The beauty of new media: Customer feedback revives defunct cosmetics

Tatiana Boncompagni / New York Times News Service /


Published Jun 20, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

NEW YORK — It started with a Chanel lip gloss. After learning that her favorite shade was being discontinued, Jennifer Fisherman-Ruff bought up the remaining 37-piece stock. That was a little more than 15 years ago. Since then, Fisherman-Ruff, 42, has stockpiled a variety of products, including a custom-blended Prescriptives foundation, seven bottles of which currently reside in her refrigerator.

“When I really like something, I get nervous I’m not going to be able to have it anymore,” Fisherman-Ruff said.

Many women spend a lifetime in search of the perfect shade of lipstick or the ideal moisturizer, only to watch their hard-won favorite go the way of the dodo. Until recently, these consumers had little recourse other than to register complaints with manufacturers, but now, thanks to social media sites and company-run Internet chat lines, beauty companies are keeping closer tabs on which products their customers want brought back.

Often, they’re responding to that demand with reissues, albeit in limited quantities and through select channels.

“It’s literally reshaping how the market is driven,” said Karen Grant, a senior global industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y., speaking of social media.

In January, for example, Pantene, a division of Procter&Gamble, brought back three hair-care product lines that had been discontinued — Anti-Dandruff, Ice Shine and Silver Expressions — with a “Back by Popular Demand” marketing campaign that included a 1980s-theme video (made in collaboration with the humor website Funny or Die) and a Facebook giveaway.

Likewise, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and MAC Cosmetics, two brands owned by the Estee Lauder Cos., recently ran Facebook campaigns called “Bobbi Brings Back: Lip Color” and “MAC by Request,” asking fans in various countries to vote on their favorite shades of discontinued products. “The response was even higher than anticipated,” said Alicia Sontag, the senior vice president for global marketing at Bobbi Brown.

Guillaume Jesel, a senior vice president for global marketing at MAC, likened the company’s contest — which logged over 636,000 votes — to “Dancing With the Stars,” but for makeup. “It’s the same revolution you see in other industries,” Jesel said. “You let the consumer take the steering wheel for a while.”

Perhaps adding to the fervor is the fact that winning products won’t be available in stores. Wine, the shade of Bobbi Brown lipstick that had the most votes in the U.S., will be available only online via a Facebook link to start in October, while the winning shades of MAC products — a lipstick, lip gloss and eye shadow — will be available in August, also only on the company’s website.

It used to be that beauty retailers and manufacturers had to adhere to a strict “one in, one out” policy, with low-selling products discontinued to make room for new ones at counters. But selling these products online or on television changes the equation.

“At the shelf, you have to think about turnover,” said David Lonczak, the division vice president for eCommerce and digital marketing for Drugstore.com, Beauty.com and Walgreens.com. “That doesn’t make it possible to carry these tertiary products, but there is still a reasonable amount of business there.”

In 2009, Drugstore.com made a deal with Procter&Gamble to carry select Max Factor items after the company stopped sales in the U.S. “When products go off the shelf, consumers go online,” Lonczak said.

Another company trying to pre-empt frustrated customers is Britain-based Lush, known for making beauty products by hand with fresh ingredients. It has a so-called Retro line, which most recently included a Pineapple Grunt soap and All That Jasmine Bath Bomb. (Once, the company brought back its Tramp shower gel because a customer wrote a note about how much her cat loved the smell.) “It’s not a hugely commercial thing for us,” Hilary Jones, the company’s ethics director in Britain, said of the program. “It’s about keeping the customer’s good will.”

And, of course, her loyalty. After buying Erno Laszlo, the cult skin-care brand, last year with a group of investors, Charles Denton decided to pare the company’s 127 offerings down to fewer than 60. Rumors spread over the Internet about which products would make the cut, and eventually Denton, the company’s chief executive, began personally responding to emails — as many as 200 a day — from worried customers. Partly because of those communiques, he decided to keep two powders that had been marked for discontinuation.

“The consequence of a poor decision could take 18 months to two years to filter back to the head office,” Denton said. “With social media you can take an instant read. That’s fantastically valuable.”

And beauty behemoths are heading the call, as well. Last year the French cosmetics giant Lancome brought back Blush Subtil in Cosmopolitan Pink, available for purchase on its site, in response to consumer demand. Next up? Possibly Aroma Tonic, a citrus-scented body spray with its own “bring back” Facebook page, which has over 370 “likes.” “One person writes, then another person writes,” said Gracemarie Papaleo, an assistant vice president for Lancome. “They rally together.”