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Marketing, she decided, was her real passion. She first worked for Bourjois"they were very quick to answer, and I needed to earn money," she recallsand then for YSL Beauté before joining L'Oréal. "It's like my husband," she adds. "After boyfriends, I got the right one." Within five years, she was the general manager for Lancôme France. Two years later, she was transferred to New York City as deputy general manager and senior vice president for marketing for the brand's all-important American market.
"She's an incredible manager," says Marc Menesguen, the president of the L'Oréal luxury division, which includes Lancôme. "She's a natural leader, extraordinarily demanding and with an extraordinary attention to details."
L'Oréal, the world's biggest beauty-products company, with reported sales last year of $26.6 billion, has a reputation for being a demanding place to work. Lindsay Owen-Jones, the longtime chairman and former ceo, is nicknamed "the Sun King," as imperious as Louis XIV but much less forgiving of poor results. Aspiring managers are either promoted quickly through the ranks or chewed up. Turnover in the top jobs can be head-spinning. Roujol, for example, is the fourth president of Lancôme International in just 10 years (two of her predecessors were promoted, and the third left the company for Hermès).
The pressure on brand managers does not come only from outside competitors. L'Oréal's luxury division includes a raft of designer skin-care, makeup and perfume brands that are targeted to much the same market as Lancôme's. Five were added to the luxury roster in the 12 years since Roujol joined the company. The newest, YSL Beauté, was acquired just as she launched Magnifique this past June.
People who know Roujol say she appears to thrive in the intense atmosphere. "She's under immense pressure because Lancôme is a very big brand for L'Oréal," says Xavier Romatet, CEO of Condé Nast France, who has known her for five years. "She accepts that because that's the game, and Odile is very loyal. She is also a woman who combines paradoxical things. She's firm, because she's sure of herself, while at the same time she's charming." In his view, Roujol has already made her mark on Lancôme. "When she arrived, the brand situation was difficult," Romatet says. "Today it has a more sensual, more feminine image for women and a more masculine one for men."
In the area of retailing, Roujol has also pushed the brand in new directions. Jacques Lévy, the ceo of Sephora, describes her as the rare beauty-brand executive who looks beyond the traditional department store for retailing luxury products. He credits her with persuading the bosses at L'Oréal to see Sephora as a suitable outlet. "What I like in Odile is that she's really close to the ground; she always looks at the point of sale," says Lévy. "She's one of few heads of a brand who makes a point of organizing regular lunches between herself and me, no matter what the big bureaucracy might say."
Roujol's straightforward approach is unusual in the French corporate world. "I learned that from the American system," she says. "We've got the thing that we're very closed. But American people are very much into positive feedback and open-mindedness."
Her two sons, 10 and 12, picked up the style as well, and Roujol and her husband, a management consultant, still send the boys to summer camp in the States. "You know, in the French system you learn your lessons and you have to be a good child, to listen to people," she says. "But they kept from the American system asking questions and doing a lot of sports, and I think it gave them a positive energy."
In a quicksilver business, Roujol will need all the positive energy she can muster to reposition Lancôme as a brand that is not just familiar but also innovative. Emerging markets in Asia and Eastern Europe, while not huge in volume yet, are the new frontier. "Lancôme has brand equity that is very strong, and they have been living off that," says Oru Mohiuddin, a beauty-business analyst with Euromonitor International, a market-research company in London. "In emerging markets, people are just aware of Lancôme. But that may change later on or in the near future unless Lancôme does something to connect with younger consumers."
Globally, Lancôme has the biggest market share, 3.9%, in premium cosmetics, according to Euromonitor International. Clinique, which Mohiuddin calls "more dynamic" in launching new products, holds the No. 2 spot, with a 3.7% market share.
Lancôme has been trying to tweak its image for years. Finding the right formula is tricky. In 2004, Roujol's predecessor, Marc Dubrule, told the New York Times that surveys showed that women wanted Lancôme to "surprise" them, "to be a little more daring." In what the French business newspaper Les Echos called a "cultural revolution," the company tried an update of the traditional rose logo, presenting it in black or as a stylized footnote in ads to give the brand an edgier feel.
"There was a whole debate over making the brand appeal to a younger audience," says Jean-Yves Minet, a senior strategist in the New York City office of Wolff Olins, a brand consultancy. "In France, at least, it was seen as my mother's cosmetics." But the stylized-rose logos proved disorienting. "There was a huge backlash from consumers," says Minet.
Since Roujol has become Lancôme president, the simple rose design once again has pride of place in marketing campaigns, along with a lush red version in some of the promotional material for Magnifique.
"We needed to do something new, but not a revolution. Odile was keen on doing that and determined," says Arthur Sadoun, the ceo of Lancôme's advertising agency, Publicis Conseil, recalling his first meeting with Roujol two years ago. "Bringing the rose back to the center of communication was a move, and a real move," he adds. "And it's proved to be right."
Roujol is uncomfortable with any suggestion that she is responsible for a "rupture," as she put it in French. "I wouldn't say there was anything that was not O.K.," she says, when asked about the shift back to the rose logo. "It's more like coming back to the essence of the brand but perhaps better expressing it, making it more emotional, more luxurious."
For all her insistence on reinventing Lancôme in "little steps," Roujol also trusts her intuition enough to take a few risks. The eclectic mix of celebrities she has signed as brand ambassadors includes not only Binoche, 44, a second-timer who used to represent Lancôme's Poême perfume, but also Italian actress Laura Morante, 52, for the Absolue skin-care line.
They are not the only mature women representing luxury productsSharon Stone is the face of Dior's Capture skin-care linebut they mark a departure for Lancôme, which famously dropped longtime brand spokeswoman Isabella Rossellini in 1996 after she passed her 44th birthday.
Roujol says she initially feared the veteran actresses might be "too assertive" to appeal to the youth-oriented Asian market. "I think it was a bet," she says. "But I think also that as a leader, we need to reinvent the rule and to make people change a little about the way they perceive women. And as a woman, as a president, I love to express a woman's view about beauty and to present my counterparts." Susan Sachs / Paris
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