Poets, philosophers, gurus and other thinkers have always suggested that the best way to combat age is to accept it, be yourself, enjoy the moment. But given the chance and the required cash, human nature, stimulated by advertising, will reach for an arsenal of wizard oils and surgical procedures to keep the grapes of youth from turning into raisins. Kirsten Hangarter from La Prairie holds some of that ammunition.
The cosmetics industry is fickle and highly competitive. Manufacturers have quite a task maintaining the popularity of their potions and oils, which may not be doing the job fast enough for impatient agers, well enough, or at all, for that matter. Beiersdorf’s luxury skincare brand La Prairie originated in 1978 at the Clinique La Prairie in Montreux, Switzerland, a Mecca for the globe’s VIPs and wealthy for now over 80 years.
Beiersdorf incorporated La Prairie Laboratories in 1991 and later formed the La Prairie Group, which also includes SBT Skin Biology Therapy. It is ironic, but not surprising, that Beiersdorf’s executive board is solely comprised of male directors in this multi-billion dollar industry, traditionally driven by female demand. The company’s middle management, however, includes a sizable number of women, including Kirsten Hangarter, La Prairie’s general manager for Switzerland.
In the loop
The best way to sell a product most likely is to be a living example for the benefits of the product. Blond, blue-eyed, with a voice and personality that seems to wrap itself around her interlocutors, Kirsten Hangarter is ageless and as such the perfect poster child for the brands she represents. She is completely at home in the world of cosmetics, having begun her career hands-on as an apprentice beautician. “Beauty and cosmetics have always been my subjects,” she recalls.
Her determination as well as her vast and hands-on experience propelled her career, which now spans more than 20 years. She managed Prada’s European skin care operations, for example. Then, at Beiersdorf, she held a number of different posts, including International Retail Director for the Juvena and Marlies Möller brands. More recently, she worked as the International Brand Director for SBT Skin Biology Therapy, where she was in charge of establishing the brand in Europe.
Another advantage Kirsten Hangarter brought with her is her Swiss-German origins, which give her a deeper understanding of Switzerland’s regional differences and their effects on business operations. “Whatever you are doing, the Swiss in the Romandie approach things differently than the Swiss- Germans, from retailers to consumers,” she points out. In the end, however, it is the bottom line that counts. And thanks to the relatively high level of disposable income, Switzerland boasts a top percapita consumption of luxury cosmetics, almost twice the European average.
In the recent economic uncertainty, luxury skincare demonstrated high resilience in comparison to the overall skincare market. One reason is the increasing perception of high-end, anti-aging products as an effective alternative to more aggressive and at times expensive cosmetic procedures. Another reason may be the high correlation between advertising and cosmetics consumption: in good times advertise, and in hard times make sure you advertise, goes the old saw. Indeed, with the general social mood barometer in a low-pressure zone, what better way to perk up one’s mood than applying a scented cream designed to take the wrinkles out of time?
One of the toughest challenges faced by luxury cosmetics – besides the presence of strong competitors – is to ensure an appropriate distribution, while simultaneously maintaining the exclusivity of the product. A mass distribution would quickly downgrade the value of the brand, while on the other hand, too much exclusivity restricts the distribution efficiency. But luxury will also gravitate towards the money, and the world right now is spiking with opportunities.
The BRIC nations are one possibility for market expansion and product diversification. Eager to capitalise on Asia’s powerhouse, for instance, La Prairie Group already tested the waters of the Chinese market at the end of 2005 by establishing a shop-in-shop system in department stores in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
The brand’s international expansion to more than 90 national markets, is the product of a clear strategy. For one, says Hangarter, the company does have an “unparalleled commitment to luxury”. In other words, no mixing with lowerclass products. La Prairie maintains its aura of exclusivity through a “targeted marketing strategy and selective distribution channels”. The strategy penetrates all the way to the choice of the company partners from suppliers, to distributors and sales personnel. “When everyone speaks the same language, has the same philosophy and communicates this to the end consumer,” she says, “you have a strong position in the market that makes a strong brand”.
Test tube wonders
What is at the source of all the exclusivity? Hangarter is ready with an answer: “Use of best ingredients and best technologies is the guiding principle for our research.” The research itself is performed at the La Prairie laboratories situated in the company’s Zurich headquarters. As for the components, they are even more unusual than those employed by Cleopatra back in ancient Egypt: Some La Prairie products have included the use of caviar and precious metals as ingredients, an odd cocktail that is intriguing enough to warrant a try. Of course, Hangarter is quick to highlight the importance of being open about the benefits of its products. But the company’s explicit open information policy is a challenge, especially in light of the “bio” trend that consumers have hopped onto and public reluctance when it comes to using chemicals and animal testing. “We talk about the technology and the ingredients that we are using, even though we do not talk about quantities or the way they are produced,” Hangarter says, adding: “I think La Prairie has always been able to explain the advantage of what they can offer.”
As long as there is a market, scientific breakthroughs and product innovation will continue to drive the skincare sector. And the future is looking good as wealth begins to emerge in faraway markets. A new target group is also growing: while La Prairie has traditionally specialised in skincare solutions for women, the company also provides a range of the unisex anti-aging products to appeal to affluent males. In the end, nothing will stop the inexorable lathe of time. But for many, even slowing it down is enough. As for Cleopatra, her modern beauty kit would no doubt include several of La Prairie’s technologically advanced solutions. Ultimately, the secrets of eternal youth are probably as personal as each person’s DNA.
Most recently, the firm introduced its new Cellular Power Infusion designed to awaken the skin on a cellular level. It promises to prevent the process of aging by targeting the weakened quality of skin tissue and excessive energy loss. Hangarter simply describes Cellular Power Infusion as “the process of recharging your mobile phone battery overnight”.
The scientists at La Prairie go a little further and attribute the results to four main components: a special skin renewal peptide, Swiss snow algae, a “tissue guidance matrix,” and a stem-cell extract from plants.
La Prairie has resolutely taken the technological road for its approach to innovation. “We will always make sure that we can prove to our consumer that the technology behind is the best that you can find in the world of cosmetics,” she affirms.
Article by Irina Pavlova