Kiehl’s Since 1851: what you can learn about brand mojo


In a recent client brainstorming session, we were thinking about consumer brands that had a long history as an independent and who had then been purchased by an industry giant. We were interested in understanding if they had the same brand and business energy as they did pre-purchase.

Kiehl’s Since 1851 is 163 years old. That’s a pretty good run. It’s also been ten years since L’Oreal, the world’s leading beauty company, bought the business that began as a little pharmacy on Manhattan’s lower east side.

So, does Kiehl’s have the same horsepower as it did pre-L’Oreal? Beyond Kiehl’s strong and steady growth, here’s why we think the brand still has its mojo:

Basis. The brand has a great back story which starts with its name – since 1851 – as an apothecary business in NYC’s lower East Side owned and managed over four generations as a family business. But integral to Kiehl’s continued success, it’s a story that continues to evolve, capture the imagination of its passionate advocates and emotionally connect them to the brand.

Many other skin care brands have a celebrated past – Lancome (another L’Oreal brand), Nivea (which I worked on years ago at Beiersdorf), Olay, etc. But I’m not sure any are as compelling or as unconventional as Kiehl’s.

Credit L’Oreal for understanding the value of Kiehl’s brand essence and how it needs to be nurtured as the story is re-told to the next generation of Kiehl’s customers. This keeps the brand magic alive, which in turn powers business success and shareholder value.

Belief. There aren’t too many people who stand around talking about the ingredients and physical benefits of their skincare products. But they do talk about Kiehl’s greater sense of purpose – brought to life through its approach to products, distinguishing community-based retail experience and socially-driven activities (reminding me of The BodyShop, albeit less so since the passing of Anita Roddick).

Behavior. Everything Kiehl’s does, every experience they create — with employees, customers, and the public in general — supports and enhances their story and is executed with brilliance.

Products. The Kiehl’s philosophy is (true to its heritage) about choosing the very best naturally-derived ingredients – based on herbal and pharmaceutical formulas. The look of their products also reflects the brand’s apothecary roots – as they have a homemade look that feels like they are individually made in the back of the store. Some of Kiehl’s product formulations also date back decades.

Packaging. Simple, efficient, and made of recyclable materials. And true to its pharmacy origins, detailed descriptions about ingredients, benefits and directions for use.

Retail Experience. Even though the brand now has 500-plus stores around the world, the Kiehl’s brand team recreates the look and feel of the original New York boutique wherever you find the brand.

Why would Kiehl’s have a vintage motorcycle in their store? Because it’s core to the story and the brand’s visual expression. The trademark vintage Ducati motorcycle found in every Kiehl’s store is there because the founder liked them. Just another detail that differentiates Kiehl’s from the (literally) hundreds of other skin care businesses.

The brand also maintains its close ties with the medical community from which it was born. As such, Mr. Bones (the skeleton you see in every store) serves to pay homage to the industry.

Word-of-Mouth. L’Oreal has faithfully adhered to the founding family approach of not advertising the Kiehl’s brand. For Kiehl’s, it’s all about the ‘pull’ of word-of-mouth. Creating beautiful interesting stores, wonderful products and living its philosophy of purpose beyond profit compels customers to do their advertising for them as one by one they spread Kiehl’s secret with their friends.

Sampling. Kiehl’s diehards know one of the most fun things about going to Kiehl’s is snapping up all the samples. Each year they distribute over 40 million samples from their range of 300+ products. When you leave with your purchase, you’ll also be going home with at least three trial size samples to introduce you to another element of their range (knowing you’ll also spread the word to your friends).

Before you know it, you (and the friends you shared with) are heading back to buy the full size, full priced item and leaving with another new sample to try at home.

Benevolence. Kiehl’s just doesn’t give to multiple causes, it participates. And there’s a difference (for today’s more discerning customers) between just writing the check and demonstrating your commitment.

Community service is in the DNA of the brand. It dates back to WWI when John Kiehl’s donated cream to soldiers for their dry, chapped hands. Kiehl’s Gives is the name of their global CSI initiatives worldwide, and their focus is threefold:

• HIV AIDS
• Children’s causes
• Environmental issues

Kiehl’s is also active in the communities where they have established their shops. One example of this is that their stores can be used by local associations to conduct business.

Bonding. Beyond customers interacting with Keihl’s, the brand is a platform for its advocates to share with one another – through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Bold. The brand continues to surprise and delight, by adding new collections and addressing new concerns, and delivering on its mission “to improve in some way the quality of the community…making for better citizens, better firms, and better communities.”

In summary, if you’re a brand marketer and want to create a more passionate and loyal fan base, visit and learn from Keihl’s.