Thursday, Sep. 04, 2008

Odile Roujol

"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 kick—with 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.

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 recalls—and 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 products—Sharon Stone is the face of Dior's Capture skin-care line—but 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