Behind every great beauty product is a visionary who dared to dream differently. Here, the brilliant minds who conceived six of the industry’s most iconic products reveal the inside story of their inception.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
1977: Jean and Jane Ford, Benefit Benetint
Have you heard the one about the exotic dancer who walks into a small makeup store, asking for makeup to enhance her nipples that won’t come off when she perspires?
The store’s owners went home that very evening and brewed a cherry-red stain out of rose petals, food coloring, carmine and isopropyl alcohol. They put it into a tiny bottle, sealed it with wax and sold it to the stripper the next day for $6.
As far-fetched as the story sounds, this is the genesis of Benefit’s Benetint, the lip and cheek stain that launched 35 years ago and still ranks in its top-three selling products.
“There are innovations and inspirations,” declares Jean Ford, the irrepressible San Franciscan who cofounded Benefit Cosmetics with her twin sister, Jane, almost 40 years ago. (Back then, it was still called The Face Place.) “When you are inspired by something, it might not necessarily be innovative, but it is inspiring. That’s the story of Benetint. It was one of those naughty little miracles.”
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Miracle, indeed. The creation of Benetint did more than create a cash cow for the fledgling brand. It helped define Benefit as a company. Based on its success, “We decided we were going to create products that are problem solvers,” says Ford, “that women didn’t have, that they didn’t even know they didn’t have and that they didn’t even know they wanted.” Thus was born items like Ooh La Lift eye brightener and Lemon Aid eyelid primer—“Itty Bitty Fake-Its,” in Benefit parlance. Says Ford: “The problem solvers separated us from other brands. It was the moment of clarity.”
Benetint has sold over 10 million units since it was first in- troduced and the company estimates one bottle is sold every minute worldwide; today, there are also versions in pink and coral. Long-wearing stains are heating up, too, with brands from Revlon to Yves Saint Laurent all introducing their own versions. But Benetint, still sold in a tiny bottle, has maintained its popularity, a fact Ford chalks up to its infamous beginnings. “Women love stories,” she says, “and they want something that is original.”
That ethos continues to be the driving force of the brand. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that beauty and life are now. It’s not tomorrow. It’s not 30 years from now,” says Ford. “It’s, ‘What can I do now to make me feel and look pretty and better about myself?’ Women are very harsh on themselves,” she continues. “What I look at when we’re creating products is what will turn a frown upside down and make women smile. It’s as easy as that. That’s Benefit. Our slogan has always been ‘Laughter is the best cosmetic.’”
1982: Leonard Lauder, Estée Lauder Night Repair Cellular Recovery Complex
Leonard Lauder is nothing if not decisive. So when Joe Gubernick, then the senior vice president of research and development at Estée Lauder, walked into Lauder’s office in 1982 with a radical idea for a skin care product, the executive immediately gave him the go-ahead.
“It’s hard to run a creative company like Estée Lauder with large committees,” says Lauder. “It’s easier if there is an experienced hand at the helm that says, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
No matter that the idea centered around the concept of DNA repair, as yet unknown in the beauty industry. Never mind that it was for a serum, rather than a cream or lotion—also a first, and risky at a time when the former dominated U.S. sales and the latter led skin care sales in Europe. It was the first to contain hyaluronic acid, too, the first to be packaged in a plain brown apothecary bottle and the first to feature an ad campaign of a sleeping woman in bed.
Lauder saw a clear path forward for Gubernick’s idea and he seized the opportunity. “The product landscape at the time was miracle creams with this or that ingredient. Our great invention was the idea that something could be repaired,” he says. “Until then, it had all been the verb ‘moisturize.’ There were wrinkles, but wrinkles are just a manifestation of something that is broken. We were working not on the evidence of the broken thing, but on the DNA that needed repair itself.”
Consumers immediately grasped the concept. “Night Repair was an instant success. From Day One,” says Lauder briskly.
“The ad was right. The packaging was right. The product was right. The execution was right,” he ticks off. “Don’t think you can make a great success of something with having only one thing right. You have to have everything right.”
Thirty years after its launch, Advanced Night Repair, as it’s now known, continues to be a cornerstone of the company’s success; the firm estimates that approximately 10,559 bottles are sold daily (or about 7 bottles a minute).
While Estée Lauder has continued to update the formula—the most recent iteration was introduced in 2009 and has over 20 patents worldwide—the brand resisted the sku proliferation that plagues so much of the category. “We kept it pure and direct and fo- cused,” says Lauder, noting the franchise consists only of the serum and an eye product. “If we had diluted ourselves with a whole host of products, we would never have been able to come up with what we have today.”
1991: John Frieda, Frizz-Ease Hair Serum
Back in the late Eighties, John Frieda was a veritable hair rock star in his native London. But in the U.S., the stylist had virtually no name recognition—a fact which complicated the planned launch of his eponymous hair care range. While the line was a raging success in the U.K., where it was sold in about 1,500 Boots stores, Frieda and his business partner, Gail Federici, knew the U.S. would be more challenging. They needed a killer product. And they needed a killer name.
The idea for the first came when Federici and Frieda were chatting on the phone, and she observed that though there were numerous styling products to add volume, there was nothing to take it away. There wasn’t anything that dealt with frizzy hair, she complained. That was all Frieda needed to know.
“I went to our chemist immediately,” relates Frieda. “At the time, silicone was beginning to emerge as an ingredient, but it was used primarily in two-in-one shampoo-conditioners. I wanted to see what would happen if you used silicone raw on the hair.”
His instinct quickly proved correct, as he discovered when he tested various formulas at his salon. “We immediately saw that the result on the hair was astonishing. It transformed the texture from dry and frizzy to smooth, shiny and sleek.”
Next, they needed a name, one that would immediately telegraph the purpose of the product, since there was no money for an ad campaign to support the launch. “With product names, I would imagine myself on a TV show talking about it, and when Gail came up with Frizz-Ease, it was a master stroke,” says Frieda.
Frizz-Ease launched in the U.S. at Eckerd Pharmacy and was an instant success. At the time, Frieda remembers, stores would sell on average one product for every two stores every week. Frizz-Ease, priced at $9.99, sold 70 to 80 pieces a week. Within two years, the brand was in 28,000 doors across the U.S. By 2001, John Frieda Professional Hair Care had sales of $300 million and the following year Kao bought the brand for $450 million. Today, nearly four bottles of Frizz-Ease are sold every minute in the U.S., which works out to 190,000 pounds of serum sold in 2011.
Those numbers make it a mass market force, but for Frieda, the true payoff came from the brand’s scrappy beginnings. “Gail and I really believed in what we were doing, that if you have a product of real quality and innovation, something that people really needed but doesn’t exist, that genuinely works, you can compete with the giants of the business,” he says. “There’s nothing you can’t do in the world if you put in the effort, the passion and the time.”
1992: Terry de Gunzburg, Yves Saint Laurent Touche Éclat
When Terry de Gunzburg was a makeup artist in Paris in the Seventies, working with photographers like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, Photoshop didn’t exist. The models had to look picture-perfect from the get-go. Rather than redoing their makeup for each shot (or use powder, which she found too mattifying), de Gunzburg created a concoction consisting of a drop of moisturizer, some ultralight foundation and a dash of toner. She applied it with a flat brush on top of a model’s existing makeup to “refresh” her glow. “This was my trick as a makeup artist,” she remembers.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and de Gunzburg was in charge of product development at Yves Saint Lau- rent Beauté, working on a shimmer eye shadow in a click pen with a sponge applicator. De Gunzburg had a brainstorm: Why not put concealer in a click pen, with a brush on top? She found concealer too thick, however, so she went back to the lab to work on a magic formula that mimicked her on-set creation.
Two years later, she had the answer. Triumphant, she brought it to YSL’s marketing department. They were unimpressed. “Are you crazy?” she laughingly recalls being asked. “They said, ‘It’s not a concealer, it’s not a foundation, it’s not a treatment and it only comes in one color? This is absolutely crazy.’” Another three years passed before de Gunzburg was able to convince the brand’s marketers to take a chance on her creation. Thus was born Touche Éclat Radiant Touch. It was a huge—and instant—success.
“After two weeks it was sold out everywhere. It took a long time to reproduce it, because the pigments and the pen came from Japan. It was like a Ferrari—women were putting in orders and would wait for three, six months, however long it took,” says de Gunzburg. “Women were buying three, to put in their offices, in their bathrooms, in their purses.”
Touche Éclat is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and has spawned countless imitators; YSL says that one is sold somewhere in the world every 10 seconds.
Although de Gunzburg’s instincts proved correct, it was the three years of hearing “no” that have most informed her subsequent life as the overseer of her own brand, By Terry. “When you really believe something is new, go for it—never give up,” she says, when asked the key insight she gleaned from its success.
But equally as important, she says, is realizing that timing is everything. “You have to be on time,” says de Gunzburg. “To be too early may be fine for your self-esteem, but sometimes it doesn’t help the product. You have to have the ability to make your innovation obvious to the market,” she continues, “because if you are small, the copycat products come fast.”
2001: Jacques Polge, Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
Fragrance aficionados may consider “flanker” a bad word, but try telling that to consumers, who spent over $450 million on the category in 2011, according to NPD, a 27 percent increase over 2010.
Doubtless a large chunk of that money was spent on Coco Mademoiselle, the 2001 launch that was a pioneer in the category. The fragrance was born out of Coco, a rich oriental scent introduced in the late Eighties. As the 21st century dawned, Chanel tasked its master perfumer, Jacques Polge, with creating a version of the scent that would be more olfactively accepted in America.
“For me, it was a new fragrance,” says Polge, who loathes the term flanker. “Everything that was heavy disappeared. It is a completely individual fragrance.”
Coco Mad’s success is a testament to that personality: It has been the number-one selling fragrance in the U.S. for the past three years in a row according to NPD, stronger than ever more than a decade after its launch.
Polge is modest about its success—“We are all very pleased about that,” he says, when he hears the numbers recited—but more forthcoming when it comes to the influence of Coco Mademoiselle on his métier.
“We learned that the most important adjective that the consumer should pronounce on a fragrance is ‘fresh,’” says Polge. “Freshness is another way of saying, ‘I like this.’ Anything on the heavy side should be avoided. Even in raw ma- terials, we worked to have a special quality that gets rid of the heavy and keeps the fresh. Coco Mademoiselle was the first time that we reworked an essential oil especially for us, to make it much lighter and much fresher. It is a special quality of patchouli and we were the first to introduce it.”
Polge pauses. “We’ve now decided that we do that for as many projects as we can. We try to have a unique and special quality for most of the raw and natural ingredients.”
2002: Catherine Walsh, JLo Glow
Catherine Walsh didn’t have any time to lose when she joined Coty’s Lancaster group in 2001 as senior vice president. Her mandate was clear: To create a strong U.S. fragrance business for the company, which until then counted Davidoff ’s Cool Water as its primary success in North America.
Walsh compiled a list of potential licensees, and, in conjunction with Coty’s recently appointed chief executive officer Bernd Beetz, settled on a renegade choice: Jennifer Lopez.
At the time, the superstar had the number-one album and number-one movie in America. But the celebrity fragrance category was moribund; only Elizabeth Taylor had a truly viable business.
Beetz gave the green light and development started immediately—even before the company had a signed contract with Lopez. “The risk was huge,” remembers Walsh, who is today senior vice president of American fragrances at Coty Prestige. “We were developing the project and simultaneously trying to get the contract in place. At that time, it took 12 to 18 months to develop a project,” Walsh continues. “I told Bernd that I needed a checkbook and operational support, because we had to do it when she was hot, hot, hot.” Again, Beetz agreed, and he made one more big bet on the project. “We had a gentleman’s agreement that if I had to spend more than $350,000 on a given day, I would call and get his buy-in.”
That came on the day when Walsh was scheduled to shoot the ad campaign. “We were spending a lot of money—tooling bottles, making fragrances—and I was getting on a plane to go to the photo shoot,” she says. “I knew Jennifer wanted to do it, and the arrows were pointing in the right direction, but I didn’t know Hollywood, I didn’t know her people, I didn’t know what would happen.”
Once again, the CEO gave the go ahead, and the results, JLo Glow, made fragrance history. Glow racked up more than $150 million at retail in its first year (the number in the original plan was projected to be $24 million), while the entire Jennifer Lopez fragrance franchise has reached almost $2 billion in cumulative sales. Lopez’s 18th fragrance, Glowing, will launch in May at Kohl’s. Glow’s impact on the industry was equally significant, ushering in a modern era of celebrity fragrances, which in 2011 rang up sales of $143.3 million, according to NPD, a 35 percent increase over the previous year.
The genesis of Glow also helped shape the corporate culture of Coty, which today is the world’s 12th biggest beauty company with estimated sales of about $3.7 billion. “Glow was one of those projects where you go back and think, Could I do it again?” says Walsh. “It seemed so risky, but we’ve done it again and again and again, and out of that came our corporate motto, Faster Further Freer.”
While not every project Walsh has developed has met with the same success, she knows that goes with the territory. “You have to trust your instinct,” Walsh says. “But what goes hand in hand with that is when you deal with celebrities, you set yourself up for risk, and that isn’t for everybody. The instinct part is me speaking emotionally, but on the business side, you have to be tough skinned and be in an environment and company that is willing to take risks.”