It’s a real treat to sit down with an icon known for successfully developing some of the best and biggest brands, especially in the world of beauty where so many names seem to come and go. Our interview and photo-shoot with the president of the Estée Lauder Companies, John Demsey, was less a traditional TNP interview and more an education on all things branding.
Demsey is known for establishing a brand’s authority, and has brought beauty magnums like Bobbi Brown, Tom Ford, La Mer, Smashbox and MAC to the forefront of their industry. Constantly toeing the line between staying relevant and maintaining brand heritage for all the labels he oversees, Demsey is king when it comes to all things cosmetics.
While we were of course curious about beauty products, we were also first and foremost eager to hear about beauty from the inside out, the art of branding, and – of course – ‘the new potato’ of cosmetics. It’s no surprise that Demsey had an answer for everything, so listen up…
What’s your ideal food day?
My ideal food day or my actual food day?
You can do both.
My ideal food day would be a totally fattening day. I would start off the morning with a latte with a double shot of espresso and eggs benedict with toasted and buttered English muffins and jam. Then for lunch, it would be a chopped chef salad, iced tea, and key lime pie. For dinner, it would be tomatoes with Russian dressing, a sirloin strip steak sliced medium rare, hash brown potatoes, and banana cream pie. That’s my ideal, and I’m starving as I’m discussing this with you.
My real meal. Morning, FiberOne, Skim milk. Lunch is stripped down salad with chicken. For dinner, mixed green salad, chicken paillard, and fresh fruit. That’s the polar opposite of what I…what I lust for most.
Just kind of jumping into Estée Lauder, how are you constantly toeing the line with brands on celebrating a brand’s heritage while also keeping it relevant?
Well, I have a portfolio (which is expanded now) of over fourteen different brands, which are very different in terms of their personalities. You know, from Bobbi Brown, Estée Lauder, MAC, Jo Malone and Tom Ford to Smashbox, Crème de la Mer, and designer fragrances. Each brand has a unique backstory, a unique authentic DNA, and a voice.
What I try to do is be very deliberate when I’m working with a brand on living within the code or voice of that particular brand. There’s something very special and unique in the way the Estée Lauder companies curate and nurture brands, whether it is the original heritage brand, Estée Lauder for 65 plus years, a brand like MAC, or new brands that we bring into the portfolio. I try to be respectful of the past.
I have a line in terms of when businesses get a little off track. The answer is always in the room, because brands become successful for a reason. What you need to do is find the modern day context of what that reason means in today’s world, not yesterday’s world. If our brand was built on 1960s aspiration, what’s aspirational today? What’s the aspiration of women today? What’s luxury today? What does skin care in the world of cosmetic procedures look like today? The reality of context in which you discover products or brands is very different. We were just talking before you came in about what you’re doing here: an online, virtual magazine content provider. Blogs and social media have totally changed the way that brands communicate and engage fans, customers, or people who want to know, and that didn’t exist five years ago. The old world paradigm of advertising, merchandising, product development, and distribution has all changed. My guess is if we are sitting down three or four years from now, it’s going to be a hell of a lot different from today as well. But, the universal aspiration of beauty has been the same since time began. Everybody wants to look good, everybody wants to be attractive, everybody wants to feel good about themselves. That’s a universal aspiration and no one is ever satisfied.
That actually brings me to my next question. Whether it’s online or print, do you think there is a platform for beauty that’s most important?
For me personally versus for the business are two different things. I’m an old world print guy. I love magazines. I’ve fallen in love with a lot of the content providers. I love going on The Sartorialist or The Selby or other different sites because I really enjoy it. I’ve sort of started getting addicted to shopping at 1st dibs. I think it depends on how old you are. If you’re over thirty-five, I still think the traditional media with a strong Facebook sort of interface matters. I think if you’re under twenty-five, it’s all social media. Everything matters. I have a six-year-old daughter, so it’s interesting being in this business watching her start to develop and seeing how she interfaces with her iPad. My guess is her generation will be very different than Millennials now. She’s multitasking all the time: watching TV, watching her iPad, going through books, doing things, and she’s six, so…
So in terms of brands do you think one is more important than the other?
Different brands have different communities. It depends on the community, and the engagement of that community for a particular brand. For a brand like Bobbi Brown, who is a persona and personality with her own social media channel, we have a YouTube channel called I Love Makeup, which is brand sponsored but not brand messaged. It’s a way of really engaging and understanding her philosophy on beauty. For a brand like MAC, it’s about trend, fashion, now, street, and high/low.
A brand like Estée Lauder was built on a traditional distribution and advertising model, and we just launched The Estée Edit. It’s this amazing conceptual platform that goes back to the original voice of Estée Lauder herself, and brings contemporary tastemakers in the context of what Estée would have thought if she were here today.
It really matters. It’s more holistic on a brand that’s been around for a long time and that has more traditional customers and media. It’s a whole game for brands that didn’t start from that place.
When the designer of a brand moves horizontally – like Bobbi Brown going to Yahoo Beauty – what does that do for a brand?
Well, it’s interesting. If you look at Bobbi Brown, she started off as a contributor to The Today Show. She began her business working out of Frederic Fekkai in Bergdorf Goodman as a freelance makeup artist with a TV gig. She developed her brand off of a media persona, with television as her platform. Yahoo is today’s platform. I think there’s Bobbi Brown the person, and there’s Bobbi Brown the brand. They’re one in the same, yet they’re very different. I think you’re going to see more and more of that.
On our site, we’re voyeuristic in the space of food, beauty, fashion etc., but do you think that voyeurism is stronger in beauty than in other industries?
I think it’s voyeuristic because everybody wants to know the dirt on everybody else. People like seeing other people without their makeup on, and unfortunately society likes to build up and tear down. Whether it’s US Weekly or Star showing people in their bathing suits, or good looks versus bad looks on Fashion Police. It’s a guilty pleasure; people like to look. People also want to know a lot about the people they look up to (or who are in the public eye). Beauty is something that’s very personal, and something that’s very accessible. You don’t need to have a lot of money to be able to accomplish a look, and regardless of what your socioeconomic background is, you can transform yourself with makeup and hair. I think we’re all sort of voyeuristic. I know I am.
Do you think there’s high/low in beauty, like in fashion?
Absolutely. You know, there’s serious skin care, serious beauty treatments, and serious personal maintenance, depending on if you’re that type of person. Then there’s total kooky, wacky, fun club, goth, or E! Entertainment sort of Kardashian inspired beauty. It all exists in the world at the same time, and amazingly enough, you see the influence all over the place, so it’s very high/low. And, people shop high/low. People shop at Duane Reade, the supermarket, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sephora, and Macy’s. People shop all over the place.
Beauty in general tends to be promiscuous. People like experimenting and trying a lot of things. When it comes to makeup, fragrances, or styling products, people like to play.