Cindy Crawford and Greg Renker

Over the past 15 years, Cindy Crawford and Guthy-Renker have built Meaningful Beauty into a brand generating sales upward of $100 million annually. So what’s its secret sauce?

“Greg [Renker]…was just interested in being in business with me,” said Crawford in a conversation with her and Guthy-Renker cofounder Greg Renker that was moderated by WWD’s executive editor of beauty, Jenny B. Fine. “I had been with Revlon for almost 20 years, and I was getting close to my 35th birthday. I just was ready. I thought, ‘this is a chance for me to do my own thing.’ What was I, Cindy, passionate about? I loved makeup…but what I was really passionate about was skin care. Because as a model, that was my job.”

Crawford’s skin had to be a clean slate, so makeup artists could best work their magic on it. She had met Dr. Jean-Louis Sebagh in Paris when she was 28 years old. “It was just before I realized I wasn’t going to look 25 forever,” Crawford laughed, adding that doctor had an approach called “’age maintenance.’ That just really resonated with me.”

He’d whip up a “vitamin cocktail” for Crawford in the City of Light. Fast-forward, and she got married, had children and moved to Los Angeles. Trips to Paris were far less frequent.

“The joke with [Dr. Sebagh] was, ‘Why can’t we just bottle this stuff?’ That was really where Meaningful Beauty was born,” said Crawford. “I wanted it to be meaningful. I didn’t want to sell women more products that complicate their lives. I love the simplicity, the confidence [coming from when] a woman knows, ‘OK, I’m covered, I got this, and now I can get to the business of living.’”

The idea was presented to many companies, from super high-end to mass. In Los Angeles, Crawford met with Guthy-Renker, and she opted to do one of their infomercials. “At the time, it was definitely risky for my career,” she said. Still, Crawford deemed it an opportunity.

“I had 30 minutes to tell a story,” she said. “We had this French doctor, we had this supermodel. We had a story, and it’s hard to tell a story in a one-page ad in a magazine. How do we compete with these huge companies for those magazine pages? So I felt like my best opportunity, and where I would have a true partner, was with Guthy-Renker.”

Infomercials didn’t come totally naturally to her, though. “I wasn’t always the most compliant person to work with,” she admitted. “I came in with this attitude of everything you’ve ever done in the commercial world, that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. I really had to learn a lot. I had to get knocked off my high horse a little bit, in the sense that direct-to-consumer is a very specialized art. As Greg and Bill [Guthy, Guthy-Renker cofounders] talk about it, the words, the script is so important in ways that I didn’t understand.”

Crawford said some ideas she championed were great and helped them. They shot the informercials on film, for instance.

Renker said it was a no-brainer to team with Crawford. “Because I had a mad crush on Cindy,” he joked.

Ronald Perelman, Revlon’s chairman, at one time had held a minority stake in Guthy-Renker. “We watched how Revlon promoted Cindy and spent millions year after year and thought the equity investment they’re making in her brand would make you think they’d want to keep her forever.

“So when we had the opportunity to create an entrepreneurial arrangement with Cindy, we worked very hard and persevered to try to persuade her to come aboard,” continued Renker, explaining they understood Crawford needed to become a partner, which she still is.

“It made all the difference because we empowered her, we gave her lots of control and she developed the products. Everything was and is her vision,” said Renker, adding with a chuckle they all basically report to Crawford.

Not to say there haven’t been some bumps along the way. “There’s that X-factor thing that sometimes you get it just right and you hit a home run, and other times you can work just as hard and you get a double,” said Crawford.

“It was a struggle from the beginning,” said Renker. “Our very first launch was not successful. We thought we were on the right track and had everything lined up properly, but we learned a lot from it and still [do].

“We are constantly fighting with a disruptive universe, trying to figure out where the customers are and what we can do for them,” he explained.

Television is more expensive than it was, but fewer people are watching it. “It used to be about 80 percent of our media spend, and that’s not so easy. It is now considerably less than 50 percent,” said Renker.

He said they’re extremely digital and social, and very pleased with relationships with retailers such as Ulta and Amazon. “But we have to try every channel we can with a specialist to maximize the opportunity,” he said.

Digital allows for testing elements faster. “Television takes much longer, it’s very expensive and you don’t know what the outcome is,” said Renker. “It’s like putting a movie in a theater and praying.

“Because of digital, we’ve never been more excited about what’s going on in our business, because it’s instant consumer feedback,” he continued. “If you’re wrong, you tweak. If you’re right, you enhance. And also, we were constantly nudged by Cindy.”

“I remember when I forced you guys to get on social media,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re killing it in digital.”

Crawford hasn’t been a Twitter aficionado, but took to Instagram. To date, she has 4.1 million followers on the platform, despite being “late to the party.”

“I got it,” she said. “It’s pictures. I’ve been doing this for my whole life. What I love about Instagram is you can pick different sides of yourself.”

Instagram works well for Meaningful Beauty, too.

“On social media, people want…the curtain pulled back,” said Crawford. “They want to see the real you.…It’s a little scary for me getting into that realm, but then getting the response from women who are my fans or Meaningful Beauty users, it’s a great conversation-starter.”

Crawford has created a digital community of women who find her both aspirational and inspirational. “You lead by example. I just try to be the daughter my parents raised and not stress too much about [whether I’m] fulfilling my obligations,” she said.

Crawford and supermodel pal Christy Turlington were recently discussing why it’s important to still do photo shoots. “It does get a little harder,” said Crawford. “I hope this is politically correct, but sometimes I say I need Viagra for shoots. It’s harder to get it up.”

More seriously, Crawford emphasized: “We want to show women who are 53, and I think Christy just turned 50, that there’s still beauty in that.” Crawford had recently done some “tasteful nudes” for their mutual friend Russell James’ book.

“I remember some snarky person on Instagram — there seem to be a lot of those — posted something like, ‘Ah, why are you still doing those at your age?’ And I was like, is there an age where being nude isn’t beautiful? It’s just a different kind of beauty,” continued Crawford, who said it’s important for women to treat themselves as kindly as they speak to their friends. “That is part of the reason I still do shoots.”

Meaningful Beauty could expand beyond skin care. “We talked to Cindy a lot about it,” said Renker, who explained hair care and wellness might be upcoming possibilities.

“There has to be a reason for every product,” said Crawford.

Renker commended Crawford on being a cultural icon who each year is a greater example of how to live a wonderful life while remaining cool and beautiful. “It was 20 years ago we selected Cindy Crawford, and today we are attracting a younger demographic, especially in digital, than we ever imagined,” he said. “They all want to use what Cindy is using.”

Crawford was asked if she has no regrets. “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” she answered, with a laugh. “How long do we have?”

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