Recently New York celebrated Fashion Week. A time when we are called forth to reflect on the fashion business and the technology business.
Several years ago I was CEO of Gloss.com, the multi-brand online retailer owned by Estee Lauder, Chanel and Clarins. I also had responsibility for a dozen Estee Lauder brand sites. Concerned friends used to say to me, “Pete, you used to be at Apple Computer managing Enterprise Marketing. Now you’re selling mascara. Explain.”
One of the strangest things about entering the beauty business was the language. Everything was “Fabulous!” Or, ”Genius!” Software people didn’t talk this way. Network performance was a rather precise thing measured in kilobytes per second and overhead percentages.
Screaming “genius!” at the latest creation from Bobbi Brown seemed a little disconcerting. Until I looked at the margins, which are pretty healthy in the world of prestige beauty. And then I realized: if it was fabulous, that was a fashion code word for it was never, ever, don’t even think about it, going to be sold on discount.
I was enlightened.
The consumer electronics world was full of price comparisons. Here women were lusting over little tubes of… goo… and thinking nothing of spending 40 or 100 bucks. During an interview a New York Times tech reporter told me, “Peter, this business will never work.” I asked why. “You’ll never get women to spend all that money on cosmetics.” I explained to him that as a geek it might not make a lot of sense, but Mrs. Lauder solved that problem long ago, and women, the beauty companies, and the retailers seemed to be just fine with it.
I also realized that about the only place in the tech world that actually understood the beauty play-book was where I had come from: Apple. In fact the way we both went about marketing was pretty similar. Then it occurred to me that the brand similarity was downright uncanny.
One of the most brilliantly marketed Lauder brands is M.A.C. cosmetics. It’s the exciting brand for creative types. The brand image was ruled with stentorian discipline by the creative director, James Gager, who wore jeans and a black shirt and left no detail untended too. It was a brand built on a base of enthusiasts who would spread the word. It was a brand that attracted celebrities. In a word, it was fabulous.
And it was all sounding mighty familiar. Hadn’t I worked for this brand before? I started giving a talk called, “Everything I know about the beauty business I learned at Apple Computer; or why Steve Jobs is the greatest cosmetics executive of all!”
In the years since it has only become more true. Apple is in the business of creating desire and lust for a category that hitherto had been utilitarian and functional. A playbook the beauty business had pioneered. Except that when the beauty business first went online, it hit a speed bump. On the internet, in the thumbnail images that show up in search results, a $30 Chanel lipstick looks an awful lot like the $3.00 product from Maybelline. Fabulous it is not! Not to mention an order of magnitude difference in price.
In the early days of e-tailing we spent our time trying to figure out how to transform this from a medium that simply pulled for price comparison to one that could communicate and evoke brand value and excitement. We worked with Yahoo! to gain control over the size and quality of images that showed up in search results. Our online merchants taught us how to evolve our simple master / detail e-commerce pages into sites that could at once merchandize and tell a brand story. Our warehouse and distribution firm was aghast that our industry would launch a seasonal product only to intentionally sell out in a matter of days just to create excitement, scarcity and lust.
About this time I decided that if we were to make the online experience more fabulous we had to really deconstruct the retail experience. So I went shopping. I brought along a video recorder and two people who could help me understand both M.A.C. and the Mac. For my visit to the M.A.C. cosmetics store in New York’s Soho and the Apple store just around the corner I invited advertising legend Steve Hayden, who created the original Macintosh “1984″ commercial, and beauty editor Lisa Gabor, who was a founder of Allure magazine and later ran inStyle.com. Here’s a record of that visit to two very different brands that are so much the same.