Maureen Case - the golden touch

By Janetta Mackay

Brand-building businesswoman Maureen Case epitomises the modern approach to selling luxury

Maureen Case, global president of Bobbi Brown and Jo Malone.
Maureen Case, global president of Bobbi Brown and Jo Malone.

Ask Maureen Case how she defines luxury and she talks of aspiration, artisanship, quality, service and experience. A bit like those magazines that note "POA" (price on application) in their captions for designer duds, money isn't mentioned upfront - not that the global president of Bobbi Brown and Jo Malone is coy about the stuff.

Beginning her career in financial management in the beauty industry, Case switched to marketing before heading the drive to take global some of Estee Lauder Companies' canniest purchases. Along the way she has worked in developing markets, doubled the group's travel retail sales and found time to "curate the DNA" of the likes of cult skincare company La Mer.

Though many businesspeople in the luxury sector talk such talk, Case has assuredly also walked it for three decades. It would be hard to find a more insightful guide to the high-end beauty market than this charmingly international American who I met in her home base of New York.

Case says the demand for luxury products will only continue to grow. She understands the demands of both mature and emerging markets, of consumer desire for understated elegance or flashier symbolism, all with an eye on entry-level affordability.

"That service element and feeling special is intrinsic, whether you're buying a Mercedes or a BMW, or you're in a Hermes store buying a bracelet because you aspire to Hermes, but a bracelet is all you can afford."

At the beauty counter, this translates to the best ingredients and packaging, and service from trained makeup artists. At home, it may be lighting a fragrant candle, enjoying a glass of champagne or fine wine, or using skincare that contains specially harvested sea kelp, bio-fermented for four months to luscious effect.

Case's own joy at opening a beautiful box of notepaper may seem in stark contrast to crowds queuing for the latest logo-bedecked handbag, but it's a continuum of demand.

"The trouble with luxury is one man's ceiling is another man's floor," she says.

In her simple navy shift dress, accessorised only by giant pearl drop earrings, Case is an artifice-free advertisement for the finer things in life.

"Whether it's beautiful light from a lamp or the feel of a carpet under your feet, or it's a wonderful cream or fragrance, it doesn't necessarily need to scream the brand, but you need to know it is the brand. I could talk about a number of brands that have lost their way. If you have to explain it, you're not really getting the message across," she says.

A sense of exclusivity or specialness is essential if a brand is to maintain its allure. "If you take a brand like Chanel, for example, where that little quilted bag is available in a lot of places, they've managed. It's how you conduct yourself in your branding at that high level; it's manageable, but is it easy to manage? No."

She points to Apple as a "truly amazing" example of a brand that is still coveted despite being readily available - albeit mainly through its own stores. "Everyone's got one but there's still that cult feeling."

Stealth wealth brands, such as leather-goods maker Bottega Veneta, may be less recognisable - except to those in the know - but this only increases their cachet.

"You need to really understand the brand - if you don't, the temptation to look at the competition or pander to what's on-trend can be inescapable."

Case's work is to steer growth, with or without a brand's founder, and to do this she has to "tease out" its key attributes.

She's found good brands are invariably underpinned by the founder's passion.

Case has worked closely with cosmetics queen Bobbi Brown for 14 years and describes the relationship as a partnership.

"Bobbi says I'm just like she is, except taller and better with numbers, which is very true."

It was Brown who suggested Case, then a new mother, cut back on the travel that being a general manager involved and switch to the marketing side for a spell. It was Case who helped Brown refocus on the basics and find time to communicate with her audience; she's now an enthusiastic Twitter user. "Bobbi has democratic aspirations but certainly we're prestige."

By 2002, Case had stepped up to take the helm of the company, and since then the Bobbi Brown business has grown on average 20 per cent each year, with the exception of the global financial crunch of 2009.

For fragrance brand Jo Malone, the "challenge" was in taking over in 2006 when the founder sold out and moved on. Embracing its essence - of transparency in fragrance, gorgeous gifting and a quintessentially English style - was crucial to ensure the brand would endure, but it also needed to evolve. Its message resonated well in countries with a strong Commonwealth heritage, such as New Zealand and Australia, but it was trickier to position in Asia, the Middle East and even the US, where England meant the Queen and Big Ben rather than Jo Malone's take on modern English luxury, centred around "the sort of lifestyle you might see in a posh London home or a country garden".

As with Bobbi Brown, looking outward at the universal desires for simplicity and prettiness helped to ensure a more international appeal without sacrificing the brand's original allure.

Adapting brands by region has also showed up some surprising synergies. BB creams quickly travelled from Korea. Fragrance styles developed to suit lighter Japanese and more intense Middle Eastern tastes soon found a following in the West and "brought oxygen into the brands".

Luxury, says Case, has always existed among the discerning and the affluent, but now it's an irresistible magnet to the upwardly mobile middle class in emerging markets.

"The days of brands marking up for the sake of marking up will diminish," she cautions, "because consumers will become much more aware of price and what goes into that price, so that's why it's really important to stand behind the brand."

An experience as well as an expense is an essential part of the beautiful package.

"I remember buying my first lipstick and it was, because my mother used it, Estee Lauder. It was a lipshine, because I was only 17, and I remember the thrill and that gold case because previously I had only used stuff from the drugstore."

- NZ Herald

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