My first professional job after finishing college and Marine Corps service was with a small cosmetic company in the early 1970’s. The beauty industry at that time was in the golden age of its creativity, growth and competitive balance. There were numerous firms able to exist and flourish by specializing in servicing a highly diversified retail universe with product lines that targeted narrow, specific demographic categories. Alexandra de Markoff, Imperial Formula, Andrea, Frances Denney, Germaine Monteil and many others were prominent brands of that time that no longer exist. What happened to them and what lesson can modern marketers of consumer products learn from their demise?

I was fortunate as a young salesman just starting my career to have seasoned, grizzled mentors to guide me along the way. I learned by watching and listening to them as they presented product, handled accounts and after work as they told old beauty industry war stories. These lessons were invaluable then and still serve me well today.

A great teacher, and particularly important influence on me, was an older executive named Ray Stotter. Ray had been a drug chain buyer in Philadelphia for the old Sun Drug Company. He had worked for many years with, and then for, Revlon’s founder Charles Revson. His stories about the legendary taskmaster were colorful, profane and hilarious. At the core of each, however, was a germ of truth that could be tucked away in the memory vault for later use.

Revlon is not the behemoth beauty industry force that the Company was while Charles Revson was alive. However, the brand is still a significant presence in the mass market cosmetic sales channel. It has endured a series of financial manipulations, failed managers, loss of Charles Revson’s entrepreneurial instinct and dull product launches and promotions. Yet, Revlon perseveres and trudges on while so many others have failed and disappeared.

Ray Stotter once told me a story about the infant years of Revlon’s growth. During the 1930’s and 1940’s the dominant color cosmetic company was a Chinese brand, Chen Yu. Chen Yu had the distribution, shelf space, counter locations and color assortment that Revlon lusted for. Every correspondence, call and meeting that originated from the Revlon office to the field staff contained some reference to Chen Yu. What was Chen Yu promoting? Were new products in stores? How many colors of their nail polish were on counters? What did store clerks have to say about Chen Yu sales?

By the time I started working in the cosmetic industry in 1970, Chen Yu was on its last legs. What happened to the brand? Why was its decline so precipitous? How had Revlon leapfrogged the formerly dominant Chen Yu line?

As Ray Stotter told the story of Revlon’s rise and Chen Yu’s decline he invoked one of the first marketing axiom’s I had ever heard, “You’re never the greatest, only the latest”. Chen Yu enjoyed its greatest success during the depression and in the years up to and through World War II. The Company had kept prices low, packaging sparse (in keeping with the thrift of the times) and display primitive. After the war, as the country aspired to fresher, more luxuriant consumer product offerings, Chen Yu had continued to treat their products as commodities. The brand continued to offer functional, value oriented, but not cutting edge, fashion forward product that inspired female consumers. After years of sacrifice women felt a little glamour was in order.

Charles Revson instinctively recognized this. As Chen Yu stagnated, Revlon pounced. Revlon colors became more vibrant and were seasonally culled and replaced with fresh looks. Product names became more romantic. Displays were much more colorful, sensual, and exotic. Promotional activity was constant, aggressive and highly coordinated to then current fashion trends. Importantly, Revlon created comprehensive beauty campaigns where lip, face, eye and nail colors were sold as fashion sets. Fire and Ice, and Lips and Tips were famous examples of these campaigns. Revlon introduced a prestige, upscale line, Ultima II, for the carriage trade customer. Norell and Bill Blass extended the Companies reach into better stores.

As Revlon grew exponentially, Chen Yu did not respond aggressively. The franchise that Chen Yu had painstakingly built rather quickly began to weaken and decline. Chen Yu is a classic example of a Company that fell from being among the greatest to just the latest, an also ran. Successful brands are constantly updating, refreshing and responding to current market conditions to avoid this fate.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (www.duquesamarketing.com) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.