Monday, December 8, 2008

Marketing Yourself Online with Integrity: Lessons from Madame Helena Rubinstein, a Cosmetic Industry Giant

The beauty about online businesses is that you can work in your bedroom slippers, on a Tahiti beach, or at the local coffee shop and your customers will never know.

The anonymity of the internet is very attractive to those who operate a business or product but are a bit shy. We let the internet do the talking for us. There is; however, a danger in taking full advantage of the anonymity of the internet and that is losing your integrity.

When I write an article and post it online, does that substantiate a claim that I am an international author? Many people would say yes but I disagree. Let's say I am enjoying a party at my best friend's house. She introduces me to a book agent as an international best selling author because my best friend has seen my email signature that says "Allison Frederick, International Author" (this a self-proclaimed title I included in my email based on the fact that I write online).

The book agent is intrigued, wondering why she hasn't heard of me before. She asks me about my writing. I fumble with words to try and back track from the impression my best friend gave her. I tell her I write online but then I stop. How do I compensate for the false impression she has? Do you think she would trust anything I say afterwards? I doubt it. I expect my credibility with her is ruined, all because of my own false advertising. (This is a fictitious example as I am not yet a best selling international author but I would love to be.)

Another approach people use on the internet is to make their company look significantly bigger than it is. They’ll use words like, "We here at X International, Ltd." If your online business is comprised of you and your cat, does that warrant the use of "we" in your advertising? "We here at the Rockford Corporation meet our clients' needs before they even know they have them."

Such advertising language may be impressive to a potential customer at first and many online consumers do feel better about working with a larger organization than thinking they are doing business with someone in their pajamas, but it can lead to awkward conversations like the one listed above and can lead to mistrust which will ultimate destroy your reputation and your brand. How will a potential customer feel when they phone the customer service department and you are the one who answers, then they ask to speak with a supervisor, who consequently also happens to be you? Will they feel misled if they discover you are also the product fulfillment manager, bookkeeper, and chairman? People do understand that some companies have a single employee but they want to understand that upfront, not lied to through web site marketing.

Helena Rubinstein – a marketing genius who misled the public

I am reminded of the phrase "truth in adverting" as I study the business acumen of one of the first cosmetic industry giants, Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965).

Helena Rubinstein's company, eventually bought out by L'Oreal, was a pioneer in the beauty industry in the early 19th century. She was a direct and fierce competitor of Elizabeth Arden. In my opinion, Helena took the liberty of advertising embellishment beyond a place of integrity.

Born in Poland in the 1870's, Helena immigrated to Australia in her twenties. Eventually she established a beauty shop and sold cosmetic creams. Her own translucent skin proved to her customers that she was a product of her product (being a product of your product is another way to sell with integrity and build trust and loyalty to your brand). After looking at pictures of her, I can see why customers were attracted to her. Her skin looks gorgeous and definitely something to emulate.

Helena it seems loved a good story. She made her product in her own shop in Melbourne using ingredients native to Australia but she claimed she was an importer and the cream was from Europe. Her original recipes may have originated in Europe but it wasn’t manufactured there as she advertised to the public.

Naturally her products were protected by trade secrets but she misled the consumer by stating the ingredients came from the Carpathian Mountains outside of Krakow, Poland. (This claim reminds me of the currently faddish health drinks made from ingredients from the Amazon rain forest.) She correctly assumed that the public would be more impressed with a cream from Europe than from Australia.

I believe Madame's (as she was called) customers were attracted to the "European" element because they lived in Australia, and we humans seem to find a "foreign" idea or product alluring. Products from elsewhere may contain "magic" and probably work better than the domestic products we've already tried and found to be wanting. Most of us are skeptical about advertising claims but we must still believe some of them because they still motivate us to buy.

It is so easy to make grand advertising claims and distribute them with a click of our mouse, but it is also much easier for others to investigate and to discover the truth behind these claims. Even more dangerous to the advertiser is the fact that consumers now feel empowered to spread their findings or beliefs about the falseness of a marketing message or an empty promise to other savy consusmers online. They will not hesitate to share their findings with others on a blog, chat room, in a discussion group, and even some highly motivated people may run a pay-per-click ad campaign saying "The truth about Guru X."

Can your business afford such negative campaigning? If the public discovered the truth behind your claims, would it ruin your brand? Operating your business from a place of integrity may mean you use fewer "sensational ads" making exaggerated claims but it may mean you develop more profitable relationships with customers who become loyal to your brand.

Madame Helena Rubinstein was an incredibly intelligent, successful, and wealthy entrepreneur – despite her marketing exaggerations. She had the ability to anticipate and capitalize on many trends as the cosmetic industry grew. She was a master of publicity. She befriended journalists and editors and she hounded her public relations department to make sure they kept her company in the headlines. She also implemented many marketing devices still used today, including the concept of "dry, normal, and oily skin." Designating skin into three different categories originated as a marketing ploy to open up markets for three separate lines of skin products.

As I read about Helena Rubinstein in the interesting book entitle "War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry" (2003) by Lindy Woodhead, I am fascinated not only by Helena's business ventures, but also the story of her successful rival, self-made business woman, Elizabeth Arden. The author, Woodhead, highlights business decisions each woman made and the impact it had on their empires. She also provides an interesting backdrop of what society was like at the time.

There are many grey areas in advertising. Whenever I have doubt about what I should say, I just image how I would feel and what I would say to a customer if they "called me out" on my claims. If I am confident that I am accurately representing something, then I feel free to use colorful, exciting language. What barometer will you use for your marketing? How will you chose to promote your brand and still maintain integrity?

The Helena Rubinstein Foundation:
"The Helena Rubinstein Foundation supports programs in education, community services, arts/arts in education, and health, with a special interest in programs that benefit women and children and assist disadvantaged communities."*


Allison Frederick believes that Role Modeling is one of the most effective ways to launch a program, improve a product, and personally achieve a higher level of success and goals. www.AllisonFrederick.com


*http://www.helenarubinsteinfdn.org/guide.html

1 comment:

Christina said...

Hi, saw your site on SuperBlog, and I like the idea of learning from/about famous women in history. I'd read about Jessie Fremont in "High-Spirited Women of the West", and I saw you mentioned her name...what I want to comment on is, your point about maintaining our online integrity. I try to be especially impeccable w/my words, on my site. Though not a business site, still, I need to guard against false impressions,of myself and/or my subjects. There is a temptation to create lofty images! Being grounded in truth is paramount, though.

I will be back to read more.