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Helena Rubinstein’s Sandager Discusses Strategy

After a repositioning, the ultra-premium skin-care brand is broadening its geographic footprint.

PARIS — Helena Rubinstein is staging a comeback in the U.K., beginning with a new space in London’s Harrods opened last Thursday. It’s part of a broader geographic push that is taking place after a decade-long repositioning as an ultra-premium skin-care brand.

Helena Rubinstein executives would not talk about numbers, but industry sources estimate the L’Oréal-owned label’s business is booming, registering sales growing by high double- and even triple-digit percentages, to about 250 million euros per year, thanks in large part to the Chinese consumer.

Elisabeth Sandager, global brand president of Helena Rubinstein since 2007, discussed with WWD her overarching vision for the brand.

WWD: What makes it a good time for Helena Rubinstein to reenter the U.K. market, after having left it in 2003?

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Elisabeth Sandager: Now that the brand is totally repositioned in the proper way it should be, it’s the right timing to get back into the U.K. An international brand has to be in all big countries and cities.

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We met with the Harrods team, shared our vision, how the brand is looking today — which is pretty different from what it was 10 years ago. It fit their needs in terms of VIP consumers. We’re super excited about this because Harrods is the right place to be.

Elisabeth Sandager
Elisabeth Sandager Courtesy Photo/©Pascal Pinson Photography

WWD: What did Helena Rubinstein’s repositioning entail?

E.S.: Because this brand was born in skin care — in 1902, and was always this avant-garde skin-care brand — that’s why I decided to position it very clearly in the ultra-premium skin-care segment, which was not necessarily the case 10 to 12 years ago. The brand was more in makeup than skin care, whereas we are now clearly a skin-care brand with a little bit of makeup. And really ultra-premium.

I clarified and rationalized a lot, positioning it around cellular skin science. Madame Rubinstein always said beauty is nothing without science. So we are a very scientific skin-care brand, focusing on three very clear skin-care franchises, which have different benefits and key star ingredients.

Then there was work on the distribution. We closed some markets in which our distribution was not right. Sometimes you’re better off closing and coming back when you finish the job, which is the case now. We also made the choice of being more selective in a more premium distribution, which offers us the space and environment to express the brand…and offer an ultimate beauty experience and service that is really key. It’s at the heart of the model.

Everywhere we can we have [treatment] cabins because when you have expensive skin care and very sophisticated formulas you need to have somebody explaining, applying, showing.

We have developed a very sophisticated skin-care expertise with more than 90 facial gestures and protocols. We use an electro-stimulation machine in the cabins. It’s very much geared around this VIP customer, who wants super service.

Twelve years ago I signed up with a clinic in Switzerland, LaClinic-Montreux. With them we created a line called Re-Plasty, which is directly inspired by aesthetic medicine protocols.

WWD: What markets has Helena Rubinstein recently entered?

E.S.: In early 2019, we opened Spain and Portugal. This September we opened South Korea and Taiwan. [Last] week we opened Harrods in the U.K., and we are also expanding the European distribution with Eastern Europe in the next six months. There are projects of developing and opening U.S.-Canada hopefully next year. The Middle East and France are on the map.

WWD: What are the brand’s biggest geographic markets?

E.S.: Today the largest market is China. The acceleration [there] has been phenomenal in the past two years. Japan is number two…then Italy and Hong Kong are almost at the same level. [If travel retail were considered a country it would be] number two, right after China.

[Helena Rubinstein] is currently available in 2,000 doors, in top department stores, high-end perfumeries and duty free.

WWD: Which are Helena Rubinstein’s hero products?

E.S.: In each franchise there is one star product. Powercell [Skinmunity] serum, our entry-price antiaging star serum, is our best seller. Then Under Re-Plasty, we have the Age Recovery night cream. We just launched this year Prodigy Cellglow concentrate. The three products have different textures.

We have a quite concentrated makeup series to complete our range. The brand has always been very well-known for mascaras because mascara was born in Helena Rubinstein. She invented the first [automated and water-proof mascaras]. One of our bestsellers in makeup is the Lash Queen Mascara. We are also strong in foundations.

WWD: How have the product formulation and price-points changed?

E.S.: We’ve reworked all the ingredient concentration levels, with super-sophisticated ingredients — some very costly. Some of our products have like 30 percent concentration of key ingredients, which is super high. So, we are talking about higher prices.

WWD: What is Helena Rubinstein’s core age demographic?

E.S.: The consumer before was probably more 45-plus in Europe and 35-plus in China, but now it’s moved down to [30-plus] in China and 40-plus in the rest of the world — meaning Europe and Japan.