"Personally, I don't like revolution," says Odile Roujol, the 40-year-old president of the French luxury skin-care, cosmetics and fragrance giant Lancôme International. Proper as a Paris schoolgirl in her white cotton blouse and trim black slacks, Roujol appears to be anything but a challenge to the status quo. Stylish, yes, but in an altogether understated sense, just like the oh-so-classic image of the beauty brand she oversees.
Then she gets up from behind her polished desk and shows how to give classic a little kickwith 5-in. Prada platform sandals. In purple. The look says a lot about Roujol and her vision for revitalizing the venerable brand. It's all about finding a balance between heritage and hip, poise and playfulness. She has to sell tradition that doesn't come off as dated, chic with enough cheekiness to attract young customers.
After all, Lancôme is 73 years old, born in the days when fashionable French women still wore gloves and didn't have the right to vote. Longevity is a big part of its brand equity, but it doesn't shout excitement. And in today's crowded luxury field, newer and more exclusive brands are steadily nibbling away at Lancôme's once dominant market position. Roujol was named president, responsible for overall development of the brand, in June 2006, the first woman in the position. She brings an American-style directness to the job, lightened by a streak of whimsy.
If she's not traveling for work on weekends, she is likely to be gracelessly in-line skating with her sons by day and attending the opera at night. To see for herself how women respond to Lancôme, she once spent a few hours, incognito, selling its perfumes in a Sephora store in Paris just before Mother's Day. "I tried to say something about the sunrise and the sun," she laughs, recalling her efforts to beguile shoppers with a poetic sales pitch. "I was very bad."
But she does have the knack in other situations. "I felt very at ease with her. We could giggle like schoolgirls," said the French actress Juliette Binoche, signed early this year by Roujol to represent the Rénergie anti-aging skin-care line. "At the same time, I feel that when she has to make a choice in her position, she will fight for what she believes. It's the sort of feminine-masculine in her."
Roujol is no newcomer to the company (she started in 1996 with its parent L'Oréal, as head of makeup marketing), but her shrewd marketing sense and easy manner propelled her swiftly to the executive suite. In her case, that's an airy gray-and-white office decorated with a mix of high-end designer furniture and located in Lancôme global headquarters in Levallois, a suburb on the northwest edge of Paris. "My mission," she says, "was to come back to what makes the brand contemporary, to anchor it in its own time."
Lancôme has to constantly reinvent itself with "small steps," according to Roujol's back-to-the-future approach. "Revolution is not appropriate for the top big brands that are universally distributed," she says. "I think people are lost if you totally, suddenly make changes."
Still, too much caution can be a straitjacket in the highly competitive beauty business. Women face a constant barrage of new treatments, scents, palettes and promises. To stand out from the crowd, novelty is an imperative. And Lancôme has long been viewed as slow off the mark. "Sleeping beauty," in the words of Marc Benhamou, a former vice president at L'Oréal's archrival, Estée Lauder, and now senior vice president of creative for L'Oréal USA Luxury Products. "But in the last few years it's been coming back." Many industry analysts are not so sure. "Luxury has less and less exclusivity, so you need to constantly innovate in marketing, packaging and products," says Martine Ringwald, vice president for beauty, Europe, at the market-research company NPD Group. "Lancôme is recognized for brands that are 15 or 20 years old, like Trésor," she adds, referring to the company's signature fragrance, introduced in 1990. "It's a story that's already written. It needs a revival."
Roujol rebuffs suggestions that the company's metabolism needed a boost when she took over. But she clearly wants Lancôme to make a bolder statement.
The sumptuous 18th century Rodin Museum in Paris, a favorite venue for haute couture fashion shows, was used for last year's splashy introduction of Kate Winslet as the new spokeswoman for Trésor. Similarly, the press launch for the new Magnifique perfume, on sale worldwide this month, took place under the soaring Art Nouveau canopy of the Grand Palais. A band performed a funk version of Cole Porter's C'est Magnifique. Magnum-size bottles of the perfume were carried down twin staircases by 72 male models in black suits, shirts and ties. Roujol, in a sleeveless black cocktail dress and rhinestone-studded heels, appeared on stage with actress Anne Hathaway, the fragrance's celebrity "face."
Magnifique, a woody blend of Indian nagarmota with rose and a touch of saffron, is Lancôme's first new women's fragrance since Hypnôse in 2003. Roujol has a lot riding on it. She was personally involved through much of its gestation over a period of 2½ years and made the final call on the scent, the faceted red bottle and Hathaway.
"From the beginning we wanted to express something more daring, more flamboyant, more passionate," she says. "The word magnificence came very early in the creation, because it was expressing the brand essence, the new spirit."
Roujol grew up in eastern Paris, near the Bois de Vincennes. Her father is a retired advertising executive who passed on an interest in art and design. Her mother, a retired math teacher with a passion for bridge, gave her "a way to look at how to plan my life and organize myself," she says.
After graduating in 1989 from the HEC School of Management, one of the élite French business schools, Roujol considered going into the fashion industry. She interviewed at design houses like Kenzo and Thierry Mugler. "They were the first ones to say to me, 'Don't make the mistake to go in the fashion industry because, unless it's very international or import-export or you're the head, it's not a good way to begin your career,'" she recalls.
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