KEYNOTE: GEORGE FELLOWS
Byline: Soren Larson
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, although in the eyes of George Fellows, it’s at the root of an industry-wide malaise.
Fellows, president and chief executive officer of Revlon, laid into his fellow beauty business executives in a keynote address that centered on his view that marketing strategies are unoriginal, product launches are often just copycats and fresh ideas are scarce.
“There is a certain trend that we’ve talked somewhat about over the last three days that I think is really important for us to take notice of, and more importantly, to do something about,” Fellows said, his pointed comments offset by the subdued, poolside setting and nighttime desert sky.
Imitation, he said, is often “the last, or unfortunately, even in some cases the first, resort of those who have no independent ideas of their own. And I have to admit that it characterizes much of what we do and who we are more than any of us should be comfortable with.”
Fellows noted the beauty industry “was created by a unique breed of entrepreneur, insightful risk-takers who were not afraid to push the boundaries of the obvious to go to new and different places that captured the imagination of our consumer.
“Today, unfortunately, it looks as if our business is heading in the direction of becoming a copycat industry where playing it safe takes the place of playing to win; where our focus is more on what our competition is doing and less on what our consumer demands.”
The executive said he had heard much talk at the summit about the need for creativity and innovation, and how the various vendors attending planned to go about it. However, he claimed, “The concrete examples that we can see in the marketplace are too few and too far between for that to have any credibility.”
Fellows allowed that the comfort and safety of imitation are alluring to many and involve less risk than trying something completely new, but diluted innovation will never create the solid brand equities and “big paydays” that everyone aspires to.
“The development of big ideas requires people with big ideas,” said Fellows, going on to rail against the lack of imagination in many marketing departments.
“Clearly, it’s easier to copy a winning product than to create a new one, or mirror someone else’s advertising campaign or successful promotion or merchandising idea than to try something really new and different,” he said. “It often seems that our marketing departments are staffed by Xerox machines rather than intelligent, innovative and imaginative people. The shame of it is that we, as the recipients of our industry’s creative legacy, are responsible for this kind of stagnation. Everybody here has a part in that.”
Relying on small ideas rather than seeking harder to find a big idea is flawed; that approach is being rewarded by consumer indifference, Fellows warned.
“We too often reward the mundane, the pedestrian, the mediocrity that comes out of our respective organizations, and fail to encourage the people that are the real innovators,” he said. “Staying out ahead of the clone brigade is not such an easy task, but it’s not just a function of resources or who has the deepest pockets, because that’s the excuse that a lot of people fall back on. We clearly have to establish that ‘good enough’ is just not good enough. Because if it is, then there’s clearly not a need for all the people who are sitting here at this session, and in fact there will be a damn sight fewer of us sitting here next year.”
Though he mentioned no names in the beauty business, Fellow cited examples of what he called “true innovation and the success it breeds.”
Apple revolutionized the modern personal computer, he said, “and only lost it when they sat back and let everyone catch up to them.”
He also described a copycat brand that went nowhere: “Haagen-Dazs created the premium ice cream category, but Fruzen Gladje proved that the secret was not just in being difficult to spell. In fact, that’s all they brought to the party and they’re no longer on our temptation menu.
“Indeed, imitation may indeed be considered a form of flattery. The one thing it certainly is, is a failure of imagination,” he added. “It always seems like a good idea at the time, but as is the case with most artificial products, it has no lasting nutritional value.”
Fellows described the cosmetics industry as one substantially reliant on shopper impulse, on capturing the imagination of consumers with flashy packaging, colors and glamour, and filling unsatisfied needs with innovative technologies.
If vendors fail to achieve these ends, he said, their retail partners will have no choice but to find other categories in which to invest — “because we sure aren’t going to drive people into their stores with credit card in hand.”
On the side of the manufacturer, Fellows admitted, is that markets are more complex, retail formats more varied, consumer choices more numerous and customers — both retail and consumers — smarter and more demanding than ever.
“To come up with good ideas, we’ve got to stop rewarding the Xerox brigade, whose major contribution is to tell us that the major idea of the decade is a 40-piece [gift-with-purchase] to replace the 29-piece gwp we ran the year before,” Fellows said. “That’s a lot of what we see coming out of our organizations. Let’s concentrate on our consumer and her needs.”
Fellows followed up with a final admonishment to those who had participated in the summit’s many conversations: “We’ve talked and talked, and God knows we’ve done a lot of that over these last few days, but we don’t walk the walk as an industry.”