How Estée Lauder is rethinking consumer engagement to drive innovation

Estée Lauder’s first customer engagement and retail boss explains why the new role was necessary and how a focus on consumer insight is boosting innovation and the consumer experience both online and offline.

Estée Lauder Companies UK started with just four brands in 1946, it now employs 46,000 employees and has more than 25 prestige brands under its umbrella. But Lesley Crowther, the UK  company’s first vice president of consumer engagement and retail, says that despite the diverse portfolio Estée Lauder feels like “one family.”

She explains: “As a family-run company, the warmth and the heart that has existed since our inception still remains at our core. Certainly, within the 15 years I’ve been here, there is a positive spirit of partnership and collaboration.”

Estée Lauder might have been one family, but it is one Crowther admits didn’t talk much before; but that is now changing. The company has prioritised a more open dialogue between brands so they can “learn together”, a shift that Crowther has played a large part in.

She set up Estée Lauder’s Consumer Engagement Centre of Excellence in 2016, which centralised consumer learning and insight. Through data collection such as social listening and focus groups, the team has gathered insights into a diverse range of consumers and used the learnings to drive innovation across the company.

She explains: “It’s all about driving capability and understanding the consumer. There is a huge amount that we can learn and connect with across brand teams so we centralised a team to help better understand trends, consumer behaviour and to find out the way the consumer is evolving in the UK. We then consolidate and push out those learning to brands to drive and fuel their strategy.

“We’ve recognised that we’re stronger together. As a portfolio brand we are actually cross-pollinating everything that we know about the consumer, retail and service. We feel more like one family all working together.”

Crowther has been in her new role for just three months, and the position is new not just for her but the business as well. It aims to merge consumer engagement and retail for the first time with the aim of driving a “seamless consumer journey”. Crowther is responsible for all corporate marketing activities, including media strategy, consumer intelligence, cultural relevancy and corporate brand communications.

“The marriage between the two team really highlights that the consumer is very much at the heart of everything we do and we’re using everything we know about the consumer and everything she wants to know about the brand,” explains Crowther. “[The two roles] feel like a natural fit in terms of innovation.”

The threat of direct-to-consumer

Estée Lauder operates a typical FMCG model, and while it sells online most of its business comes through more traditional retail channels. But that model is increasingly under threat as startups focused on going direct to consumers move into the beauty market.

Is Estée Lauder concerned about the threat of new brands such as Glossier and Fenty Beauty? Crowther insists quite the opposite. 

She explains: “It’s bringing out our entrepreneurial  spirit because having these new brands on the scene just means we need to work faster and harder at finding ways to connect with the consumer.

“We also know consumers want brands with legacy and quality. Hero products, products that have stood the test of time, are important and is something that we continue to champion.”

US beauty brand Glossier is shunning what its CEO calls “stale retail” in favour of customer centricity, and has warned that many of the more traditional brands don’t truly understand their customers.

READ MORE: Why direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier is ripping up the marketing playbook

Yet Crowther, perhaps unsurprisingly, argues that retail “will always remain a very critical channel”, especially for beauty brands.

“Retail is still a huge driving force for the way that people want to engage in beauty across all age groups. The consumer wants to touch, feel and smell the product as well as get personal face-to-face advice. Even though millennials have social media and YouTube, for many of them it’s still that physical feeling of the product,” she says.

La Mer Soho pop-up
Estée Lauder ran a pop-up in Soho for beauty brand La Mer

“It’s not just about putting a product on the shelf; if it is she’s more than likely to go to our ecommerce channels for that. Instead it’s about seeing how [retail] is an additive experience.”

Crowther sees retail and online playing different roles – retail is for “escapism and me time” while online tends to be where people research, learn about products and replenish stocks. Estée Lauder offers a live chat online, and has integrated tech so that, for example, people can do virtual trials.

But Estée Lauder is also evolving the experience in-store. “It is about the way that our consultants and our beauty advisers evolve the way they connect and engage with our consumers.

“We all know the experience economy is on the rise, which is about creating fun and dynamic moments in-store that are unique and make it a destination for her to visit.”

Brand building and creating seamless customer journeys

As part of this, the company has opened pop-ups, recently kitting out a townhouse in Soho, London with a nail bar for its La Mer brand. Crowther sees pop-ups as a key part of brand building.

“It’s a great for the brand building experience, but also an avenue for customers to touch and feel the product. Being fun, shareable and playful is also very important, especially for a millennial audience because they’ve got their own social brand as well as the ones they buy.”

Different channels and platforms come and go but its about the way we communicate our brand story effectively and adapt to whatever comes next.

Lesley Crowther, Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder is a big user of influencers. And while there has been a bit of a backlash against influencer marketing, brought to the fore by Unilever’s Keith Weed who called out the practice of follower fraud and a lack of transparency, Crowther credits influencers for changing the way brands tell their stories.

“We do a lot of work with influencers and Instagram. For us it’s about authentic relationships first and foremast. Many of these influencers have been working with us since they had thousands of followers but now they have millions.”

READ MORE: Beauty influencers deliver ROI of £8.81, report finds

Crowther sees influencer marketing as a key part of the marketing mix, but says Estée Lauder is media neutral.

“Different channels and platforms come and go but its about the way we communicate our brand story effectively and adapt to whatever comes next,” she explains.

“Consumers don’t shop in channels they just shop. We need to make sure that whether it’s at 2pm on her laptop or 3pm walking into Selfridges, she is having an experience that is tailored to her and that that feels consistent. So if she sees a conversation on social media this can naturally flow in a conversation at point of sale,” she says.

This seamless experience, however, “doesn’t mean ones size fits all”.

“The reality is many of our brands have a broad consumer base so it’s about thinking who is it we’re talking to. Because communicating with a woman in her 50s will look different to communicating to a woman in her 30s, it might be still on social and digital channels but it’s executed differently.”

Bringing diversity to the beauty market

One area where new brands are appealing is in their focus on diversity, and some legacy brands have been criticised for having an overly simplistic view of beauty.

Crowther admits there are “gaps” in the business, but says Estée Lauder has always championed diversity, pointing out that it released its biggest make-up range of 52 colours last year.

“Our shade ranges when it comes to things like foundation and concealer are among the largest in the business we just haven’t necessarily shouted about it enough,” she says.

Crowther concludes: “The reality is everything now is very fluid — what the consumer needs today is not what she needs tomorrow.

“The company stands  for creativity, innovation and giving everyone that works here a voice. It was started by a woman and built for women and Estée Lauder always said, ‘be close to your consumer and you won’t go wrong’.”