Michelle Freyre, global president at Clinique, joined the business mid-pandemic after working for nearly 20 years at Johnson & Johnson.
What she found, she said, was a team that was agile and optimistic — just like her — despite the less-than-ideal circumstances.
“The entire planet, including me, was filled with anxiety,” she said, of when she joined the company in June 2020, a few months into the global COVID-19 pandemic. She faced a shifting retail landscape and a Zoom-based work environment, but found herself equipped with a team that was ready to switch gears toward social selling, livestreaming and online skin schools in order to keep Clinique customers happy.
And while today, many retail environments are open again, Clinique is one of many brands navigating a changed world. “We keep saying return, but it’s not return, right? It’s a new reality, it’s a new future, so it’s really more about moving forward,” Freyre said.
What helped the Clinique team succeed during the pandemic?
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Michelle Freyre: There’s so much passion for Clinique — they talk about, they “bleed green.” Not being bogged down with the drama of what was going on and the pandemic, which could easily happen to teams — everybody’s working remotely, they’re not together — and just being anchored in, “How can we help consumers? How can we keep delivering on our higher purpose of helping our consumers live with optimism, approach skin care and all their needs with optimism?” That coupled with agility — we’re not going to let the pandemic drag us down, we’re just going to keep finding ways to pivot and to bring what they expect of us and bring it in new ways.
What have been the key learnings from COVID-19, and how do you think those will impact the future?
M.F.: The most important lesson for me as a person, as a leader, was to remain calm as the world was changing so rapidly. Nothing was more important than being present for my team who are also balancing and facing unprecedented challenges personally [and] professionally.
On a global level, we had a competitive advantage of reputational integrity and this unmatched consumer trust, and we learned this past year and a half that trust is earned but can also quickly dissipate, and we’ve seen that in so many aspects of life and the world. Preserving that trust for the brand is critical.
This agility and speed to continue to pivot to meet consumers where they are — their needs in this last year and a half have evolved and are going to be different — and deliver what they’re expecting from Clinique, which is this high-touch service and personalized solutions.
The last thing is just adjusting and continuing to develop products that will address the new needs that they will have. So we have spent a lot of time to understand where our consumers’ needs are evolving, both in skin care and in makeup.
Who is the Clinique customer today?
M.F.: The modern Clinique consumer today is smart, optimistic, savvy, juggling many things in their lives at any given moment, and therefore seeking highly efficacious products, solutions, services that are simple certainties that they know are going to work. How they’ll continue to discover and interact with the brand is what will continue to evolve. Before, maybe she would have spent a lot of time at the counter…now, she’s discovering the brand through our big hero products, but she’s doing it through Google or social channels.
Was it weird to start running a new team while working remotely?
M.F.: It’s been 90 percent Zoom. I finally met most of my leadership team a month ago. There were tears in the room. This whole concept of you’re seeing people in 3D. We’re all humans; we all crave that connection. What’s been amazing is that I’ve been able to create and develop really great relationships across the company, not just within my team. We have to thank technology. If this had happened 20 years ago, I’m not sure what we would have done.
What’s your leadership style like?
M.F.: One tenet is definitely optimism. Trust is another one. You have to be really clear about the trust your consumers have in you and that you don’t lose that, but [also] that your employees and your team have in you as a leader, that you have their back. The clarity about where you’re going and what purpose we’re serving as a team. It’s being clear in that message so everybody knows where we’re rowing together, and why — not just where.
The other tenet for me is authenticity. What you see is what you get. That may also be part of my culture — I’m Hispanic, I’m from Puerto Rico, originally. I want everyone to come to work every day and be who they are authentically.
Transparency is another. Our consumers are smart. They are savvy. We need to be direct, straightforward with them. I’m also a very transparent leader with my team and I tell them I have the same expectations of them as I do of myself. No surprises, we’re all in this together kind of thing.
Clinique launched Smart Clinical Repair Wrinkle Correcting Serum in July. How are you thinking about language around antiaging products?
M.F.: That was something I uncovered — Clinique had never used the term antiaging, Clinique used de-aging. It was always because they actually, way back, thought antiaging was more negative. The way we need to approach how we age should be in an optimistic way that it is in your control.
With the serum — I’ve been using it since the second there was one available — it’s about educating consumers. In this case, the insight was really around not all lines on your face are created equal. That’s important, because the way we talk about it is very general in this industry — like, “Oh, wrinkles are bad.” They have to be addressed from multiple angles and you need a new technology, which in our case in this CL1870 Laser Focus complex that is a blend of peptides and collagen building and soothing ingredients that really is a formula that targets the different types of lines that you have.
We need to speak about getting older as something positive and approach it not like there’s something wrong with your skin. In this case, we’re going to say, “This is a smart serum, this is what it can do for your skin. Not because you’re trying to chase some fountain of youth, but because it’s going to make your skin healthier and glowing.”