Minimal hype nets max buzz at Kiehl's

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The stores feature apothecary cases filled with sepia packets of tooth powder and laxatives, staff wear lab coats and overt marketing efforts extend little beyond a generous sampling policy and a sign encouraging customers to post pictures of their babies on the store wall. Yet Kiehl's is one of the hottest brands in 21st century retail.

Kiehl's Since 1851 is set to open its 10th location in Washington later this month. But hype will be limited to charity-themed local college visits and a store-opening event, while interior design will employ the old medicine jars, beakers and skeleton dubbed Mr. Bones that evoke the heritage of the one-time family-owned pharmacy where it all began.

true to its roots

It is no surprise that Kiehl's would not stray too far from its roots despite its acquisition by modern mass marketer L'Oreal in 2000 for $100 million. After all, its double-digit annual growth (Kiehl's sales were $40 million before the acquisition) has come from a basic formula that forgoes traditional advertising and fancy packaging. Instead, Kiehl's espouses ingredient-focused bottle labels, a generous try-before-you-buy sampling philosophy, well-trained salespeople and quirky, homespun touches such as displaying antique motorcycles loved by the original family owners.

It's anti-marketing marketing has served it well. Editors from top consumer magazines gush about Kiehl's and sing its praises as one of the rare beauty brands with "integrity," which translates into coverage of its products in their pages most months. And a recent waiting list topped 1,500 names-many of them famous-for the brand's new age-defying Abysinne Cream, sold out for the fourth time since its October launch.

Philip Clough, a 19-year veteran of L'Oreal's Professional Products division who was named president of Kiehl's last July, cited customer service as the key driver of the brand's success and the element that dictates its rate of expansion going forward.

"There's a lot of buzz now around brands that `hug the customer,' but knowing your customer on a one-to-one level ... is a fundamental part of the way Kiehl's does business," he said.

Kiehl's customer representatives don lab coats reminiscent of the pharmacy's early history and go through three weeks of training and a month in the original East Village store to familiarize themselves with the more than 200 products and determine how to "diagnose" consumers. In the store, online or through its 800 number, Kiehl's aims to personalize products to the individual, encouraging customers to take home generous-sized samples and offering a money-back guarantee. The company aims to recreate the same level of customer service and sampling with its exclusive retail partners, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney's and Nordstrom's.

"What Kiehl's has is a sense of purity and honesty about them because of the plain packaging, the lack of advertising and the cult of the store," said Allure Editor in Chief Linda Wells.

Vogue Beauty Director Sarah Brown called Kiehl's "effortlessly cool," and said, "they're not trying to be the newest, shiniest, trendy thing. ... They have honest and straightforward products and family values that come directly from [former owners] Jamie and Klaus." Those attributes, she said, are what make Kiehl's |one of the only true unisex brands. (Kiehl's research shows that more than 30% of its customers are men.)

Second-generation owner Jamie Morse Heidegger and her husband, world-class skier Klaus Heidegger, are central figures in the lore of the brand. Their famously quirky Equine line was created for the horses of their daughter Nicole. Photographs in the store show Jamie and her brother Aaron with their beloved Harleys, and Klaus skiing in Antarctica.

not standing still

"Part of the temptation with brands with a long heritage and history like Kiehl's is to be a bit nostalgic, but you can't look in the rearview mirror," said Mr. Clough.

While new stores offer an homage to the New York locale with brick walls, subway tiles and the apothecary theme, they are each tailored to the local communities. For the debut of the Miami store, a star-studded opening featuring Lenny Kravitz last December, Kiehl's played up the fact that the patent for refrigeration was filed in Miami in 1851 at the same time Kiehl's was founded. It featured old refrigerators as displays and put up signs that talked about the local history.

Grassroots events also help Kiehl's stay current. Continuing the adventure theme begun by the family owners, Kiehl's last year began sponsoring the Badwater Ultra Marathon featuring signage of the race above its new Vital Sun Care line. For the relaunch of its baby line last month, Kiehl's sponsored a book tour in its stores and retail locations for pediatrician to the stars and "Happiest Baby/Happiest Toddler on the Block" author Dr. Harvey Karp.

Products, too, must evolve, especially when consumers request them. The much sought-after Abyssine Cream (which will expand into eye cream and a lotion with SPF) was developed due to demand from consumers for an anti-aging product long after its competitors had been marketing them. Luckily for Kiehl's, the key ingredient for the product is "survival molecules" found under the ocean, "exactly the kind of ingredient Kiehl's has used forever," Mr. Clough said.

What's old is new again.

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