Marketing Secrets from the Beauty Mavens

Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were the mavens of the beauty industry in the first half of the 20th century. Photo from the Denishawn Collection, New York Public Library.

Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were the mavens of the beauty industry in the first half of the 20th century. Photo from the Denishawn Collection, New York Public Library.

I watched a fascinating PBS-produced documentary last night about the rise of the beauty industry and women’s entrepreneurship at the turn of the (last) century: the hysterically titled The Powder and the Glory. What can we learn from the likes of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein? Here are my favorite marketing take-aways:

  •  Never move down-market; never cut prices. During the height of the Great Depression, Arden kept her prices high and thrived as an “affordable luxury.” Rubinstein, who had sold her business, watched her hapless successors cut prices and destroy the company (giving her an opportunity to buy it back cheap!).
  • Own your niche. Elizabeth Arden (originally the rather prosaic “Florence Graham”) reinvented herself with a WASPy persona embodying upscale country living (the Martha Stewart of her day). Rubinstein – whose options were more limited given the anti-Semitism of the day – chose (very boldly for the time) to keep her name and played to her strengths, positioning her products for modern, edgy, urban women. Find your niche in the marketplace – whatever your competitors aren’t exploiting, or can’t – and make it your own.
  • Adapt or die. Arden and Rubinstein (whose companies were both subsequently sold) suffered from the same malady: the impression they were immortal. Neither developed a succession plan, crippling their companies’ long-term prospects, and neither embraced television or modern, mid-century marketing methods. Coming into the ’60s, their brands were firmly regarded as “your mother’s makeup” by the restive Baby Boomers. You can never afford to stagnate or assume that tactics (marketing or otherwise) that worked in the past will continue to do so.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.