Corporate values drive L’Oréal’s inner beauty

You've likely seen the glamorous, glitzy side of L'Oréal, one of the world's top beauty brands. But behind all the glitter is an entity that's at once an innovative scientist, a savvy marketer and a resourceful talent scout. Far away from the cosmetic counters, L'Oréal is walking the walk when it comes to its corporate values of diversity, innovation and individual talent.

You’ve likely seen the glamorous, glitzy side of L’Oréal, one of the world’s top beauty brands. But behind all the glitter is an entity that’s at once an innovative scientist, a savvy marketer and a resourceful talent scout. Far away from the cosmetic counters, L’Oréal is walking the walk when it comes to its corporate values of diversity, innovation and individual talent.

Next year, the global beauty brand will mark its 100th anniversary, and in Canada, L’Oréal is now celebrating its 50th. So how did ‘The Safe Hair Dye Company of France’ build its empire while staying true to its roots?

The company was started in 1907 by French chemist Eugène Schueller, and its pioneer product was a safe-to-use hair dye manufactured under the names Noir et Or, representing the range of dark and gold hair colours, and L’Aureale, from the Latin ‘aureola,’ meaning gold crown or halo, for its fragrances and hair colours. It was later changed to L’Oréal.

Today, L’Oréal is found in 130 countries worldwide, and last year it posted global revenues of $18 billion. The beauty behemoth’s 32 brands can be found in department stores, pharmacies, mass merchandisers and grocery stores.

In 1958, L’Oréal products began being sold in Canada through Cosmair, a distribution channel for L’Oréal Paris. It wasn’t until 1998 that Canada had its own L’Oréal operation. Today, L’Oréal Canada employs 1,200 people at its Montreal-based facility. In global sales, the Canadian subsidiary ranks seventh, with L’Oréal brands owning more than 20% of the beauty category here. In 2007, Canadian net sales amounted to $822.4 million – a far cry from figures racked up in 1968 ($1 million in net sales) and even in 1987 ($100 million).

‘It was a huge evolution for us,’ recalls Montreal-based CMO Dominique De Celles, who started working for Cosmair in 1985, of the switch to the L’Oréal Canada brand name a decade ago. ‘We became part of a multinational corporation. The Women in Science, our recruitment strategy, our link to business schools, the culture of entrepreneurship – all of these values came to life after we became part of the L’Oréal group.’

When it comes time for its brands to come to life, L’Oréal Canada taps its agency roster, which includes ZenithOptimedia, Marketel and Publicis, and invests significantly in the marketing of its brands. Each year, it launches 150-200 major initiatives and programs. The Canadian marketing team for each brand is tasked with adapting the global product portfolio to make it relevant to the Canadian market. Each of the company’s go-to-market initiatives are 100% Canuck. Examples of these few but significant partnerships include L’Oréal Fashion Week, Project Runway Canada, Luminato, Garnier’s partnership with Canadian songbird Chantal Kreviazuk and Redken’s affiliation with OneXOne.

Much like its legions of hair-dyeing consumers, L’Oréal’s corporate roots are meant to fade to the background. ‘In our culture, the brands come first,’ explains Sandrine Michard, VP of corporate communications at L’Oréal Canada. ‘We’ve always been more active in marketing each of our brands and their culture. That is very deep at L’Oréal.’

As such, building the corporate brand is something of a new endeavour – an unusual approach for a company about to celebrate its centennial. Corporate branding for L’Oréal stems from its two key initiatives: talent recruitment and programs to support the scientific community.

In a nod to the company’s scientific roots, globally L’Oréal teamed up with UNESCO to develop the L’Oréal -UNESCO Awards for Women in Science. Each year for the past decade, the program has been awarding its Laureates – a diverse mix of five leading female researchers from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa – with special recognition for their contributions to science.

‘The idea is have good representation of women in science,’ says Michard. ‘We need the younger generation to see themselves as future scientists. Because this company was started by a chemist, we understand the importance of innovation and research. This program bridges the two things that we are about: women and science.’

Building on this value, and noticing a dwindling participation of girls in the sciences, L’Oréal Canada partnered with academic and scientific associations to develop a mentorship program. The result? ‘We reach more than 5,000 girls through group interactions with our own scientists and engineers. This gives the girls a real idea of what science can lead to,’ says Michard.

The company applies that same innovative spirit to its recruiting methods. L’Oréal’s unique business games are designed to cull the best talent from all corners of the globe, targeting students in multiple disciplines such as marketing, engineering and operations.

Want to work for L’Oréal? Then brace yourself for one of the most rigorous job interviews around. Pooja Subramanian can tell you all about it. In 2004, she was hired after winning Brandstorm, a competition aimed at marketing students across the globe.

Brandstorm works like this: As part of their curriculum, teams from participating schools around the world find out firsthand what it takes to be a L’Oréal brand manager. With a brief from the firm’s in-house marketing team in hand, they’re tasked with crafting an international marketing strategy for a specific brand. Participants get to work with L’Oréal’s ad agency to develop a product, packaging and communication campaign, and if successful, they then pitch the idea to L’Oréal’s top brass in Paris. The winners win

$3000 in travel booty – and a job. Subramanian is now a Montreal-based product manager for the L’Oréal Paris hair colour line.

‘We worked with Publicis, and they billed us their hours just as they did their other clients,’ recalls Subramanian, whose team’s winning concept supported the Biotherm Homme brand. Their campaign employed billboards, mural projections and ‘a 3D dome of the Biotherm Homme man and his world. If you got within 100 metres of it, you’d get a text message to your mobile for a free sample.’

‘We see some wild things coming out of this exercise,’ says Michard. De Celles echoes the sentiment. ‘The L’Oréal group worldwide has been greatly inspired by these students,’ she says. ‘There were some communications and media plans that were definitely an influence.’ Last year, a team from HEC Montreal created a video touting Redken for Men. L’Oréal did the same thing, creating a video supported virally through postings on YouTube and Facebook, among others.

Since 1993, Brandstorm has had more than 27,000 students participating from over 200 schools in 34 countries. Between 2002 and 2007 alone, 147 Brandstormers have since become L’Oréal employees.

Brandstorm’s success has led to L’Oréal seeking talent in other disciplines through more business games. In 2001, it launched Ingenius, an annual international engineering and supply chain competition. In the past three years, 22% of Ingenius participants have scored jobs with the global beauty brand.

Meanwhile, the company’s newest business game, the L’Oréal e-Strat Challenge, places MBA and business undergrads into the role of GM. Their goal? To achieve the highest Share Price Index. This year’s competition marks a new partnership with Google, which is helming the game’s e-commerce aspect. This was a banner year for Canucks competing in the firm’s business games. Pascal Parent,

Jean-Michel Talbot Bolduc and Miguel Costa from the Université de Sherbrooke won for L’Oréal Ingenius. Meanwhile, Robbie Agar, Amelia Miao and Fady Abdel-Nour from the Schulich School of Business took the gold in the L’Oréal e-Strat competition.

To commemorate its anniversary, L’Oréal is forgoing a splashy consumer push in favour of using the milestone to thank its community partners and employees through a global celebration. In Canada, look for initiatives involving industry stakeholders and a showcasing of the ways L’Oréal is working with the community.

‘We have a philosophy in our philanthropy,’ explains Michard. ‘We don’t [use] our money to promote what we are doing. We’d rather put the money directly into the programs instead. [Through these programs] we invite people to see what’s possible.’

Apparently wisdom does improve with age.