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From Social to Mockumentary: The Marketing Journey of Benefit Cosmetics

  |  June 7, 2012   |  Comments   |  

In Shanghai to attend the premiere of my client's new film, I quizzed the company about its social media strategy.

There are brands that might tell you how much "fun" they have in their brand DNA. But not many of them can really walk the talk. Just spend 30 minutes with their managers and you will know what I mean.

I'm lucky to have a genuinely "fun" client, Benefit Cosmetics for the last two years. Since the day I met the company's senior executives at the pitch meeting, I've never walked away from their meetings without crazy laughter.

Judging from Benefit's witty but cute package designs and naming of the products, you can tell how "fun" the brand is trying to position its makeup. Dr.Feelgood, Hello Flawless, They Are Real!, and Stay Don't Stray are the names of some of its best selling products, which are self-explanatory for their unique magical beauty outcomes.

I'm definitely not Benefit's target customer but have done enough research about the brand.

Benefit Cosmetics was founded by identical twin sisters Jean and Jane Ford. Two girls that grew up on a farm in Indiana and then began their adventure as models in New York City. One day in 1976, literally out of the blue, they decided to open their own beauty boutique. They picked San Francisco because they liked the atmosphere of freedom, hippies, and craziness.

Their shop was decorated like a candy store and specialized in cosmetic quick fixes for ladies from all walks of life, including exotic dancers. Word of mouth spread really fast in the neighborhood and the rest was history.

Today, Benefit Cosmetics is one of the fastest growing cosmetic brands selling at over 3,000 counters in 35 countries under the LVMH Group.

The glamorous journey of Jean and Jane and the ideation process of their iconic products (with their crazy names) can easily be filled with many interesting stories. It's no surprise they have been approached to produce a reality show on the national channel. As individualistic as they are, Jane and Jean turned down the offer and decided to produce something by themselves.

They appointed DDB/Tribal in San Francisco to help them realize their dream. Jean and Jane's idea is an autobiography in the form of a variety show and, of course, in the Benefit's "fun" way.

The short film is titled "Glamouriety." Besides the story of how the twins built their beauty empire, it also tells stories about an erotic dancer who wants to "enhance" her nipples while dancing, a double-life farmer who is a cosmetic lover and drag queen at work, a glam gospel show that advocates how cosmetics can transform one's life, and a soap opera trailer about a doctor named FeelGood who can perform medical miracles to beautify one's life. Jean and Jane are also featured in this variety show as hosts and performed the title song.

Before the official launch, Jean and Jane have been traveling around the globe to appear at the premieres of the film. I was fortunate to be invited to attend the one held in Shanghai's Peninsula Hotel. I also sat down to have a chat with Jean and Jane to talk about their stories.

Recently, a study from NYU Stern School of Business ranked Benefit Cosmetics as one of The Top 10 Luxury Brands with the Highest Facebook IQ. For the Hong Kong market, we have been focusing on producing campaigns to engage with customers primarily through Facebook too. So far, we have already produced a handful of viral videos, interactive games, a customizable birthday card, and comic strips for the brand. All these creative are mostly Facebook exclusive while seamlessly integrated with the brand's PR activities. In a nutshell, the brand is highly engaged with customers through social media.

As social media is one of the brand's primary platforms for marketing (sorry Madison Avenue...they have zero budget in traditional media buy), I asked Jane and Jean's point of view about such growing trends.

"The growth of social media is doing amazing things to help us spread and receive the news faster. But our fundamental belief in business still hasn't changed. Our ultimate goal is to make our customers happy and that's it. Benefit's success began with word of mouth. Now the word of mouth just spreads faster and without borders. We have an amazing digital marketing team helping us but nevertheless, nothing can replace engaging our customers in person. Our brand has to be consistent in the digital world and real world."

As Benefit deeply embraces its DNA as a "fun" brand, however, the language of humor is always considered a local culture and hard to translate. I wonder if Benefit has faced any challenges when bringing in its Californian type of craziness and quirkiness to Asia.

"As a relatively newcomer in Asia (average 5 years old in most markets), Benefit is one of the most popular makeup brands in China (Top 4), Hong Kong (Top 8), and Korea (Top 5). So we believe the desire for happiness is universal. We only care if our products can deliver results to customers that make them smile. As we always say, laughter is the best cosmetics. We truly believe in this."

The staff at Benefit have their own unique and "fun" way of interacting with customers. In fact, when our agency started helping Benefit to build its Facebook page in Hong Kong, the first challenge was how we could define the tone of voice of the brand in local language. In addition, when it comes to Facebook, a brand should talk "with" consumers and be as personalized as possible.

Just taking references from its promotion material is not good enough. Therefore I went to a couple of Benefit counters with my wife as mystery shoppers to observe the way Benefit's staff interacts with customers. We want to make the conversations on Facebook sound less like a marketer or PR person. The dialog should sound as consistent as Benefit's staff who interacts with customers in person.

The short film "Glamouriety" is packed with numerous funny stories, not only about the legend of the brand but also their customers. I couldn't stop to switch back to my ad agency mode and pitch ideas to extend the show.

"We still have literally over hundreds of stories about our products and customers in our pockets. The stories you have seen in Glamouriety are only the tip of the iceberg. We might be crazy enough to produce a real Glam Gospel show every Sunday morning. You just never know."

Throughout our meetup, I found that either Jean or Jane would just start the conversation and then the other one would finish it. You can easily understand why this creative partnership can last for over 30 years. Most importantly, you can tell from their crazy laughter that they are having so much "fun" working together.


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Rudi Leung

Rudi Leung is general manager, director of digital and social at Tribal DDB/ DDB Group Hong Kong and Guangzhou. He was formerly director of communication planning at AGENDA, an interactive agency network under the WPP/Wunderman group in Asia. He is also an exco member of Hong Kong Association of Interactive Marketing. Rudi previously held roles as VP of Carat Media Services, creative ambassador of Yahoo HK Media Services, and creative director of TBWA\Tequila\HK. In addition to his extensive experience as a creative director and copywriter in numerous leading 4As ad agencies including Ogilvy & Mather, Leo Burnett, and Bates, he has gained wide exposure in advertising for numerous MNC and local advertisers in the last 18 years. Besides advertising, Rudi is a part-time lecturer of HKU Space since 2007. In his leisure, Rudi is an active blogger and columnist of ClickZ, e-Zone, HK Economic Journal, and MetroPop Weekly. He holds an MBA from Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from UC Berkeley Extension, and Bachelor of Arts in Music from Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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