Express mascara, its first gel-mousse iteration.

The unrelenting drive for ever-more innovative products across brands is paying off for L’Oréal. In 2012 in Western Europe, the consumer products division’s sell-through rose 2.3 percent on a market that was up just 0.4 percent. “We reached record market share across all categories combined of 27.9 percent, and this was the main goal for the year,” Lebel said during a financial analyst meeting in February.

In the U.S., the branch boosted sell-through by 6.1 percent in a market that advanced 2.9 percent. “There, too, we have record market share of 19.2 percent,” continued Lebel. “For the first time, we are number one in our categories. This was a year of new records set in our most mature markets—Western Europe and North America.”


Lebel sees growth prospects everywhere including gaining share in more mature countries and growing business in up-and-coming zones. “Growth in the emerging markets has been very solid in these past five years,” he says during a wide-ranging interview in his office, adding that should last for some time.

Lebel is quick to tick off the myriad opportunities. “We’ve just launched L’Oréal Paris hair care these past few years in China and in India, and [in] all these markets where there is room for everybody we still have a lot of potential,” he says.

Skin care is a large segment with great prospects, especially in regions like Asia, while makeup has “huge potential everywhere around the world still, but mostly in developing countries,” Lebel says, explaining the situation is similar for hair color. (In that category, L’Oréal is the leader in Western and Eastern Europe plus Latin America, and third in Asia and the U.S.)

In Brazil, the world’s third-largest beauty market, the ex- ecutive sees great opportunity for L’Oréal’s home-color and hair-care products and deodorants, and Lebel is bullish on business in Russia, where “we are now pushing to make our products available even deeper into the trade,” he says. “We have great new, more accessible Maybelline initiatives to increase penetration of color cosmetics.”

Lebel notes that the prevailing global demographic patterns paint a rosy picture for the mass-market beauty business. He points to the burgeoning middle-class population, particularly in Brazil and China, as holding particular potential.

According to a recent report by Calmos Advisors, the global middle class stands at roughly 1.8 billion people. The firm cites an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimate suggesting the demographic could rise to 3.2 billion by 2020—only seven years from now—and 4.9 billion by 2030.


“Of this growth, roughly 85 percent will come from Asia [outside Japan],” Calmos states. “This massive middle-class expansion will be accompanied by increased purchasing power. Another OECD estimate shows global middle-class spending increasing from $21 trillion to $56 trillion by 2030, in constant 2005 dollars.”


For Lebel, the implications are unmistakable. “In the developing markets, very clearly, there are huge opportunities when you think, for instance, that per capita the spend on our products represents about 60 dollar cents in Asia and about $3 in Latin America and about $10 in Western Europe or the United States,” he says. “Simply by multiplying the numbers by the population you can easily estimate the huge potential there is if simply Asia were to move up to half the level of Latin America, Latin America to half the level of Western Europe or the United States.”


He adds: “That’s a key driver of growth in years to come.”


So, too, is the aging population. In 2012, there were almost 810 million people age 60 or older worldwide, and that number is expected to more than double to 2 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund.


“It is, of course, driving the types of products that we do in skin care, but it’s a phenomenon that is true of most Western European markets, Japan and soon China,” says Lebel. “It’s not something new, but it is obviously there.”


To that end, earlier this year in Europe, L’Oréal Paris launched the Age Perfect Renaissance Cellulaire range targeting people over 50, whose epidermal cell-renewal rate is slowing down dramatically. And the company has internationalized Garnier Skin Renew Clinical Dark Spot Corrector.


But it’s not just demographics that Lebel expects to drive sales. He’s also focused on a number of product categories. The men’s skin-care market in Asia is strong and growing. “Whether it’s L’Oréal Men Expert in China or Garnier Men in India, we see great interest all over the region from men for cleansing their skin and looking after their skin with products that are specifically made for them,” says Lebel.


He finds the phenomenon fascinating. “It’s probably about the freedom that men in Asia have regarding their beauty regimens, and the way they interact with a range like L’Oréal Men Expert is just fantastic for us,” he continues.


According to Euromonitor, the men’s grooming business in China grew at three times the rate of its female counterpart in 2011, and that is just the beginning, with the market research firm predicting gains of almost 30 percent per year until 2014.

Another phenomenon—Lebel calls it “nail mania”—is leading to skyrocketing growth rates in the nail-color category (the sharpest in the color-cosmetics segment overall), as well. That is especially true in the U.S., where nail-polish sales overall gained 32 percent in 2012 to $768 million, according to SymphonyIRI Grup, which does not include the Wal-Mart business. The category garners enormous interest in Asia, too.


Nails are “a way to individualize your look or your self-expression. I compare it a bit with the styling in the Eighties, when we created Studio Line, and it was the opportunity for all the young people to style their way of life and their personality on their hair. Today, you see this expression of personality and individuality with nail color and art,” says Lebel, who believes it’s a trend that’s here to stay. “Things move very fast, and [people are] looking for new ideas in nails, but they’re looking after their nails, [too].


“Some people say that [nails are] a relatively inexpensive way of making a statement; it’s less expensive than a pair of shoes, and there’s probably some truth in that, as well. But at the end of the day, it’s just a huge phenomenon,” he continues. “Nail enamel in most markets now has [surpassed] lipstick in terms of size and business, and there is still a lot of growth there.”


L’Oréal’s 2010 acquisition of Essie has helped solidify its position in the category. “I think it is absolutely impossible to time an acquisition better than that, because it was just at the moment when the nail fad was starting,” says Lebel. “Essie is a not just a brand, but it’s also an expertise.”


Two years later, his optimism is borne out: Essie’s business grew 118 percent in 2012, and L’Oréal is starting to roll the brand out elsewhere in the world. It entered Europe last year, for instance. Maybelline New York and L’Oréal Paris also launched extensive nail-color collections last year.


Another growing product segment is deodorants. Lebel explains the category has a large business in France, with more than 30 percent market share. In Mexico and Brazil, the company has introduced a deodorant called Garnier Bio, “which is doing quite nicely,” he says. For Eastern Europe, it launched Garnier Mineral, which has “reached very interesting market shares, and we are also quite happy with the way it is developing in big European markets.”


Lebel and his team have expertly deployed their many digital assets to help drive sales. “It’s a new place where consumers are,” says Lebel. “The digital consumer is a major shift in pattern for all aspects [of the business], whether it’s … checking information before buying, comparing prices, buying online … or giving their own opinion about products. All these things are changing the relationship with the consumer and in a way [are] a big opportunity to enhance the brand experience.”

The L’Oréal consumer products division has rolled out numerous inventive mobile initiatives, including The Color Genius app, which today is in more than 10 countries. It enables people to take a digital photo of an item of clothing or an accessory for which they want cosmetics suggestions. It’s possible to decide if the product hue should match, contrast or blend and also whether it’s for day- or nighttime wear. The app then gives recommendations, including a nail polish, eye shadow and lipstick.

Destination Beauty is a L’Oréal Paris initiative in the U.S. through YouTube. The channel features a number of “beauty gurus” and is billed as the place to discover the latest beauty tips, tricks and trends.

In France, the Instant Beauty app for iPhones allows users to scan the brand’s product bar codes in-store to get personalized diagnostics, information, trend looks, consumer commentary, expert advice and application-related videos.


And currently in the making is an e-commerce site for L’Oréal Paris in France, following a similar platform already available in China.


“The first thing that we are working on is improving the presence and presentation of our products on our retailers’ Web sites,” says Lebel. “When you go to walmart.com or to carrefour.com or to our [other] major partners’ sites, there is a lot to do to improve the presence and presentation of our products. That’s a service to them, and that’s a service to their consumers and our consumers.”


While opportunities abound in the global business, so do challenges. According to Lebel, among the most challenging aspects is ensuring, optimizing and maximizing the presence and presentation of the company’s products in all consumer touch points. He says there’s still a lot to be done regarding the display of color cosmetics in hypermarkets, for example.

“We’re working with Carrefour, with Wal-Mart, with Auchan—with all of [the] major retailers to improve the presentation of cosmetics. There’s going to be more cosmetics in the likes of Carrefour and Auchan, more skin care in the likes of Wal-Mart,” he says. “We play with these huge international retailers on an international basis.”

Lebel lauds stores such as Watsons, which is entering Ukraine and Turkey. “They are really structuring the markets in places like that, without even mentioning China,” he says.

Big Bazaar is an important player in India, a fragmented market where there’s a proliferation of mom-and-pop shops.

Lebel notes an acceleration of the growth of drug stores in countries like China, where they and cosmetics shops are considered particularly efficient at pulling in young people, making such retailers a valuable addition to the “dynamic but well-established department-store channel,” he says.

There’s also been the modernization of some drug-store chains that has been “quite exciting for our categories,” continues Lebel.


The fast pace of development has made it possible to sell a wide variety of products, particularly makeup. “[The stores] are able to handle the innovation, which is very important in color cosmetics,” he says, adding that there’s also a focus on skin care and hair color.

Another retail trend is the concentration of drug-store chains in countries like Brazil, where Droga Raia merged with Drogasil and Drogarias Pacheco acquired Drogaria São Paulo.

Such phenomena are helping drive the worldwide beauty industry, which L’Oréal estimates grew 4.6 percent in 2012 and could rise 4 percent to 5 percent this year. In emerging markets, Lebel anticipates increases of between 6 percent and 10 percent. Overall, it’s Western Europe—especially in the south—that is more challenging, while Northern Europe is still registering gains.


Meanwhile, he is ever on the lookout to accelerate L’Oréal’s mass-market beauty business growth. Deflecting the suggestion that his division runs like a well-oiled machine, Lebel says: “Yes, but you know it’s a well-oiled machine if there are people really always trying to do better. It’s a constant discipline. It’s like playing sports at a high level.

“I’m competitively driven; I like to be the best,” he continues. “I find this business is always creating challenges because there is always something new, and it’s fascinating to be in a position where you can always look to improve and to do better products, better advertising, better presentation and better teams.”