We’ve been talking a lot about Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the importance of a company figuring out its “Why”—its purpose. The idea that customers buy not what you do, or how you do it, but why you do it.
One man who understood both was Charles Revson. At the age of 25, Revson tweaked his last name to make it sound less harsh and launched the Revlon cosmetics empire in 1933, introducing color-coordinated nail polish and lipstick during the Great Depression. Talk about lousy timing for launching a vanity business.
Many commentators hailed the bright colors as “trashy,” but Revson instinctively understood women needed color to feel pretty. And during the Great Depression women were wearing drab colors, recycling rather than buying new fashions, so there was a ready market for relatively inexpensive glamour.
Revson’s competitors acted as if the product was a commodity, but he knew better. Nail enamel was not just a concoction of chemicals, or a beauty aid, but a fashion accessory, and he believed women should use different shades to suit different outfits, moods, and occasions.
This, of course, greatly expanded the market, as women now purchased multiple nail colors, and matching lipstick expanded the market again. Indeed, he understood better than his competitors what his customers were really buying, how to differentiate it, and price it.
His famous saying, “In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the store, we sell hope,” reflects the wisdom of a man in touch with his customers’ expectations.
Revson refused to believe what he sold was a commodity, and reportedly spend forty-five minutes in front of a seminar of his international marketing executives having a dialogue with a glass of water, attempting to illustrate the meaning of product differentiation. As explained by his unauthorized biographer Andrew Tobias in Fire and Ice:
…the water glass caught his eye. He picked it up, held it out in front of him, and said, in his friendliest way, “Hello, glass. What makes you different? You’re not crystal. You’re a plain glass. You’re not empty, you’re not full…” and then he began telling the glass how it could be made special…by changing the design, changing the color of the water, giving it a stem, and so on.
Revson didn’t compete on price, since he understood Revlon was selling the chance of turning the right head or lend a touch of class. While other polish sold for a dime, Revlon’s sold for .50¢, and its lipstick for $1.00 compared to .49¢, all during the Great Depression.
The most famous—and effective—shade promotion was launched, Fire and Ice, in the fall of 1952. There’s a little bit of bad in every good woman, Revlon marketers felt, what Kay Daly (a Revlon executive who was probably the highest paid female executive in the country) called “a little immoral support.”
Along with a picture of model Dorian Leigh, the ad copy ran the headline “ARE YOU MADE FOR ‘FIRE AND ICE?’” You were, the ad stated, if you answered eight of the fifteen questions in the affirmative.
The ad caught the country by storm, with nine thousand window displays devoted to it, every newspaper and magazine wrote about it, and every radio announcer made reference to it.
Norman B. Norman, head of Revlon’s advertising agency, Norman, Craig & Kummel, said:
All Revlon marketing had to do with emotions: how women thought, how they lived, how they loved. That’s quite different from what most companies do, where they describe their products, the benefits of them. Revlon never did that, which was a brilliance of its own.
One of the things that frustrates me about the distinction between B2B and B2C is it doesn’t take into account that humans purchase everything. And emotions are an enormously important factor in all decisions.
So here”s my question. What would a Fire and Ice campaign look like for a Professional Knowledge Firm? What questions would you ask?
Maybe we should have a contest for the best questions, with the winner given a bottle of one of Dan’s best wines?
[N.B. Fire and Ice is in my top 100 all-time favorite business books. Just an excellent read of an incredibly shrewd and driven man who changed the country's culture. Many would argue he was a misogynist. He might have been, but he sure understood what women were really buying. Visit my Shelfari.com bookshelf, and click on the tag "bbb" for the Top 100 best business books. You have to register for an account. Shelfari is owned by Amazon.]