Estee Lauder Leaves the World More Beautiful Than She Found It

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NEW YORK ( -- Beauty marketing innovator Estee Lauder, the pioneer of cosmetics sampling and gifts-with-purchase, died April 24 at her Manhattan home. She was 97.
Photo: AP
Estee Lauder photographed in 1988 outside her Fifth Avenue store.

Ms. Lauder, born in Queens, New York, started the now $5 billion global cosmetics company that bears her name making skin lotions on her kitchen stove that she applied to women's hands while they sat under the dryer at a New York City hair salon.

'Power of touch'
"She believed in the power of touch, that massaging cream into a woman's hand made women feel they were being paid attention to and therefore had an obligation to buy a product," said Linda Wells, editor in chief of Conde Nast Publications' Allure magazine.

Ms. Lauder's sampling of her products was not only a prescient marketing idea, which has since become a staple of successful cosmetics marketing, but also an early sign of her notorious forwardness. Adamant that it was in the realm of possibility for every woman to be beautiful if they worked hard at it (which included using the right products, of course), Ms. Lauder had no compunctions about applying her cosmetics to those she believed were in need of them.

"'You need a little glow,'" Ms. Wells recalls Ms. Lauder saying as she put a little rouge on her cheeks at a press event for Estee Lauder Cos. "She would become very annoyed by people who didn't try hard enough and she would never pass up an opportunity to promote a product."

Pioneering men's products
Even men were not to get by without her solicitous beauty advice. Having pioneered the men's cosmetics category with the launch of Aramis in 1967, Ms. Lauder was once shown giving a bottle of the cologne to New York's Cardinal Cooke.

Traveling the world to sell her products, which over the years grew to include not only skin care but makeup, fragrance and hair-care products under the Estee Lauder, Clinique and Aramis brands, among others, Ms. Lauder refused to take no for an answer. When Galeries Lafayette in Paris declined to carry the company's Youth Dew fragrance in the 1950s, Ms. Lauder is said to have dropped a bottle on the floor so the smell would permeate and prompt requests by customers, which it did. The perfume, now coming up on its 50th anniversary, helped jettison the company into a major marketer.

The perseverant Ms. Lauder constantly coached her sales force to follow her lead, advising one-to-one marketing tactics with the catchphrase "Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman," and throughout her career advocated passionately for free gifts at cosmetic counters and fashion shows.

Department store exclusivity
In addition to the sampling and gifts-with-purchase tactics she pioneered, Ms. Lauder also was the first to develop the department-store exclusivity that is the hallmark of prestige brands today. It was out of necessity that Ms. Lauder created the limited distribution channel for the original Estee Lauder line as she could not afford to distribute to drugstores as well.

Although she effectively handed over the business side of the beauty behemoth she founded with her husband, Joseph Lauder, to her son Leonard in the mid '70s, the elegant Ms. Lauder remained the face of the company until her retirement in 1995. She appeared always dressed to the nines in matching dress, shoes and a signature pillbox hat, commanding a certain royal presence, befitting for someone who hobnobbed with England's royal family.

"[Estee Lauder] made an extraordinary contribution to women all over the world as an entrepreneur and leadership icon, breaking new ground everywhere, whether in product development or by having the courage to go to Russia," said Rochelle Udell, executive vice president and chief creative officer at cosmetic competitor Revlon.

Ms. Lauder is survived by her sons, Leonard Lauder, now chairman of Estee Lauder Cos., and Ronald Lauder, currently chairman of Clinique Laboratories, in addition to her grandchildren Aerin, Gary, Jane and William, currently chief operating officer of Estee Lauder Cos., who will take over as CEO July 1. She also had six great-grandchildren.

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