Executive Interview -- Mark Loomis

By Chris Betros

Staying in for the long haul in one of the world’s most lucrative cosmetics markets

Mark LoomisMark Loomis, President, Estée Lauder KK

Times may be tough for the economy in Japan, but women still want to look their best. One company helping them to do that is multibrand cosmetics powerhouse, Estée Lauder KK, which has had a presence in Japan for 42 years. Estée Lauder markets several brands in Japan, focusing on makeup, skin care, fragrance and hair care. These include Estée Lauder, Aramis, Clinique, Origins, MAC, La Mer, Bobbi Brown and Aveda.

The company was launched in 1946 when Joseph Lauder and wife Estée began producing cosmetics in New York City. Today, the company is still controlled by the Lauder family, which has about 70 percent of voting shares. In 2008, worldwide sales were nearly $8 billion, with the fast growing Asia-Pacific region surpassing $1 billion. Japan remains the company’s second largest market.

Heading up the Japan office is Mark Loomis, who has been president of Estée Lauder KK for four years. Born in New York, Loomis has been in the cosmetics industry for 25 years, the last 13 with Estée Lauder.

JAPAN INC: What is Estée Lauder’s image in Japan?
Mark Loomis: The various brands are probably better known than the name of Estée Lauder itself. We have nine different business units targeting different consumers. Each of our brands has a different market niche, but our strongest trait as a company is that we really understand building powerful brands and allow them to create their own identity and culture. The one consistent image across all our brands is prestige. To that end, we have limited distribution; we are not in every drugstore but only in the finest stores.

JI: How do you market the brands?
ML: Advertising is not the primary driver of the brands. The No. 1 method is people, such as our make-up artists, who meet customers. Our biggest investment is in those people: across Japan, we have 2,500 staff members representing our brands. After that, word of mouth, PR and corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, such as the Pink Ribbon breast cancer awareness campaign.

JI: How’s business in Japan?
ML: We had a banner year last fiscal year [ending June 30, 2008]. Last July- September was pretty consistent, but the second quarter was a bit slower. Cosmetics tend to be more recession-resistant because consumers are more emotionally committed to the category. However, it’s getting more difficult because consumer mindset has become negative since February.

JI: What trends have you seen amid the economic downturn?
ML: Because many customers register with us, we are able to match about 85 percent of them with a transaction. Whereas 20-30 percent of business each month used to be new customers, it is getting more difficult to maintain that new customer share. On the other hand, loyal customers are staying with us.

JI: What is your best selling brand?
ML: Clinique, a skin care brand which has been in the market for 30 years, is our No. 1 seller in Japan. That is the brand that really created the cosmetic business in department stores.

JI: Who are your core customers?
ML: We have two make-up artist brands, one called MAC, which is primarily for women in their 20s and bit younger. We have another makeup brand, Bobbi Brown, which is targeted at women in their 20s and 30s. Clinique has a wider demographic. Estée Lauder is more for women in their mid 30s, 40s and 50s. Overall, I’d say the average age of women coming to our counters in department stores would be in their 40s.

JI: How big is the skin care market?Japanese are the highest spenders per capita on skin care, 50% more than the next market, France, and four times more than the United States.
ML: Japan is the largest skin care product market in the world, larger than the United States. Japanese are the highest spenders per capita on skin care, 50 percent more than the next market, France, and four times more than the United States. Japanese women use on average about seven skin care products four to five days a week and about eight make-up products a week. This is one area where women in their 40s-60s are willing to try new brands. Anti-aging cosmetics is a fast-growing segment, too. Women start using them in their mid-30s.

JI: Do you manufacture products specifically for Japan?
ML: Yes. We have an R&D facility in Japan, and two years ago, we set up a skin research institute in Kobe. We customize about one-quarter of our products for Japan and other Asian markets. Japanese skin is different in terms of how it ages, and it is thinner. Japanese women tend to have less issues with wrinkles but more issues with evenness of skin tone and age spots. Fifteen years ago, the customer might have adapted to the foreign prestige brand. Today, we have to adapt to the customer.

JI: What are some unique characteristics of the Japanese market?
ML: The market is much more driven by fashion, trends and innovation. There is also a seasonality to it, particularly in color. With some of our brands, like MAC, we have a counter activity almost every two weeks. In skin care, some of the most innovative ideas are coming out of Japan. Whitening, which is unique to Asia, comes from here. In other areas, cultural differences, such as sensitivity to scent, are much more pronounced. The detail and care taken in packaging is another unique factor.

JI: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of all the trends?
ML: The greatest learning method is going out into the marketplace and talking to customers. We touch people every day. Today, for example, we’ll touch 15,000 consumers in stores, so we get a lot of feedback. For the rest, I have good people around me who can provide the expertise.

JI: How do you get feedback from customers?
ML: We have a consumer communications department which gets thousands of calls, mostly inquiries, and a few complaints. The main method, though, as I mentioned earlier, is through a lot of interaction between our sales staff and customers at stores. Once a year, we do a mystery shopping program. We hire a third-party company and they canvas 50 stores, shopping at our counters and those of our competitors. They then provide an analysis and some recommendations. It’s something we take very seriously.

JI: What is your management style?
ML: I like to have one-on-one meetings and build a consensus before getting to a big meeting. I am very hands on in the distribution side and the kinds of decisions we make in terms of how our brands are positioned in the stores.

JI: What frustrates you about doing business in Japan?
ML: It doesn’t really frustrate me, but there is never a direct route to getting things done in Japan. You just have to have patience. On the plus side, though, once a decision has been made, the execution is swift and there are a lot of rewards. JI

Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today
This article originally appeared online on www.japantoday.com.