9 marketing tricks I’ve learned from Helena Rubinstein, one of the world’s richest women

Do you know who Helena Rubinstein is? Apart from the eponym of the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic brand, she was an extraordinary 20th-century female entrepreneur. She created her brand in 1902, at the age of 30, when it was not only impossible but unthinkable that a woman should enjoy such adventure and freedom.

She was born in the 19th century, into a poor, traditional Jewish family in Poland, where a woman has only one role to play: to get married and have children. The oldest of seven sisters, the other seven children all died.

Her brand is now part of the L’Oréal Galaxy. In her day, she was to beauty what Chanel was to Fashion: she embraced female emancipation and created the means for them to be beautiful and smart. She believed that beauty is power.

What impressed me on her incredible journey to success :

  • She was a “loser” for her family, the kind of girl they could not marry.
  • She left her family, aged 24, and was quite lost both professionally and personally for many years.
  • She didn’t come up with an idea for her project until she was 27, while she was working for free at her uncle’s shop in a rural village in Australia.
  • During her “young lady” years she struggled to make money yet refused to be married and submit her life to someone’s else will.
  • By the time she launched her first beauty salon, she was 30 and considered “old woman” at that time.
  • Without any external money (banks did not give credits to women) she bootstrapped her business.
  • She struggled to find a formula for her first face cream for many years (a recipe from her childhood).
  • In order to learn, she applied for a job at a pharmacy and then she moved to a rich family as a nanny, to understand her potential customers.

Her marketing was extremely modern and visionary for the time. She was not a marketer, she did not even know that it existed. When she was about to launch her brand, she was advised by a group of fellows she used to meet in a coffee-bar where she worked. One of them explained to her how marketing worked and how it was important in order to sell.

One of the contemporary HR branding campaigns.

The timing and location of her business launch were perfect: Australia was one of the most advanced countries in terms of female emancipation as women were giving voting rights in 1902, considerably earlier than America (1920), England (1928) and France (1944). Melbourne, where she set up her first Beauty Salon, was the most advanced, contemporary city in the world and saw rapid growth. But aside from the fact that she launched her business at the right time, in the right place and with the right product, she was quite simply a marketing genius.

So, what was her marketing genius?

  1. Know your customer inside out.

She was very close to her clients. She lived and breathed her customers. Everything she did was always based on what her customers needed.

Before even launching her brand and having the idea, the Australian women were amazed by her smooth, white skin. They had noticed her pale face, untouched by the sun and wind. She shared her secrets and even gave them her mother’s cream (at that time she did not know the formula, as her mother bought it from a chemist, a family friend). She knew exactly what the Australian ladies needed. Under the summer sun and winter winds, their skin looked older and untreated. Women at that time could not use many cosmetic products as it was seen as a “bad” fashion for a “bad” woman.

2. Make promises based on your personal experience

She has built her minimum viable product (MVP) and tested it on herself before finding the perfect texture and smell. When she first opened the doors of her Beauty Salon, she had only one product to sell. She knew exactly the quality and results of her products.

3. Be a Personal Coach

She offered personal coaching services alongside her product. Women came to her for advice first and then ended up buying her products. She has established herself as an expert in her field, even before her first beauty salon opened.

Helena advises her customers in her beauty salon

4. Think different

She used her small apartment as a cosmetics salon. She was the only person in the marketplace with such a concept. From the decoration to the place to the owner, everything was elegant and unusual for local women. Journalists were honoured to come to her place and write articles about her. She never paid for an article, but she was always generous with journalists and gave them her products for free. Her concept was so unique, that she prepared her creams in the kitchen next to the living room, where she met her customers. She used bootstrapping principles to get the inventory quicker and reduce costs. Today we love this kind of new atelier-concept stores, where we can see the products being prepared behind a window or an open bar, especially in cosmetics or perfumes.

5. Be your own storyteller

She was an extraordinary storyteller. She could recount different versions of her journey to success that fascinated people and that was not always the complete truth. But she knew how to be more attractive to her listeners, customers, readers and partners. In complete contrast to her capacity to embellish her personal story, she only used facts and justified promises for her product ads.

6. Establish high standards for your communication.

She was a born-marketeer and set her standards so high that even now, everyone in the industry uses her selling technics. She always used advertisements and reinvested money from sales back into ads. Her first ads referenced to Dr. Lykusky, the inventor of the formula, a family friend, from whom her mother bought the famous pots of cream.

To recreate her formula she never employed the services of the Doctor, though. She discovered the formula on her own, but used the name of the doctor in her ads in order to sell her first product under the commercial name “Valaze”. She included only facts, results and solutions for each type of skin (the latter she invented based on her intuition, although later on she had proven laboratory test results that proved the existence of different types of skin).

“Helena Rubinstein, world-famous beauty scientist, knows best what’s good for your skin. She formulates SILK-TONE with moisturizers and emollients that protect against drying and discourage age lines.” – advertisement of her Silk-Tone liquid, in the 1950th.

She knew how to advertise—using ‘fear copy with a bit of blah-blah’— and introduced the concept of ‘problem’ skin types. She also invented ingenious terms to “play the game” by her rules. She named whole new product categories, created supporting habits, and established herself as an expert in her field. “Name dropping” was something that she used a lot in order to gain customer confidence.

She pioneered the use of “pseudo-science” in marketing, donning a lab coat in many advertisements, despite the fact that her only training had been a two-month tour of European skin-care facilities.

Helena Rubinstein’s early days campaign where her authority as a scientist is confirmed by text. Source: alamy stock photo.

7. Provide value to your customers

She was a pure pre-digital marketer. For example, to attract her first customers, she developed a “Beauty Guide”, a magazine that was focused on developing beauty habits, the cream formula, and its impacts on the skin. In order to get this guide, the clients needed to respond by mailing her a coupon from the advertisement or by visiting her salon. Later on, she would use actresses as “egeries” for her brand, but it never was her first intention. In the beginning, using facts and experts such as doctors were much more valuable for her selling messages.

8. Price strategically, not only mathematically

She was smart at setting prices. She knew that the women she wanted to target did not buy cheap products. So she did everything to create a myth around her creams and present them in distinguished, beautiful packaging. Her first thought was to place an order for secret cream from her mum’s friend and then resell it. But with all the transport costs and customs’ duties, she decided to do it on her own. She reverse-engineered the formula and it took her many years to stabilize it.

She knew how to manipulate consumers’ status anxiety: if a product faltered initially, she would hike the price to raise the perceived value.

She made her customers dream about the exotics composition of the mixture, but in reality, she used only local ingredients and made everything in her kitchen. These facts were omitted in official communication. She always justified the expensive prices attributed them to transport costs and expensive ingredients. As her cream did what it promised, in addition to all the customer experience that she provided, it was never a question of price for her clients. It was about value, expertise, and reputation. This is how she made ten times more margin on each unit sold.

9. Think of your offer as a problem-solving system

She never resolved just one problem for a customer. She always had a superior offer that actually addressed the problem as a whole. For instance, with her cream, she advised her customers to follow a complete program of rituals, gymnastics, and diet in order to get superior results.

The whole customer journey: from the beauty salon to her advice, to the follow-up actions, is exactly what brought her so much success.

To conclude, never try to sell just one brick of your offer, establish it as 360° marketing concept.

The story of this extraordinary woman has been forgotten over time. Personally, I was amazed by the personal and that of the entrepreneur behind the brand. After I discovered her marketing genius, I had to share it with you. Now, tell me, what’s your favourite trick or hook in your marketing strategy?