Rather than give a formal speech, Leslie Blodgett, chief executive of Bare Escentuals, regaled the crowd at the WWD Beauty CEO Summit with a series of stories that had everyone laughing.
The personal touch is typical of Blodgett, who’s on a first-name basis with many of her customers and names many of her shades after them. (Customers even named her dog, she told the crowd.) But behind the revelry lay the techniques Blodgett has employed to build Bare Escentuals into a $500 million powerhouse, a feat that no doubt has the executive herself laughing all the way to the bank.
Blodgett’s strategy of community-based marketing began in 1996, when Bare Escentuals was a bath and body company that made money in the fourth quarter — but not in the first, second or third. “I’d get up in the middle of the night completely stressed out and turn on the TV,” Blodgett remembered. “The only two options were horror movies and QVC,” she continued, brandishing a set of stacking rings she bought during a late-night shopping spree. “I made my purchase and I believed in the power of QVC,” she said.
About eight months later, Blodgett herself was on the air. She appeared on the channel for the first time in August 1997, selling $45,000 worth of product. In addition to the sales spike, Blodgett’s appearance on QVC formed the beginning of an ardent consumer base for Bare Escentuals, which was solidified a year later with Blodgett’s first live show on the network.
After that show, she invited the entire audience back to her hotel room for pizza. Since then, Blodgett has gone on cruises and bus tours with customers. “I don’t like water that much, but we did it anyway,” she joked. Overcoming her aquaphobia was worth it: After the cruise, four attendees sent Blodgett a letter (which she keeps in a bedside file), writing “These friendships have afforded us some wonderful opportunities for travel and laughter and have also sustained us through some difficult times. We now have a network of women who we know we can depend on for help, counsel and a good kick in the rear, if we need that.”
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For Blodgett, the letter summed up why the brand is booming. “That’s the whole story,” she said. “These women are now connected deeply and emotionally to us. They’re part of the brand. They love the product. We love them. When people join our company, this is the type of stuff they read so they know what they’re getting into.”
Despite Bare Escentuals’ meteoric growth, Blodgett still spends considerable time in the field, connecting with women, “keeping it real,” as she called it. “As you get larger, it’s harder to do,” she admitted, “but you have to go and find out what people are looking for.” And give it to them at any cost: At a recent Sephora event, for example, a woman told Blodgett that she couldn’t use Bare Escentuals because she’s allergic to cornstarch. Blodgett had a batch whipped up without the offending substance and sent it to her four days later free of charge.
She also uses her personal appearances as impromptu focus groups. Recently, at an appearance in the King of Prussia, Pa., mall, Blodgett asked attendees if they would rather use a moisturizer in a jar or pump, a quandary she and her team had been going back and forth on. “Two people raised their hand for the jar. Everyone else voted for the pump. Done. We made the phone call right there,” she said.
When the ceo isn’t visiting stores, a team of 10 makeup artists performing “make-unders” is. “Their job is to listen, their mission is to make women beautiful one face at a time,” Blodgett said, noting last year they performed 6,000 make-unders. “And we know that if they have a good experience, those people tell 50 people who tell another 50 people and that’s the business. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Blodgett herself exudes an endearing confidence, one that customers — and those in attendance here — clearly find inspirational. After her speech, Lisa Price, the founder of Carol’s Daughter, emotionally thanked Blodgett for her passion. “Thank you for sharing your stories and your passion,” she said. “Thank you for touching customers and for understanding the importance of touching them the way Estée Lauder did years ago, inviting people to department stores and helping pick out their lipsticks. Thank you for understanding that.”