Features, The Business of Beauty

Lauder’s New Math

RR estee lauder brand directionEven by its own blistering-pace standards, it was a busy week of goings and comings at The Estée Lauder Companies. In announcements timed mere days apart, it apprised the industry that it would shutter its year-old bid for the millennial buck – the Kendall Jenner-fronted, Sephora-exclusive Estée Edit – while beefing-up its wildly popular, limited-edition Victoria Beckham range.

While the latter move is just smart business – why not make the most of a huge hit? – the rationale for shuttering Estée Edit sounded uncharacteristically corporate-spin in tone. In case you missed it, the company essentially said it didn’t need a direct appeal to a younger audience anymore. Why? Because it had found sufficient success at Ulta with a handful of recent launches under the classic Estée Lauder umbrella. After crunching the numbers, Lauder determined that the bulk of Ulta customers snatching up its new Double Wear Stay-In-Place foundation were under the age of 34.

Maybe It’s Actually, Secretly, All About Ulta

In the immortal words of “Sex and The City” hottie Carrie Bradshaw, “I couldn’t help but wonder:” Maybe it was the move into Ulta that was the special sauce? And if they tested Estée Edit there, perhaps it would perform really well, too?

Though I know I’m just a gal with a computer, banging away on my keyboard at the crack of dawn on the Gulf Coast of Florida (translation: I’m not sitting in a closed-door, top-level meeting at Lauder Cos., helping to decide the fate of these brands), I have a few opinions and theories.

Here’s one such opinion and theory: For the Average Josie, it’s a hell of a lot less frenetic to shop at Ulta than it is at Sephora. If you’re a woman who likes to leisurely drift through a beauty department, discovering brands and products for hours on end, Ulta is the ticket.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t admire Sephora, and appreciate how it utterly, completely changed the game. Heck, in fall 1999, when Sephora was basically retailer non-grata because of its egalitarian approach to square footage and no-brand-signage stance, I risked my new job at L’Oréal Luxe by attending the store’s splashy U.S. “coming out” party. For anyone who was with me at that paparazzi-packed, red carpet rollout at the original Fifth Avenue flagship, it was a night to remember. (And to report back to your boss about, even though he wasn’t even remotely psyched you went.)

At any rate, I’m happy classic Lauder is attracting millennial eyeballs and credit cards, be it at Ulta or anywhere else. And it actually doesn’t surprise me in the least. “Kids these days” are totally into heritage brands, and Estée Lauder is the mother of all legacy beauty lines. Infused with old-school glamour and unrivaled quality, it deserves to find a younger, hipper fan base.

Now Let’s Talk About Victoria Beckham…

Given my background (pushing, cough, cough, 30 years writing about, and analyzing, beauty), you would think there would be no way on God’s green earth I could get excited about a new line of maquillage.

But then along comes Tom Ford Beauty in 2011. And some five years later, along comes Victoria Beckham x Estée Lauder.

Although the success of Ford’s stunning makeup, skincare and fragrance offerings was relatively slow simmering, Beckham’s collection was a juggernaut from the get-go. Unveiled as a capsule collection in fall 2016 – just 14 makeup SKUs and a $1200 lighted-mirror, trunk-style “light box” filled with product — it sold-out in a heartbeat.

If memory serves, Ford’s line was originally christened “Tom Ford for Estée Lauder” at launch, before the company decided the budding brand had strong enough legs to stand on its own as Tom Ford Beauty. Since then, it appears they’ve largely let Ford call the shots. A hugely talented “nose,” Ford cranks out one idiosyncratic, Fragrance Foundation Award-winning perfume after another, eschewing such tired industry practices as “flankers” and celebrity collaborations. After all, Ford, an accomplished, Oscar-nominated director, is a celebrity himself.

Guess who else is a celebrity? Victoria Beckham. After star turns as a Spice Girl and wife of arguably the handsomest, most famous soccer player ever to kick a ball, she pivoted, buckled down and fashioned herself into one of the world’s top designers.

With Beckham, Lauder gets not only a revered style icon, but also one who is seriously into makeup and all things girly. With cult-fave products like Morning Aura Illuminating Crème, a mashup of moisturizer and brightening primer, she’s demonstrated a knack for filling the few remaining holes in a woman’s beauty regimen. And if you’d like to look just like her, Beckham can help you out with that, too. To replicate her razor-sharp cheekbones, for instance, just swipe on Highlighter in Modern Mercury.

When a brand’s debut collection sells out in literally hours, and high-end retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Net-A-Porter are clamoring to get their mitts on it, it makes perfect sense to expand both its product assortment and distribution – as Lauder announced it was doing this week.

And who am I to say that they maybe jumped the gun a bit by shuttering Estée Edit after just one year? It’s survival of the fittest, right? Lauder has shareholders to answer to, and it needs to stay as lean and mean as possible.

Still, after the Ulta numbers started rolling in on classic Estée, if I were a member of Lauder upper management I definitely would have liked to have seen how Edit performed there. For brands that don’t have the built-in wow factor of a Tom Ford Beauty or a Victoria Beckham x Estée Lauder, maybe it’s actually, secretly, all about Ulta.

Post Script: The subject line of the email blast attached to this column, which was circulated to Robin Report subscribers on June 20, mischaracterized the current status of Kendall Jenner’s relationship with the Estée Lauder  brand. Although Estée Edit – for which Jenner was the primary “face” – is being phased-out, she will continue to appear in advertising for other Estée Lauder products and launches.

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