PARIS — Helena Rubinstein is a compelling beauty case study. Once a household name in the West, it all but disappeared from shelves there in the 1980s before becoming a massive success today in the East.
Today, it is on deck to become a billion-dollar brand in L’Oréal’s stable of global winners.
What it took to revive the 131-year-old heritage brand and make it a leading skin care player on the global stage was a repositioning into a high prestige category, a deep emphasis on scientific innovation and mining deep into its roots to create a guiding framework.
Nicolas Hieronimus, chief executive officer of L’Oréal, which acquired Helena Rubinstein in 1984, has called the brand “one of the greatest success stories — or transformation stories — inside L’Oréal.”
Helena Rubinstein had struggled for years before the French beauty giant opted to transform the brand — a multicategory beauty player à la Lancôme or Estée Lauder — into a premium skin care specialist. The timing of that, around the mid-2010s, coincided with the rise of Chinese consumers’ appetites for high-end skin care.
Over the last decade, it has become entrenched in the market. “We are now one of the top superpremium skin care brands globally,” said Stevie Wong, who has been global brand president of Helena Rubinstein since January 2023.
That’s despite the current competitive landscape, where feisty indies jockey for position, and Helena Rubinstein not being sold in the U.S. — the largest global beauty market.
The brand has, however, remained in European countries such as Italy, Switzerland, the Benelux and Nordics, and was relaunched in France and online European e-stores in 2021. The U.K. redux came about in 2020.
In Asia, Helena Rubinstein was rolled out in China in the 2000s, and its distribution in Japan dates back to before the 1980s.
Much of what Helena Rubinstein stood for from its outset chimes with contemporary consumers. The entrepreneur launched her eponymous business in 1902, with the opening of the world’s first beauty salon in Melbourne, Australia. Throughout her career, Rubinstein championed that beauty helps emancipate women and always had a holistic vision.
“It’s very much the vision of being the most scientific, ultra-luxury skin care brand,” said Wong, describing that as “avant-garde.”
“[Helena Rubinstein] knew that beauty without science is nothing,” said Wong, explaining the founder worked with dermatologists, other doctors and scientists of her time.
In trying to reimagine and recreate the brand while remaining true to its DNA, Helena Rubinstein executives in 2008 partnered with Laclinic-Montreux and its founder Michel Pfulg to create the ultra-premium, science-focused Replasty skin care franchise.
Its hero product, launched in 2011, is the Replasty Age Recovery night cream. A 50-ml. jar sells for 400 euros. Breaking traditional skin care codes, that container is black and round, a shape meant to echo that of a test tube’s base.
Fast-forward to the first half of 2023, and Replasty Age Recovery was the top-selling beauty product in mainland China and bestselling superpremium cream in Japan and Hong Kong, according to Beauté Research.
The brand’s repositioning in the ultra-premium category also synced with the emergence of medical cosmetic and aesthetic procedures.
Each product franchise in Helena Rubinstein has a different bent. Powercell products are made with green science to tackle skin regeneration. Its star ingredient is the samphire plant stem cells created using biotech. “It’s very green and very effective,” said Wong, of the formula.
The Prodigy Cellglow line, for antiaging and skin brightening, claims to reprogram cells. Helena Rubinstein also has the Life Pearl collection, at the highest end of the prestige skin care category, with prices running up to around 600 euros.
With Helena Rubinstein’s visual identity, the aim has been to represent the products’ benefits as well as the brand’s luxurious world, Wong said. Imagery is classic and clean, with luxury codes. Snow-covered mountains represent Cellglow, while for Powercell, there’s digitized, pixelated green vegetal imagery to connote the line’s high-tech attributes.
Helena Rubinstein’s key domestic markets include China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, according to industry sources.
“We are very cautious about quality growth,” said Wong. “We are not trying to chase growth — definitely.”
Instead, the brand focuses on expanding its consumer base client by client. Wong calls them high-quality, with whom Helena Rubinstein can create a lifetime bond.
“Interestingly, the most expensive products are getting a lot of great responses from the clients,” said Wong.
Beauty institutes remain at the core of Helena Rubinstein’s business model, especially for its VIPs. “It’s a very effective way for us to keep the loyalty of our clients,” said Wong.
Axioms coined by Helena Rubinstein herself are key, too. One oft quoted is: “Beauty is power, the most important of all.”
“That guides us into rearticulating the brand purpose — to invent the beauty that empowers women to reach new heights,” said Wong.
In this vein, this summer Helena Rubinstein launched a “Lead With Beauty” campaign, featuring French computational scientist and entrepreneur Aurélie Jean, Chinese athlete Guo Jing Jing and Canadian conductor Dina Gilbert.
The brand holds courses around the world to embolden women — especially female entrepreneurs — to fulfill their dreams. Helena Rubinstein celebrates heritage moments. Last year, for instance, it marked the brand’s 120th anniversary and showcased its archives in-store. The book “Madame Avant-Garde” was published — in Chinese and English, and in English and French — outlining the history and story of Helena Rubinstein.
“In the key markets, we are trying to have heritage moments at different times to refresh consumers with the roots and values of the brand,” said Wong.
The brand’s archival photos are on display in some retail counters in Asia.
Meanwhile, Helena Rubinstein executives continue expanding the brand’s archive. At a London auction this summer, for example, letters and documents pertaining to the brand’s business from 1914 to 1927 were procured.
“Brands like this with depth can stand the test of time,” said Wong.