Monday, March 29, 2010

Kiehl’s Since 1851

About twenty years ago, long before online shopping, a colleague in Boston asked me to stop by Kiehl’s Since 1851, an obscure drugstore in Manhattan. She explained that it had a special skin lotion she loved, and always eager to please, I volunteered to head a few blocks out of my way one day to pick some up.

I walked into the store not knowing a thing about Kiehl’s, but curious about why someone would insist on a skin cream only available two hundred miles away from home. The first thing I saw when I walked into the tiny store was a Ducati motorcycle and a tiny stunt airplane.

Now I was officially intrigued. Why was this expensive real estate devoted to housing items that clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with skin care? The rest of the store was just as interesting. The rough-hewn floors were at least a hundred years old. The staff was far better trained than I’d ever expected to find in a drugstore. The labels were filled with information and each item was lovingly displayed.

The message was loud and clear: this is the work of a person, a unique individual, not a corporation. Only a person would waste so much space on his hobbies (and it had to be a him, it seemed to me). Only a person would be so persnickety about the formulas and the labels and the making everything just right. In a marketplace filled with anonymous competitors, this was the real deal—genuine cosmetics made by someone who cared.

The store was filled with other tidbits of information. Detailed narratives about animal testing and motorcycle racing, about the founders and about their customers. The prices were ridiculous, the bottles unlike any I’d ever seen sold for money (they appeared homemade—and still do). I bought my colleague her cream and headed for home, but not before I’d bought myself some shave cream and my wife a bar of soap. And just like a little family business, they insisted on giving me samples of other products to take home—for free.

Apparently many others have had a similar experience. Kiehi’s Since 1851 is now a cult brand. Sold by exclusive, service-oriented shops around the world, this business is doing many millions of dollars a year in high-margin sales. The story is compelling. It’s easy to believe the lie we tell ourselves. So easy to believe that most of its customers are shocked when they discover that industry giant L’Oreal has owned the company for several years.

Is the brand worth the premium they charge consumers? Well, if worth is measured in the price charged compared to the cost of the raw ingredients, of course not. But if Kiehl’s customers are measuring the price paid compared to the experience of purchasing and the way that using the product makes them feel, it’s a no-brainer.

Is Kiehl’s for everyone? Not yet. Only people with a certain worldview even notice Kiehl’s, and then it takes a subset of that group to fall in love with the story, to tell itself the lie. These people embrace the brand and tell the story to their friends as well. If a consumer believes that cosmetics should be cheap or ubiquitous or the brand that a best friend uses, then Kiehi’s is invisible. But if a consumer’s worldview is about finding something offbeat, unique and aggressively original, then the story resonates.

Ironically Kiehl’s didn’t set out to succeed by telling a unique story. This brand is the work of an idiosyncratic individual, and lucky for him, his story meshed with the worldview of the people who shopped there. In other words, it wasn’t Kiehl doing the marketing—it was his customers. Kiehl’s told a story, and the customers told the lie to themselves and to their friends.

- Seth Godin

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