Two Centuries Later, Kiehl’s Maintains Simple Retail Formula Even Under L’Oreal’s Roof

Written by: Nichakorn Prateepsawangwong on January 18, 2018

The Background

Back in 1851, a small apothecary was established in the neighborhood of East Village, New York by John Kiehl. Breaking away from typical drug stores that offered common compounds and nostrums prepared onsite, John chose to open a store that focused on essentials oils, homeopathic and herbal remedies to achieve his objective — keeping the local community happy, healthy, and feeling their best.

The apothecary remained in the family for 70 years until it was purchased by Kiehl’s apprentice, Irving Morse, in 1921 before his son, Aaron Morse, took over in 1950 and added grooming products for men and women to the brand’s product line.

Aaron was also the one who introduced free samples to customers and is still practiced at today’s global cosmetics powerhouse Kiehl’s.

More than 12 million Kiehl’s sample packets and tubes are given away each year.

Fast-forward to 2000, Aaron’s daughter Jami Morse Heidegger decided to sell the business she inherited to L’Oreal for approximately $100 million. The brand had become immensely popular among fashion enthusiasts and skin-care connoisseurs worldwide and impossible for her to continue managing.

“It was like a snowball rolling downhill and just getting bigger and bigger. I created something I couldn’t control” – Jami Morse Heidegger

Jami Morse Heidegger, third-generation Kiehl’s heiress and her husband, Klaus Heidegger
Source: Retrouve

After being acquired by one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world, Kiehl’s expanded to 2,000 locations in 61 countries and was well on its way to the top of the beauty industry. What could go wrong?

The Challenge

Jami always feared her business would become a brand fighting for money, attention and space.

The thought of selling her business to L’Oreal didn’t appeal to her at first because L’Oreal had a reputation in building mass brands like Maybelline and had never managed a niche, boutique brand before.

But after it grew to a size she could no longer handle, she had no choice but to hand the brand over to a corporate looking to compete in the burgeoning specialty market.

Kiehl’s was afraid that under the management of L’Oreal, consumers would no longer view the store as independent and cutting-edge but rather as a revenue-generating corporate machine.

“[The challenge is] to grow and export the Kiehl’s way without changing it. We soon realized that we needed to stick as closely as possible to our business model on a global basis, to create a consistent Kiehl’s experience around the world,” said Kiehl’s General Manager Worldwide, Cheryl Vitali.

How were they going to keep a tight leash on L’Oreal?

Inside Kiehl’s apothecary during its early days. Source: Yahoo

The Strategy

The company didn’t want a flashy marketing budget or fancy model to be representing its brand.

“We want to keep the line [Kiehl’s] very exclusive,” said L’Oreal USA’s former chief executive, Guy Peyrelongue.

In order to appease the wishes of the Kiehl’s family, L’Oreal maintained the brand’s identity and its distribution model while ensuring its stores around the world matched the look and feel of the original apothecary in East Village.

Kiehl’s was on a mission to set strict brand boundaries for consistency and product control. And it worked.

Any one that has ever stepped into a Kiehl’s apothecary will recognize the iconic skeleton, Mr Bones, next to the famous Harley Davidson motorcycle.

“The motorcycles entertained the guys while the ladies shopped — and it was also a very clever way to introduce Kiehl’s men’s products to them,” – Chris Salgardo, president of Kiehl’s USA

Kiehl’s shops around the world look almost identical thanks to the brand’s strict guidelines. Source: Marie Claire

The brand also spends heavily on the development of products and ingredients, almost 3 to 5 times more than competitors. Its contribution to multiple charitable efforts also proved to be a successful way to hook customers to not only buy for themselves, but also feel proud to gift Kiehl’s products.

In Thailand, Kiehl’s introduced the country’s first ambassador and offered free samples together with a 5-minute consultation. Source: mThai

The company’s success in the US made global expansion a next natural step. In line with L’Oreal’s focus on digital marketing and ecommerce to capitalise growing consumption, Kiehl’s went online.

“It [online] enables us to get to know our customers better and interact more effectively with them, while remaining true to the brand’s rebellious and offbeat style” – Cheryl Vitali

By 2013, Asia had topped global sales of natural personal care products. The popularity of natural products was driven by major economic changes and rise in disposable incomes, especially among the Chinese, who had become more health-conscious.

The chart shows the sales of natural personal care products by region in 2013; Asia is the leader in sales. Source: Kiline Group

Southeast Asia also displayed the highest-growing demand for beauty and personal care causing Kiehl’s to invest heavily in performance marketing and its website with the help of ecommerce enabler and e-distributor aCommerce.

Beauty and personal care is expected to grow the most in Asia Pacific from 2016-2021. Source: Euromonitor

A fear many brand managers face is consistency across channels. How do I ensure the brand is rightfully represented at all customer touchpoints?

In the case of Kiehl’s, the company successfully projected its edgy and young vibes through bright colors and flashy images on its website in Thailand and Indonesia.

Kiehl’s website was localised for Indonesian customers.

The brand preserves its mission to make each and everyone of its customers feel good by utilizing technology. Kiehl’s recently implemented artificial intelligence and a text messaging model in its stores and online to keep customers engaged and taken care of.

“We’ve learned the first purchase happens in store, and online we’ve created tools to extend services to make a cycle,” Julia Mavrodin, Kiehl’s associate vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing said.

Through historical data collected from online orders, Kiehl’s can accurately estimate when a customer will run out of an eye cream or facial cleanser and send a text message to prompt the customer to order a new one.

A sample text message that Kiehl’s sets to keep their customers replenished with its goods. Source: Digiday

By introducing a direct channel to converse with customers, the brand is able to track where and when customers buy its products, even at partner retailers like Sephora or Nordstrom.

This allows the brand to stay top of mind and shield customers from buying unauthorized products off of e-marketplace like Amazon at the same time.

To this day, Kiehl’s has remained one of L’Oreal’s fastest growing brands and broke the symbolic $1 billion sales mark in 2016.

The Future

Kiehl’s is looking to capitalise on its brand power in new markets like the Middle East and Latin America to ultimately spread the brand’s legacy and become the number one skincare brand in the world.

“To get there we will need to pay even closer attention to our customers. After all, that has been the secret of our success for the last 160 years.”

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