Meet Clinique's marketing sage

Alumna Cara Robinson is working to keep the prestige brand relevant in a millennial-driven market.
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June 14, 2018

Arriving at Clinique’s sleek offices, headquartered in the General Motors building towering above Fifth Avenue in New York City, visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’d stepped inside some high-tech, space-age lab. The sleek offices are high-gloss modern, bathed in surgery theater lighting.

It’s here that Cara Robinson M.B.A. ’98, vice president of global marketing, makeup, and fragrance for Clinique, directs strategy for the quintessential beauty brand. Her office is loaded with products notable for their familiar, simple, clean packaging and those opaque bottles filled with pastel-toned miracle workers. The walls, however, are adorned with several mementos and images. In one, the words “If Ruth Bader Ginsburg can show up every day, you can too!” are emblazoned alongside the eighty-four-year-old Supreme Court justice. That photo shares space with baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the iconic “Think Different” Apple Computer campaign. She calls them “great subliminal daily reminders that keep me inspired.”

As Clinique’s marketing sage, Robinson oversees one of the cosmetic sector’s biggest prestige players at a time when the industry is in the midst of fundamental change. Consumers, who once made their beauty findings at their local department-store counters, are now discovering indie brands on social media and through beauty influencers—and increasingly buying them online or at cutting-edge multi-brand retailers like Sephora and Ulta. Now after fifty years of counter dominance, Clinique, one of the stars in beauty conglomerate Estée Lauder’s galaxy of marques, finds itself in the position of having to introduce itself to a new generation while re-acquainting itself to its longtime beauty consumers. And for Robinson, who started at Clinique four years ago, that means “humanizing an iconic brand.”

It all began in 1967 when Estée Lauder happened to read an article in Vogue that asked: “Can Great Skin Be Created?” Featuring Norman Orentreich, then dermatologist to the stars, the piece turned conventional wisdom about skincare on its head: One didn’t have to hit the genetic lottery to have a lovely complexion. Lauder, who launched her eponymous brand in 1946, joined with Orentreich and Carol Phillips, Vogue’s beauty editor, to create Clinique. A year later, the brand debuted with its now famous 3-Step Skin Care System.

Clinique differentiated itself from the outset. For one, its dermatologist-guided program was the first that was both allergy-tested and fragrance-free. Clinique not only revolutionized skincare and cosmetics (it was the first beauty brand to make sunscreen a daily part of skincare regime)—but how they were sold, too. It was Clinique that popularized the Gift with Purchase (GwP), providing generous vials of its Dramatically Different Moisturizer, blushes, and lipsticks in snazzy reusable travel bags. The product of a brilliant marketing strategy, GwPs introduced new users to the brand and longtime customers to new products. It wasn’t long before Clinique expanded its offerings to include cosmetics, fragrance, and a men’s line.

Legions of teens, their mothers by their sides, have been introduced to the concept of skincare at a Clinique counter. Numerous women remember Clinique Happy as their first fragrance and Black Honey, their first serious lipstick shade. And there’s the rub. Over time, Clinique in consumers’ minds has come to be viewed as either a starter brand or your mother’s brand. And that for Robinson, is both a blessing and a curse.

“We don’t suffer from brand-awareness issues,” she says. “I think where we have some challenges is being part of the current consideration and really being perceived as relevant.” As she notes, “Millennials and younger consumers are not necessarily getting their information from their mother. If anything, they are informing their moms about what is new and what’s different.”

Take Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics. Largely fueled by Instagram and a massive hit with young customers, according to WWD, the brand hit $420 million in sales in just eighteen months—a revenue metric most cosmetic companies took years to achieve.

“Broadly speaking, with a heritage brand,” says Larissa Jensen, beauty analyst at NPD Group, “you have a lot more history tied to what you’ve always done. Consumers are not as concerned with brand or their legacies as they are excited about discovery and trying new.”

So, where does that leave a heritage brand like Clinique? “We were founded on the promise that great skin can be created,” says Robinson. “We still exist to ultimately create great skin. What will change is how we communicate with our consumer and our tone of voice with her—more relevant, engaging, and modern.”

One of Clinique’s greatest assets, in Robinson’s view, is the authority and trustworthiness it has built with its consumers over decades. “I think a lot of brands are chasing the millennial consumer, and we do want to service that consumer as well,” she says. “But I think we also want to be true to who we are and who our core target really is.”

Robinson is hardly daunted about the prospect of finding that sweet spot of being attractive to a broad customer base and a focused one. After all, she forged a rather unconventional path to the world of marketing in general—and Clinique in particular.

A native of Washington, D.C., Robinson earned her bachelor of arts degree, majoring in Spanish language and culture, from the University of Virginia. She then spent a year teaching English as a second language in Puerto Rico. Along the way, she came to the realization that she wanted to shift gears and become a business leader. That meant getting an M.B.A.

During her first year at Fuqua, Robinson met Ann Fudge, then president and general manager at Kraft Foods, a moment that helped set her own trajectory. Fudge came to Fuqua as part of the Distinguished Speakers series and, says Robinson, “it was the first time I’d seen and interacted with an African-American woman in business who was at such a senior level. Her speech was dynamic and authentic and, in that moment, I’d decided I wanted to intern at her company and that I also wanted to become an executive fellow.” Robinson achieved both goals.

After graduating from Fuqua, Robinson returned to Kraft, working on the Maxwell House coffee rebrand. In 2000, she headed back to D.C., landing at Capital One. The bank, then just seven years old and with little national name recognition, was mostly known for its balance transfers and was looking to build the brand. Robinson worked on its “What’s in your wallet?” campaign. After three years, she concluded that the financial-services industry wasn’t all that interesting. She jumped at the opportunity to return to New York and move over to the beauty sector.

While coffee and banking wouldn’t seem the prerequisites to steer a beauty brand into the twenty-first century, Robinson says one of the main things she took from her time at Fuqua was the ability to be a collaborative and conscientious leader. And, at Kraft, she honed her abilities to “focus on market research, advertising and communicating how to establish a brand with zero awareness into consumers’ minds.”

Indeed, in some ways, the situation with Clinique is similar to the one she found at Maxwell House, as upstart Starbucks was on the rise. “That was taking a venerable brand and figuring out how to make it relevant.” Beyond that, “there is really a challenge from consumers about traditional Western ideals of beauty.”

Unlike most beauty brands, Clinique has never been driven by celebrity. To that end, Robinson has been focusing on reinforcing Clinique’s message with its consumers about authenticity and trustworthiness. “What we’re doing is really going back to our roots in terms of the voice and how we speak to consumers.” Today’s consumers are exceptionally savvy but also wary when it comes to inauthentic products or histories, she says. “I think our challenge, something that we’re trying to figure out, is how do you capture the magic of our visual identity and that voice and that authenticity in a way that is compelling and relevant today. It’s an ongoing challenge.”

Clinique has shifted away from traditional department- store counters to multi-stores like Sephora and Ulta in the U.S., collaborated with Google and Facebook, and launched a series of You-Tube tutorials. Still, Robinson says it’s important for Clinique to be true to its venerable history. “We want to do things the Clinique way, versus the way everyone else does it.” 

Perman is a journalist and author of three books, most recently, A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch.