Today, Estee Lauder is up for my Women of Influence (for Women’s History Month) series. She’s another cosmetics maven. And if you’ve ever worn MAC or Clinique makeup, you have Estee to thank. I myself am a huge fan of Clinique – their Happy perfume is one of my all-time favorites and I love their moisturizer! Estee, a native New Yorker, was described as beautiful and pushy. She was a driven entrepreneur who hobnobbed with Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Estee was named by TIME magazine as one of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century – and she was the only woman on the list. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush for “building a global cosmetics company.” And she was one of the richest self-made women in history.
Estee was an innovator, and she changed the game in significant ways. So here’s my list of 3 things you an thank Estee for!
1. Estee’s makeovers
Like her fellow cosmetic queen Helena Rubinstein, Estee started out with face cream. When she was young, her uncle, who happened to be a chemist, came to stay with the family. She was entranced with his homemade face cream, which she swore made your face “feel like spun silk.” She converted a stable in the backyard as a laboratory to make it herself. She called it “Super-Rich All Purpose Creme” and started giving it away to her friends. Before long, she was selling to friends, and in local salons and hotels.
Estee started her company with only four products (including her uncle’s face cream) and very basic packaging. When Saks Fifth Avenue carried her products, they sold out in two days.
Estee strongly believed women only needed to try her products, and to that end, she did whatever she could to “touch women’s faces.” Personal makeovers became her trademark, and she did them everywhere she went – in stores, on trains, even at parent-teacher conferences! Her belief was that beauty should be quick and easy, often saying “3 minutes is all beauty should ever take.”
2. Her bath oil perfume, Youth Dew
Estee’s company went big time with a new product she called Youth Dew. It was a bath oil that doubled as a perfume. Priced at less than $10, it was an affordable luxury for a woman in 1953. Sales went through the roof, and by the mid-1950s, Youth Dew was 80% of all new sales. In just under 10 years, Estee Lauder, Inc. became a multimillion-dollar company.
Estee’s confidence and tenacity helped get her products in stores all over the world. There’s a story about how she was originally turned down at the prestigious Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Apparently, they were not interested in selling her products, even the amazing Youth Dew! But she made friends with a salesperson, and while showing the product, she accidentally (on purpose) spilled it on the floor! Customers loved the fragrance and began asking where they could purchase it. Needless to say, they ended up carrying her products.
3. Free Gift with Purchase
Estee may not have had any formal education, but she had an innate ability to connect with women. She realized two critical facts. One, that word-of-mouth was crucial, and two, that seeing was believing. She was the one who gave products away, convinced that women would buy once they saw the results. People at the time thought she as crazy for giving away her inventory, but she never wanted a woman to leave empty-handed.
After her phenomenal success selling at Saks Fifth Avenue, she decided to sell her products only at upscale department stores. But because her company was still small, the big retailers turned her town. Undeterred, she and her husband invested $50,000, an insane amount even today, into offering free samples through direct mail. It worked! Before long, you could buy Estee’s products at Marshall Field’s and Nieman-Marcus.
She came up with the absolutely genius “free gift with purchase” marketing strategy. She made it a practice to give women a gift of whatever it was they didn’t purchase. The retail makeup counters for her competitors followed her lead. And by the mid-1960’s, a free gift with purchase was a universal practice.
Estee Lauder today
By the 1990’s, Estee Lauder was the 3rd largest cosmetics company in America, with over 10,000 employees and sales of more than $2 billion. In 1995, the company went public and if you want, you can buy their stock today! Today, the company is valued at more than $9 billion!
Estee passed away in 2004. But her company still makes the original products (like Youth Dew) that made them famous. Unlike other Women of Influence, the company Estee built remains in her family. Her granddaughters, Aerin and Jane Lauder, essentially run the show. Today, Estee Lauder includes fashion and beauty brands Clinique, MAC, Bobbi Brown, Donna Karan, Too Faced, La Mer, Origins, Tory Burch, Smashbox, Bumble and Bumble, DKNY, and Michael Kors.
“I didn’t get here by dreaming or thinking about it. I got here by doing it.”-Estee Lauder
She left quite a legacy! Want to learn more about Estee? Check out her autobiography.
This post has been edited and updated since it was first published on October 24, 2015.