Estée Lauder’s Bottom-up Beauty

How the beauty company’s approach to millennials is more than skin deep.

The Estée Lauder Companies, the global leader in prestige beauty, is growing and evolving at lightspeed based, in large part, on the influence of young women—the Millennials, a burgeoning part of the company’s customer base.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Alexandra Trower, Executive Vice President Global Communications, about the Company’s 25+ brands and how Millennials are influencing their products and evolving their business model. I wound up learning that their influence goes way beyond the surface. In fact Millennial involvement is part of their corporate DNA, playing out in unusual and innovative ways.

And as a woman, I couldn’t resist probing Alex’s own career trajectory from spending 20 years with financial A-listers, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan, to now eight years with this leading beauty company founded by a woman, for women and being led primarily by women.

We began discussing Millennials’ influence on products, shopping and how their interests are shaping the industry. “Social media has changed everything,” said Trower. “We’re living in a ‘selfie’ world, and young women today want to look their best at all times.  Makeup is booming right now,” Trower says, as young women are experimenting with their looks and posting images as quickly as they change their colors. “And masks are huge.  You can get benefits right away—whether you’re correcting a skin issue, seeking luminosity or an even skin tone. Millennials love the instant results and different looks that makeup and masks provide.”

An “ageless consumer,” (read: Gen X or older) also appreciates the power and flexibility of makeup, yet simultaneously focuses on the longer-term benefits of her skin-care regime, which younger audiences are beginning to pay attention to.

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For the “global leader in prestige beauty,” I was wondering how that translated to younger people, many with budgets to keep an eye on. “By prestige we mean giving our customers an incredible experience, incredible care that is customized and education that is tailored to the best products, application and skin care for their specific needs. A brand like Clinique, for example, may have entry price points, but it also offers unparalleled service and an experience tailored to meet individual consumer’s skin-care concerns whether it be acne, brightening or glow.”

And as Millennials largely prefer to do their shopping via e-commerce or m-commerce, the “prestige beauty” concepts have been translated to digital platforms. The Estée Lauder Companies is keeping it “high touch” with a lot of expert advice online. Want to learn how to create a smoky eye? There’s a video. Need tips on cleansing your skin? Video. Help and how-to videos can also be found on all of the company’s social media brand sites, including Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook.

The Millennial voice is a major influence on their products—“What’s a real difference for our brands is that we’re always learning from our consumers. We create and deliver products that they love and never knew they wanted or needed,” Trower said.

“Also, we’re very focused on local relevance.  Women in different parts of the world are looking for different beauty products, even among the Millennials. In the Middle East, many women want a musky fragrance with oud—a dark, fragrant resin derived from the agar tree—as a leading note. In Russia, everyone loves mascara. In China, skin care is of paramount importance. And did you know that in South Korea, an incredibly innovative place for beauty, the average woman takes seven steps in her skin-care routine—twice a day!”

Philanthropy remains a huge part of the Estée Lauder Companies’ DNA, ever since the company was launched in 1946. Mrs. Evelyn Lauder launched the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign that will soon celebrate its 25th year. The pink ribbon, that she and the editor at the time of Self magazine created, still stands as a universal symbol for the effort to eradicate breast cancer. That tradition has carried on with a charitable foundation supporting women, education, the environment and health. And, importantly for the Millennials, who are very concerned with social issues and giving back, brands within The Estée Lauder Companies portfolio have their own charitable focus. When The Estée Lauder Companies acquired MAC, they amplified MAC’s “Viva Glam” campaign in which edgy artists such as RuPaul, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande create their own Viva Glam lipstick and every lipstick sold gives 100% of its proceeds to MAC AIDS Fund, raising money and awareness for HIV/AIDS. MAC has since raised close to $400 million.

On top of evolving products, packaging and promotion based on Millennial learnings, each member of the executive leadership at The Estée Lauder Companies is paired with a Millennial employee in a “reverse mentor” program. Everyone from the Chairman, CEO to the entire leadership team is paired with a young employee.

“It’s incredible,” Ms. Trower says. “We learn about their lives, their concerns. We learn what social platforms they’re spending time on. We learn about their approach to beauty. My mentor even tries to help me understand why my 22-year-old daughter won’t talk on the phone!” Everyone meets with their mentor regularly, and every now and then the Millennials even take the senior leadership team shopping.  “It’s amazing. They take us out in pairs, and we learn what they’re looking for, what they sample, how they approach shopping. They give us experiences they think we need, like test driving a Tesla, and visiting Warby Parker—a socially responsible, forward-thinking eyeglass retailer.” The mentoring program has been so successful, it’s going global—expanding across many of their offices around the world.

Alex has been with The Estée Lauder Companies for eight years now, following her initial financial career. “There are actually many similarities between private banking and prestige beauty: luxury, high-touch, aspiration, communicating with and caring for consumers and clients,” she shares. “When I was invited to join the company, I had visions of attending glamorous parties in beautiful clothing, meeting beauty editors and getting to play with all of our amazing products.  All of that is part of this incredible job, but it’s just a small piece.  I was humbled very quickly in my first year. I had never worked harder, been more intellectually challenged, been more inspired or had more fun professionally.”

“Communications today changes at light speed. We are constantly evolving and changing as a company. We’re game changers. We created the global prestige beauty category. But really the biggest difference in this company versus my previous ones is the Lauder family and the incredible people who make up this organization.  They have incredibly high standards, and I find myself asking myself frequently, “What would Leonard Lauder do?’” Ms. Trower said.

I was curious how the Lauder culture differed in this publicly traded, family-run female-focused company, versus her prior financial, male-dominated institutions. “Mrs. Estée Lauder founded this company, creating products for women. More than 80% of our employees are women and over 50% of our senior leadership and board of directors are female. This is a big differentiator for us. In financial services, there were fewer women, and I was always the most outspoken person in the room. Now I am one of many strong female voices, and that’s fabulous. Our General Counsel is a woman. Our CFO is a woman. Our Head of Quality is a woman, and more than half of our global Brand Presidents are women. Women play an incredibly strong and important role at every level of the company.”

Women play an incredibly strong and important role at every level of the company.

In full disclosure, Alex and I are both graduates of a women’s college, now university—Hollins University, and serve as trustees. I’m always inspired by the number of young women she brings into the company as interns and the mentoring and grooming she and her team offer.  I asked her what one piece of advice she offers these millennial women. “Listen, listen, listen. It’s also really important to ask your boss, ‘What does success look like to you? How can I help you achieve your goals?’ Management wants you to come in with ideas, solutions to problems. This is a highly valued key to success.” And, she shares, “be someone that people like to work with. That means being kind, trustworthy, delivering on what you promise. And always, always go above and beyond.”

In a culture where many Millenials feel they have to move around frequently to meet their long- term career goals, The Estée Lauder Companies, with more than 25 global brands, offers growth opportunities and career pathing throughout the organization, whether that means relocating to another city or country, or moving from communications to strategy and new business  “Our focus here is to give people every opportunity to grow and develop and flourish,” says Trower.   “Our people are our greatest asset, and we’d love them to spend their careers with us.”

It sure seems like a great time to be toward the bottom of the age chart and the bottom of org chart, at least at The Estée Lauder Companies, where these beauty influencers are truly top of their game.

By Leslie Dunne Ketner