By  on May 16, 2008

It wasn't simply international wordplay when direct-sales beauty brand Ebel Paris switched its global name to L'Bel Paris this year.

Belcorp. Corp. — the firm's privately owned, 40-plus-year-old Lima, Peru-based parent — intended to send a powerful signal that its entrance into the U.S. market, where Ebel watches laid claim to the original moniker, wasn't an afterthought. L'Bel Paris has aspirations to build a force of 50,000 beauty consultants here in the next five years, up from roughly 7,000 today. Such growth would make it a formidable domestic direct-sales player that the likes of Avon, Mary Kay and Jafra would be forced to contend with.

"With that change, it creates a whole new feel for who we are as a brand," said John Krites, L'Bel Paris' U.S. products director. "It is much more cohesive, and we gained a lot more brand recognition [in the U.S.]."

L'Bel's expansion strategy is encouraged by growth in the worldwide direct-sales sector, which research firm Kline & Co. Inc. estimates climbed 9.2 percent to $26 billion in sales last year. Yet the brand, which is available in 14 countries and rung up some $1 billion in revenues last year, isn't hastily building its presence in the domestic market, where it has largely concentrated in New York, Florida and California, home to its U.S. headquarters in San Francisco.

"We are still doing the grassroots approach based on our demographic," said Krites. "We are focusing 75 percent on the second-generation Hispanic market and 25 percent on the rest of the market." Maria Montoya, U.S. general manager of the L'Bel, added, however, that the beauty consultants are split evenly between Hispanics and other ethnic groups, including Asians, who are also a point of emphasis for L'Bel.

Skin care is L'Bel's calling card and constitutes about 50 to 55 percent of its U.S. business, compared with 25 percent for fragrance, 10 to 12 percent for body care and the remainder for makeup. L'Bel breaks down its skin care by type (normal to oily, oily and normal to dry), use (prepare, moisturize and nourish, and repair and regenerate), age (20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and beyond), and concern (expression lines, imperfections, deep wrinkles, flaccidity, spots and the effects of aging).

To keep sales humming, L'Bel produces 18 catalogues a year with on average three to four new products a catalogue. Recent skin care product introductions included Résurgie Jour and Résurgie Nuit, a 1-oz. day and a 1-oz. night cream for $44 each that are intended to renew skin cells after procedures such as laser resurfacing; Renovânce Jour and Renovânce Nuit, a 1.7-oz. day and a 1.7-oz. night moisturizer for $48 each for women in their 50s and older, and Renovânce Yeux, a 0.52-oz. treatment eye cream for women in their 50s and older for $38.

"Where we could probably be more competitive is in the makeup arena, but that is not our focus," said Krites. "There is really no loyalty in color. We have set our priorities. It is really about skin care."

Of course, fragrance remains important for the Latina consumer. L'Bel's scents primarily stick to the fruity and floral notes in the U.S. Standouts for women include two L'Air des Sens eau de toilette atomizers, Allègresse and Calme, $34 each for 3.4 oz.; 3.4-oz. Brises de Vie Aqua eau de toilette atomizer for $34; 1.7-oz. Satin Chic eau de parfum atomizer for $40; 3.4-oz. Emouv eau de toilette atomizer for $36, and 1.7-oz. Mithyka eau de parfum atomizer for $40.

In the U.S., L'Bel has found success in secondary markets — Fresno, Calif., for example — that are often overlooked by bigger brands and don't have the penetration of upscale department stores found in key cities. L'Bel users fall mostly within the 30- to 50-year-old age range, often have children and are squarely middle class. The company said those users are attracted to the technology in L'Bel's formulas, which it touts are developed at The Centre de Biodermatologie des Laboratoires Sérobiologiques in France. Its price positioning is about 30 percent below prestige brands.

Reaching potential consumers in a vast geographic area with language and cultural barriers is challenging. To help get the word out, L'Bel has set up a program to reward beauty consultants outside the U.S. for fruitful referrals here. Additionally, the company has hired seven of what it calls "virtual area managers" in its San Francisco office that are responsible for boosting L'Bel's sales in regions where there aren't people on the ground.

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