Tom Ford opened the WWD Beauty CEO Summit by giving the industry some simple yet stirring advice: Trust your instincts.

“Many of us today are paralyzed by fear,” said Ford, who gave the summit’s opening keynote address on May 10 to a packed crowd. “As we operate in an industry that launches products at a scale that is often vast and worldwide, a certain amount of fear is understandable; the stakes are high. The fear can often result in the creation of bland products that do not challenge or innovate.”

And, he said, fear can make companies reticent to reinvent. “It can make us hesitant to take a brand name that is known around the globe and give it a fresh, new spin,” he said. “It can lead us to put out unsurprising products with unsurprising names promoted in an unsurprising way. It can make us weak and dull and, ultimately, fear can make us lose.”

To overcome that obstacle, it’s critical to find the courage to take a risk, he said.

“How do we get back in touch with that risk-taking gene that we all possess, yet that is muffled as business gets bigger and the stakes get higher? We need to trust our intuition. If we’re bored while we’re designing a product, the consumer will be bored. If we’re excited when we create something, we can actually endow that product with an excitement that will translate to a positive reaction from the consumer. Today, more than ever, the customer wants something significant and bold. Half-hearted attempts to please everyone and offend no one will simply come off as second-best.”

In fact, he said, the greatest breakthroughs are often things that break with tradition. “We often spend our time looking over our shoulders at our competitors rather than looking forward and forging a new way,” he said. “We rely on testing and focus groups and surveys to tell us what the consumer wants when the very thing the consumer wants most is for us to tell them what they want and need. This is our role — to lead and to guide. To do this, we have to saturate ourselves with the market and today’s culture and then react with a fresh eye, as if we were our consumer encountering our product at retail for the first time. We need to put the business models and spread sheets to the side, tap into the zeitgeist and be bold in our expression of it.”

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Being bold has never been a problem for Ford, who from his days as a design assistant at Cathy Hardwick to designing for Gucci has always had an unshakable faith in the merit of his own opinions. “Confidence has always served me well and I think has been one of the reasons for my past success — and I hope it’ll help me achieve future successes, as well,” he said. “I think that confidence is exactly one of the things that today’s consumer needs from a beauty brand. What he or she is looking for is a voice that speaks with authority and clarity, a voice to trust, a voice to cut through the barrage of advertising, TV, Internet, makeover shows, beauty blogs, celebrity endorsements and, of course, a sea of constantly changing products all vying for our attention.

Such industry staples as flankers and ancillaries may actually be eroding brand value, said Ford, not increasing it. “The beauty industry, just like all fashion-related industries, is suffering from an overload of products,” he said. “We’re devaluing our assets with a constant and never-ending sea of flankers, gift-with-purchase, purchase-with-purchase, promotional products, spin-offs, derivatives, ancillary, seasonal hits, seasonal flashes. All of this is really eroding the value of our core products and the perceived value of our brands. By supplying a constant stream of merchandise, the consumer is left with a feeling that our products are empty and hollow, that there’s too much to choose from and that it’s all too available to have any real value.”

So does this mean that the authority of the major-league brands will erode further?

Not necessarily, said Ford, who has given the venerable Estée Lauder brand a best-selling kick over the last year. “Consumers want strong direction, now more than ever,” he said. “And as desirable as the niche brands and the wellness and lifestyle oriented aspects of beauty may be, it is the major-league beauty brands that — if they’re smart — will offer this direction to the mainstream customer. The consumer, as we all know, is more educated than ever. But she, and increasingly he, is overwhelmed. The customer wants and needs someone to tell them what to buy and how to use it, to be honest with them and to make promises that can be kept.”

That means it’s time to renew the authority — not the launch machine, said Ford. “We’re concerned more with keeping up with the speed of the market rather than honing and refining our vision so women today turn to us as their mothers did with their full attention,” he said. “We need to return to a belief in our own products and to the creation of products that we can honestly say to the customer that they need. Perhaps we need the confidence to value ourselves higher in order for the customer to highly value us. Perhaps we need to have the confidence to make bolder gestures and turn more heads.”

Ford said too often the beauty industry underestimates the sophistication of the consumer. “We think that safe and familiar is what they want, and that’s one of the dangers of today,” he said. “Mainstream taste is no longer what we think it is. The girl next door, thanks to media and the Internet, is as likely to be as familiar with unorthodox fragrances and rain-forest botanicals as you are. Let’s give her something to think about. Let’s give her something to lust for.”

While Ford conceded that the long-term loyalty of his grandmother’s day is a thing of the past, he thinks in serving consumers’ insatiable need for newness, the beauty industry is losing its focus. “I’m not saying it’s easy — we’re at a difficult crossroads,” he said. “The beauty landscape is bigger than ever before, and the customer is currently wandering all over trying to forge her own path. Beauty is no longer just cream and paint in a bottle, nor is it about one or two mega-hit products that every woman has on her dressing table. The consumer is exploring so many things in the quest to look her best — wellness, detox, diet, Botox, fillers, surgery, even sleep sometimes.

“The power of a well-loved name is huge in a world that is so filled with new products and brands,” Ford continued. “The trick is to take it from a few steps behind the curve to several paces out front, to go beyond the status quo, to go beyond the current beauty industry protocol and to chart out new territory to excite and win customers. If I’m here to tell you anything, it’s that brand capital is more resilient than you think. As I experienced in my own career in fashion, you can yank a classic brand into the future [as he did at Gucci] while still profiting from its legacy and the prestige of its past. In fact, when you do a 180-degree turn and step boldly in a new direction, not only does the legacy of the brand become more interesting, it propels you and fuels you because it communicates an authority and expertise. We then need to be ruthless in critiquing ourselves. Are we succeeding in our mission statement? Are we old? Are we tired? Is our message still relevant? Do we deliver it clearly? What are our core products? What are we about? Are they still valid? What’s our future? Where are we going? Who is our customer? Are they the right customer? Do we want that customer? Are we giving them what they need?”

“Nonconformity is, well, it’s not so nonconformist anymore. Mainstream taste has become increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging; there are infinitely more ways to purchase unusual products than ever before. How many women do you know who rave about their favorite scent from some small little company you’ve never heard of? Meanwhile, many beauty executives are more and more lost, trying to figure out the ultimate way to rework gift-with-purchase, to reinvent presentation at travel retail. It’s no wonder that these tired and tested methods for conducting business no longer wow the consumer. After all, how exciting is it to get a trial-size moisturizer or to be spritzed with perfume in a department store when magazines are talking about niche organic skin care from Europe and the celebrities are all ordering custom-made fragrance blends?”

But there is a simple, albeit not an easy, answer, he said. “We need to ask ourselves what excites us. What would excite us as consumers? What do we want? What are we tired of? We must each ask ourself what our company stands for. What are we about? To use an unromantic business term, what is our mission statement? When things become unclear or complicated or difficult, I think it’s always best to return to the fundamentals; to edit and streamline.”