Wednesday, September 29, 2010
FOREWORD by Michael A. Levine Hollywood PR expert
“A woman’s most powerful possession is a man’s imagination.”
Tom Lyle Williams, 1934
I think every girl I ever dated as a teenager had one of those pink and green tubes of Maybelline Great Lash mascara stashed in her purse. How on earth would I know this? Because the contents of all those purses regularly spilled out of school lockers, behind bleachers, under the seats of cars…. If they weren’t scrambling to hide their other feminine products, then they were diving for the mascara because THAT was clearly the key to their enchanting doe-eyed beauty.
As I’ve grown older, gotten married, divorced, and dated all over again, I’ve seen the contents of many beautiful women’s cosmetic bags. And there has always been a Maybelline product inside.
I recognize things like this because I’m a brand man myself. At an early age I discovered the power of perception…specifically, the perception of value, which can be even more important than price itself. For example, the Tiffany brand is indomitable because one need only see the powder-blue box and white satin ribbon to think that whatever is inside is premium simply because it comes from Tiffany.
So I was delighted when I was asked to read The Maybelline Story and learn about the origins and growth of this modest company into the best-known eye beauty brand around the world. What a story it is!
From humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to gangster-ridden Prohibition Chicago, to Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s, pin-ups, the Pentagon, and eventually, the whole world, this is a classic tale of a makeshift product that developed out of one woman’s innovative need to fix something else, and her brother’s prescient understanding that she was onto something BIG!
In 1915, Mabel Williams singed her eyelashes and brows while cooking. Horrified that she no longer looked feminine, she concocted a mixture and applied it to her remaining lashes and brows, giving her some added sparkle and sheen. One of her brothers, Tom Lyle Williams, noticed the successful effect.
But he also noticed something more profound: a woman’s eyes were her calling card. “Come look at me.” “Coax me out of my bashfulness.” “Yes, I’m flirting.” “I’m interested in you.” He appreciated beauty in all women, and their beauty spoke to him straight through their eyes. Tom Lyle wanted to reproduce his sister’s “formula” to see whether regular women would pay a little to “up” the glamour in themselves.
All he needed was $500 and a rudimentary chemistry set to give his idea a real try. But gathering $500 in 1915 wasn’t easy. So when his brother Noel offered to loan him the money, he promised to repay him in full. Little did any of them realize then that Noel would receive a return on his investment similar to the original investors in Microsoft or Apple!
For over a half century, Maybelline operated as a private company owned by the Williams family. What Tom Lyle, his brother and sister started as a small, mail-order business eventually became an internationally recognized brand purchased 82 years later by French conglomerate L’Oreal for over 700 million.
I can tell you: it’s one thing to recognize a winning product discovered by accident, and quite another to turn it into an empire that, for decades, transcended all competition and remains an icon to this day.
How does one do that? Precisely by branding. By taking an exceptional product and equating it with excellence in every way. By having a constant, relentless drive to promote a desirable image through that product. By turning that product into the sine qua non of, in this case, eye beauty.
Tom Lyle Williams packaged and sold artifice – the importance of beautiful eyes. He made eye beauty the singular defining quality of a beautiful woman, and he branded Maybelline as representative of perfect beauty. His genius was in convincing millions of women the world over to buy Maybelline with the absolute conviction that using Maybelline eye products would truly make them perfectly beautiful.
Unlike most folks in Hollywood, this unlikeliest of legends kept a low personal profile and let his creativity speak through his work. In my opinion, Tom Lyle Williams can teach us more about branding than Colonel Sanders, Calvin Klein, and Coco Chanel combined. He was first to enlist movie stars to promote his products. One of the first companies to promote corporate social responsibility by supporting war bonds. First to take advantage of advertising on broadcast television. First to employ market research. And first to truly understand the buying power of women.
Surely such a creative man must have had a muse…perhaps some woman he thought the ideal version of his own vision of beauty? Indeed! While he named the company for his sister, his muse was actually his sister-in-law, Evelyn. She was gorgeous, smart, and often too smart for her own good.
The drama of this family-business-story, as with many such sagas, lies in deciphering where the family and the business intersected, frequently came to loggerheads, and sometimes went to court. Secrets existed, lies were told, and facades masqueraded as truth – often to protect the family from itself, and always to protect Maybelline above all else.
Edison made light bulbs. Ford manufactured cars. Here’s another great American rags-to-riches story. This time the name is Williams. The cash cow wore mascara and Maybelline.