Joy Parks

Posts Tagged ‘retail’

The (Beauty) Content Queens

In Beauty, business development, content, content strategy, Cosmetic queens, great writing, Helena Rubinstein, retail, What works on February 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm

The first business book I read—without knowing it was a business book—was Madame: Intimate Biography of Helena Rubinstein by Patrick O’Higgins (1971). It appeared in my small town public library when I was about 11 or 12. Better than any romance novel, I loved this rags to riches story of how Chaja (later Helena) Rubinstein, a Polish medical student and the eldest of eight children, was shipped off to the loneliness and drying winds of her relatives’ homestead in Australia, and built an empire on a “scientific” cream made of sheep’s grease scented with lavender and water lily. Not just a business empire—between opening spas and launching products and getting very rich, Helena hob-knobbed with the art and literary set of Paris between the wars and lived the kind of life odd but ambitious and vengeful young girls like I could only dream of.

Since that time, there’s been a special place in my heart for the queens of the beauty biz, no matter how many warts are revealed in their biographies. I’ve read Jane Trahey on women and power: Who’s got it? How to get it? many times—Jane was an advertising legend who made it big back in the day when most women didn’t—but I most loved her descriptions of dealing with her client, the bitchy-beyond-compare Elizabeth Arden, particularly her account of the day Arden opened a window and dumped an entire season of cosmetic ads down on 5th Avenue.

Then there are the more contemporary beauty queen stories that recognize that they are also business content, like Lessons of a Lipstick Queen: Finding and Developing the Great Idea That Can Change Your Life. Poppy King, also hailing from Australia (it must be the weather) made it her life’s mission to create the perfect lipstick, which adoring fans, including me, will agree she accomplished with her Lipstick Queen line (Try the Medieval Red, it’s as perfect as lipstick gets.) The book outlines her vision, her girlish zest for playing with colors and instructs on how to get perfect looking lips, but it deals with the challenges of financing, product testing, manufacturing and distribution in one of the world’s ugliest and toughest businesses.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who can’t get enough of the beauty queens. Just last week, Ruth Brandon’s <em>Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good was released and widely reviewed in lofty venues like the <em>New York Times</em>. I could hear the serious literary types bemoaning all those column inches being wasted on stories of grown women who got away with adolescent temper tantrums simply because they made a good buck hawking lip liner and eye shadow.

So what do the beauty queens have to do with branded content? Plenty! In addition to the fact that most of these women were bona fide marketing geniuses, the entire beauty industry is pretty much all about content: the valuable how-tos, the lavish descriptions of product ingredients and their poetic origins, the hopeful mythology surrounding product lines that leads us to lay down large amounts of money in the belief that this dab of cream or that bit of color will make us younger, smoother, happier and more desirable. That is all the work of content—and darn good, incredibly effective content at that. Even though I understand the mechanics, even though I know I’m being played, I can still be seduced by the bad girl graphics and truly brilliant product names of Benefit, the brainy girl, civil engineer-turned-cosmetic maker story of Hana Zalzal’s Cargo brand and the self-righteous green chic of Aveda’s ingredient lists.

But also at work here is a second level of story, the very personal tales of the beauty queens behind the brands. The women who gave birth to the beauty industry were a rare breed and what has practically immortalized them is not so much their products or their brand or their logo (although every time I see a red door, I do think “Elizabeth Arden”) – it was the careful telling of their life stories, their business achievements, their marriages, their riches and their place on the social registry, stories that allow their female customers to bask in the attendant glow and feel they too, can get exactly what they want in life, if only they followed the instructions on the back that beautiful sea foam green and gold foil package. The beauty queens understood brand and the value of branded content; they enlisted the power of storytelling long, long before it became a common part of the marketing vernacular. Since an appetite for their stories remains to this day, clearly there’s still more to be learned from them. Apparently it’s true that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

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Evil Corporate Communications

In content, great writing, retail, What works on May 6, 2010 at 7:29 pm

In his article for Inc. magazine, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful,” Jason Fried has stirred the hearts of hardworking, passionate and professional copywriters, content providers, corporate scribes, et al, everywhere. He’s figured out why most business writing is terrible. For anyone who has ever tried to write clearly, effectively and creatively for a corporation, the source of the problem hardly comes as a surprise.

“Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler — “stuff” that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you’ll agree.”

You can almost hear the sound of a thousand writers sighing. Validation is a wonderful thing.

Fortunately, he also notes there are some companies that are communicating brilliantly and originally, but you’ll have to read the article to find out which ones.

One of my personal favorites? Trader Joe’s — informative, witty retail writing that treats customers like smart grown-ups. No wonder the small gourmet food chain has a cult-like following.

Branded Content: The New Old Thing

In content, What works on May 1, 2010 at 9:06 am

In 1921, the Washburn Crosby Company, which would later become part of General Mills, offered women a chance to win a flour bag-shaped pincushion for correctly completing a word puzzle available in their bags of flour. Along with the contest responses came a tidal wave of questions about food, cooking and entertaining. The time was right—the American middle class no longer had servants to depend on and the lady of the house needed to strap on an apron and get busy. From these questions, the marketing persona of Betty Crocker was born. Created by home economist and business woman Marjorie Child Husted, with a surname in honor of a recently retired Washburn Crosby director and a first name chosen for its happy, all-American sound, Betty Crocker became the American homemaker’s new best friend, dispensing advice through newspaper columns, a long running radio show and eventually television. The persona was brought to life in 1949, by Adelaide Hawley Cummings, an actress who hosted the General Foods branded entertainment ventures and did walk-on commercials on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. At one point, she was believed to be the most recognizable woman in America, bested only by Eleanor Roosevelt. The campaign branched out into cookbooks and other products, many of which are still available today. The visual of Betty Crocker changed eight times between 1936 and 1986, reflecting changes in how American women viewed themselves and the most recent version continues to peer at us from ads, product packaging and an aesthetically pleasing and information-packed http://www.bettycrocker.com/.

The creation of Betty Crocker also inspired other early companies to recognize the value of what we now call branded content; what they viewed as a means of reaching and connecting with customers, and providing information of value to develop loyalty. In the 1920s, women’s editorial departments sprung up in early ad agencies to give credible voices to personas like Libby’s Mary Hale Martin and Odorono’s Ruth Miller. The Lux Soap Company had two spokes-characters; Marjorie Mills for soap flakes and the chatty Dorothy Dix for toilet soap. The advice, humor and information provided by these characters and others laid a strong foundation for the value of branded content that we are only now rediscovering.

General Foods build an empire on branded content nearly 90 years ago. Just imagine what you can do with it now.

How I lost a client

In retail on February 13, 2010 at 8:42 pm

About ten years ago, I was working with a boutique creative agency on an account for a retail client that specialized in household linens. At the time, their marketing program consisted of signage outside the store, an occasional sales flyer and a very creative ad (created by the client’s previous agency) that had pulled well in the beginning but had become less effective over time.  The chain couldn’t compete with discount or department stores on price, but it had built a good business built on selection and quality, and had plans to expand.

The client made it clear from the initial meeting that they were not interested in the web—back then, it was too new for them to see the value. In addition to a few more traditional vehicles like print ads and radio spots, I suggested a quarterly newsletter that could be slipped into shopping bags and displayed at the cash in each store. I positioned it as a way for the chain to stand out as a specialist and build loyalty. The initial issue, I explained, could contain features on bedroom decorating trends, a guide to thread count, tips on how to get a better night’s sleep and perhaps even a recipe for a warm milk and honey concoction that would knock out the worst insomniac.

Not only did the client not buy the idea, they called the agency a few days later to fire us. They felt we were too interested in spending their money on communications that would only “talk” to customers, not sell them something.

I drove past one of the stores recently and noticed that the same old price-screaming signs are in the window. And while they now have a website—and what they call a newsletter—it’s basically an online sales flyer, with shots of products and prices in big type.  It’s all about what they want to sell, not what their customers might need to know. They may have come online, but their thinking about their content hasn’t expanded at all.  And not surprisingly, neither has their business.