‘A little immoral support.’
In the early 1930s, a young salesman began doing the rounds of New York beauty salons. He was fairly good-looking, but would have been otherwise unremarkable were it not for one thing: he wore nail varnish. Not only that, but he wore a different colour on each nail. It became his greatest sales gimmick: he would walk into a salon, nails aglitter with a rainbow of colours, and proceed to charm everyone around him, particularly the ladies.
While Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden made their fortunes from women’s faces, Charles Revson started lower down. He founded Revlon Nail Enamel in 1932 with his brother Joseph and the chemist Charles Lachman, the L in the company name. They’d developed a new manufacturing process that used pigments instead of dyes, allowing for opacity, staying power and a wide range of vivid colours.
Revson had not produced this expertise out of thin air. He’d been working as a salesman for a cosmetics company called Elka, where he had hoped to rise to position of national distributor. When this promotion was denied him, he went into business on his own, bringing with him a chemist and the germ of an idea.
Toughness and determination had been bred into Revson. The website of the Charles H Revson Foundation states that he was born in Boston in 1906 and raised in New Hampshire. Once again, it seems likely that the story was varnished. Several online sources suggest that Revson was born in Montreal, Quebec, and that his family emigrated to the United States a little later. But this is a detail: in the lively (1976) book Fire and Ice: The story of Charles Revson, the man who built the Revlon empire, author Andrew Tobias writes that Revson grew up with his two brothers in a cold-water tenement in Manchester, New Hampshire. His father was a cigar roller and his mother a saleswoman – later a ‘supervisor’ – in a local dry goods store. ‘They virtually never entertained, virtually never went out to eat… and had no telephone. (Or radio or gramophone.)’ The boys trudged two miles to school every morning.
Revson’s mother urged him – pushed him, even – to do better than his parents. He grew up streetwise, a natural talker. The family wanted him to be a lawyer, but he had a gift for sales. When he moved to New York, he got a job at the Pickwick Dress Company, run by a cousin. And there he began to display another, less expected talent – for colour. Writes Tobias: ‘By the time he left Pickwick he had worked his way up to being a piece-goods buyer, a job he preferred because it gave him the opportunity to work with materials and colours. He supposedly became proficient in differentiating between shades of black, which demands a sensitive eye.’
After a couple of unfortunate adventures – including a short-lived marriage to a showgirl – Revson ended up at Elka. So here he was, this fast-talking character from a poor background making his way in the business of beauty. Although Elka was a small firm in Newark that ‘did not have a great deal of class’, Revson noted that its opaque cream enamel was superior to other varnishes on the market, which were transparent. As he delivered Elka varnishes to beauty salons around the city, he paid attention to what customers said – their likes and dislikes, their needs and desires. And he would try the varnish on his own nails. He said so himself, in a 1949 interview: ‘I learned how to put it on for demonstration – still can. To this day, I try colours on myself. When you gotta learn, you gotta learn.’
When Elka refused to hand Revson the national distribution post, he got in touch with a business contact, Charles Lachman, who had married into a large chemical company called Dresden. Revson needed financial backing as well as Lachman’s technical expertise. Lachman came on board, bringing with him a nail enamel formula developed at Dresden. Revlon Nail Enamels set up shop in ‘a few feet of space in a cousin’s lamp factory at 38 West 21 Street’.
Revson was only 25. With nail varnish, he painted a future brighter than his mother’s most spectacular dreams.
Revlon Nail Enamel began selling its tough, colourful varnishes to beauty salon distributors, department stores and upmarket drugstores. Revson was particularly keen on department store beauty salons: if a woman had her nails painted with Revlon during a beauty treatment, she’d buy the same shade before she left. He was also careful to position Revlon as a premium brand. This was partly because – at least once the company had grown – the consumer was paying for Revlon’s sophisticated advertising campaigns. On average, the cost of making a Revlon product – including packaging and overheads – was about 33 per cent of what the consumer actually paid for it. But, like Rubinstein and Arden, Revson understood that women did not associate glamour with low prices. The hefty price tag, the lush advertising, the glossy packaging – these were all part of the beauty experience.
According to Geoffrey Jones, the company had secured 80 per cent of the American nail varnish market by 1940. At that point Elizabeth Arden had not even entered the category, which she still considered morally dubious, suitable only for temptresses and worse. Revlon now offered a full manicure range and swiftly moved into selling lipstick.
How did Revlon get so far so fast? One of the keys, purely and simply, was the hard sell. Revson was the consummate deal closer. Tobias quotes a former associate:
Charles personally went out and did the selling… personally got the distribution, personally slept with half the girls around the country to get counter space for Revlon. He was very human, very charming, very witty, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, and drank bourbon neat. His charisma is what built Revlon – and the rest of the industry as well.
While this makes Revson sound like one of the cast of Mad Men, it at least demonstrates the benefit of the personal touch. He criss-crossed the country, visiting salons and beauty shows. In a 1950 article in the advertising journal Printer’s Ink, Revson recalled an incident at the Midwest Beauty Show in 1934, held at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago:
I started my sales talk by showing the prospect how to apply our cream nail polish, then a new type. Before the week was out, I was teaching beauty shop operators and clerks how to demonstrate and use the polish. That group grew so big I had to rent the booth next to ours, and that additional space made my exhibit larger than our entire plant.
The incident resulted in a huge order from the Chicago department store Marshall Field’s. The company barely had enough stock to cover it.
Revson’s younger brother Martin joined the company as its sales manager in 1935. While he proved an equally gifted salesman, his greatest contribution was the recruitment of a nationwide sales force. They were driven hard. One of Martin’s innovations was what he called ‘Psycho-Revlons’: role-playing sessions in which his salesmen would demonstrate their techniques, only to have their performance taken apart by their boss. Tobias confirms: ‘It was an aggressive sales force; slackers were not tolerated. The pressure from the top came right down through the ranks to the salesman. One district sales manager required a lagging salesman to call in every two hours to report on his progress until his performance improved.’
Revlon was built not just on aggressive sales, but on after-sales too. Charles Revson bowed down to nobody – except his customers. ‘They are the real boss,’ he would say. In the early days he would wear nail varnish and lipstick to bed to see how it looked the next morning; later he set up sophisticated quality-control facilities.
He prided himself on being available for customers. According to Tobias in Fire and Ice, an advertising agency once tested this claim by getting a secretary to ring Revlon and complain about a lipstick she had bought – it was too soft.
[I]n a minute [Revson] was on the line. ‘You got the lipstick with you?… Turn it around and there’s a batch number. Give me the number… What kind of dress were you wearing with that lipstick?’ She shouldn’t wear Fifth Avenue Red, he told her, she should wear Pink Lightning… She got a nice lecture about what she should wear with what, her name was put on the list with the consumer relations department, and they sent her samples and questionnaires and everything else.
Revson understood what women wanted. His early background in the garment trade meant that he positioned his varnish as a fashion accessory, with colours to suit every ensemble, ambience and occasion. He abhorred research and test marketing – the Procter & Gamble approach – because he felt fashion moved too fast. He was the first to introduce the fashion industry concept of seasonality into the beauty market. Revlon launched new colours every winter and spring season.
As the company grew, Revlon was able to target different consumer segments: for example, it launched a hypoallergenic line called Etherea and a premium collection named Ultima. Like many marketing geniuses, Revson excelled at storytelling – which he referred to as ‘honest fiction’. As Tobias points out: ‘It didn’t cost any more to make dark red polish called Berry Bon Bon than to make plain dark red polish, and the one could be sold for six times the price of the other.’
The idea of colour themes proved particularly advantageous when Revlon introduced lipsticks in the 1940s. Now women could match their lips to their fingertips, as the brand’s advertising suggested. The concept also allowed Revlon to embark on flamboyant integrated marketing campaigns. The launch of a shade called Fatal Apple in 1945 comprised colour spreads in fashion magazines, complementary department store window displays, and a launch party featuring genuine apple trees, a snake charmer and a golden apple from Cartier.
It was inevitable that somebody as obsessive as Charles Revson should bring his perfectionist streak to the brand’s advertising – which was, after all, just a glorified version of his slick salesmanship. He would send print ads back for adjustments if a single colour in the lower right-hand corner displeased him. Marketing meetings could go on for days. (As one woman who worked in the packaging and design department in the 1950s observed, this was not unreasonable given that the then US$55 million company had been built almost entirely on marketing.)
Two classic campaigns put Revlon in the advertising history books. In those days, Revlon’s all-purpose advertising guru was a man called Norman B Norman, co-founder of the agency Norman, Craig & Kummel. But it’s generally acknowledged that agency copywriter Kay Daly did all the heavy lifting, with input from Revlon’s in-house marketing executive Bea Castle. Indeed, Daly eventually joined Revlon in 1961 as its creative director.
The first blockbuster ad appeared in the New York Times in 1950. It was minimalist in the extreme, bearing the headline WHERE’S THE FIRE? above a smoking hole, as if the paper’s pages had been charred. And that was all. There was no hint of a brand name or any explanatory text. It was a teaser ad – the kind of stunt media buyers still boast about today when they’re evoking ‘creativity’ in their profession. Revlon launched its new red lipstick, Where’s the Fire?, a few days later.
The brand struck again in 1952 with a product called ‘Fire and Ice’. The ad was created by Kay Daly, who recruited photographer Richard Avedon and supermodel Dorian Leigh. Daly and Avedon put Leigh in a skin-tight sparkling silver sheath dress, a scarlet cape falling insouciantly from her shoulders. Her red talons caressed her cheek, drawing attention to her bright red lips. The other hand rested suggestively on her hip, the nails angled downwards like arrows.
This time the text was all-important. It read: ‘For you who love to flirt with fire… who dare to skate on thin ice… for lips and matching fingertips… a lush and passionate scarlet… like flaming diamonds dancing on the moon!’
As if this breathless prose was not enough, the double-page spread came with a list of questions headed: ‘Are you made for Fire and Ice?’ These included: ‘Have you ever danced with your shoes off? Did you ever wish on a new moon? Do you blush when you find yourself flirting? Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you? Have you ever wanted to wear an ankle bracelet? Do sables excite you, even on other women? Do you think any man really understands you? Do you close your eyes when you’re kissed?’
Daly later said she enjoyed giving women ‘a little immoral support’. It’s perhaps this more than anything that distinguishes Revlon from Rubinstein and Arden. Charles Revson did not sell the promise of eternal youth. He sold sex, pure and simple. He understood, as Hollywood did, that glamour came with a naughtiness quotient.
Norman B Norman claimed that Revlon’s ads were read more closely than the magazine editorial around them. ‘All Revlon advertising had to do with emotions… how women thought, how they lived, how they loved… and we wove in our products. That’s quite different from what most companies do, where they describe their products, the benefits of them.’
Initially, Charles Revson steered clear of TV advertising, for one very obvious reason: in the 1950s, TV was still broadcast in black and white. Other beauty companies were not as shy of this infinitely promising medium. Hazel Bishop swept in from nowhere to take sales of her ‘No Smear’ lipstick to a quarter of the US market simply by being one of the first beauty entrepreneurs to advertise on TV. Her success was short-lived, as more powerful players stepped in and refined her formula. Among them was Max Factor, who developed make-up specifically for television performers and began sponsoring televised beauty pageants (see Chapter 7, ‘The stardust factor’). If Hollywood transformed making up from a sin into a glamorous luxury, TV turned it into a daily habit, an essential component of womanhood.
Norman B Norman persuaded Revson to try sponsorship in the form of a CBS quiz show called The $64,000 Question. At first Revson was uneasy about the deal – he wasn’t sure that it was the right environment for his trendy, ‘premium’ products – but he soon changed his mind. Four weeks after the first broadcast, on 7 June 1955, the show was at the top of the ratings and Revlon products were selling out.
Writes Andrew Tobias:
The Question raised Revlon sales, profits, and consumer awareness so dramatically as to put it miles ahead of its competitors… Sales… suddenly shot up 54 percent in 1955… The next year, sales were up yet another 66 percent, to $85 million, and profits better than doubled… Helena Rubinstein, Max Factor, Coty, and Hazel Bishop, which had all been at least within striking distance of Revlon before The Question went on the air, were left bitterly in the dust.
Revlon was allowed three one-minute commercials per week – and it made the most of them. They were staged live, which added to the drama for the viewing public. This also enabled them to overrun considerably, ensuring maximum publicity for the brand. The problem of expressing colour on a black-and-white screen meant that each ad had to be as spectacular as a Hollywood musical: dry ice, waterfalls, willow trees and even live ducklings – which predictably ran amok – were some of the features of these miniepics.
The quiz show rollercoaster ride did not last long. In 1959 The $64,000 Question was derailed by the discovery that another popular show, Twenty One, was rigged – the contestants knew the answers from the outset, their reactions stage-managed. (The scandal is captured perfectly by Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show.) During the Congressional hearings that followed, it became clear that, although The Question was not rigged in quite so obvious a way, the questions were written to play to contestants’ strengths. It also emerged that Revlon had voiced its opinion – quite forcibly – about which contestants it liked and which it didn’t. But, no, of course it didn’t try to have unattractive contestants thrown off the show: how could you suggest such a thing?
Revlon escaped relatively unscathed, and the scandal turned out to be the merest dip in the company’s rapidly ascending fortunes. By now it had begun to expand abroad, launching its products in France, Italy, Argentina, Mexico and Asia. In Japan, Revson took a gamble. Instead of taking a local approach – with specially formulated products and ads featuring Japanese models – he sold a racy American lifestyle, with the same sexy models who’d worked so well back home. The approach paid off: Japan became one of the brand’s most successful markets.
Meanwhile, Revson diversified. Initial acquisitions in the areas of shoe polish, electric shavers and women’s sportswear were quickly abandoned – but he did far better in the pharmaceutical market, acquiring a company that made a best-selling diabetes drug. He later sold this to Ciba-Geigy in exchange for a portfolio of other pharmaceutical products. Revson was aware that the world of skincare and pharmaceuticals would soon overlap: in 1968 he introduced Eterna 27, a moisturizing cream containing Progenitin (pregnenolone acetate), which can affect levels of oestrogen when taken orally, and is said to create a ‘lifting effect’ when used on the skin.
Revson was now stepping firmly on territory that had previously been dominated by his competitors. In 1973 he launched a fragrance called Charlie. The advertising aimed the brand squarely at modern young women: spirited, independent, sexually liberated. Flick-haired model Shelley Hack twirled through the TV ad in a Ralph Lauren outfit, including trousers. This was a perfume advertising first; women got the message that the Charlie girl wore the pants. Hack went on to play a similarly empowered young woman in the TV show Charlie’s Angels. ‘It was a time when women were changing,’ she told Oprah Winfrey in a 2008 interview. ‘Women looked at [the ad] and said, “I want to be like that.”’ Geoffrey Jones describes Charlie as ‘the first modern lifestyle fragrance’. By 1980, it was outselling Chanel No. 5.
But Charles Revson was no longer around to savour the success of his creation. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1975. His way with beautiful women stayed with him almost until the end. The same year that he launched Charlie, he signed up Lauren Hutton – with her unmistakable gap-toothed smile – as the exclusive model for the Ultima line of cosmetics. The fee was US$400,000, the highest ever paid to a model at the time. Richard Avedon came on board as exclusive photographer. The story was so big that Hutton made the cover of Time magazine.
Revson had ensured his company’s future by hiring sharp businessman Michel Bergerac (born in France, he’d taken US citizenship in 1963) as his successor. Revson had launched a headhunt to find the best businessman in the world, and he’d decided that Bergerac fitted the bill. The son of a Biarritz electrical company executive, Bergerac had studied law and political science at the Sorbonne before earning a Master’s in business administration at Stanford. He was working at the Canon Electrical Company in Los Angeles when it was acquired by ITT. By the time Revson found him, he was running the company’s European operations and tipped to become its chairman. Revson offered him an unprecedented US$1.5 million ‘signing fee’ to come and run Revlon (‘Michel Bergerac: a 1.5 million dollar man takes charge at Revlon’, People magazine, 8 December 1975).
Revson had tacked up a quotation in the company’s corporate dining room: ‘O, Lord, give me a bastard with talent.’ But while Bergerac had plenty of talent, he did not appear to possess a mean streak. His ‘soft-talking, insouciant’ style was in complete contrast to that of the abrasive Revson. In other words, he was the perfect choice for running what had become a corporate machine. He expanded the company’s healthcare division, making acquisitions in dental care, optical equipment and contact lens manufacturing, as well as in the pharmaceuticals sector. This helped turn Revlon into a US$1.7 billion corporation by 1979.
It also meant that the company became rather colourless. It was a beauty giant, but it was no longer a trendsetter. Revson had feared as much. In the years before his death, he had become aware of a third threat to his market share beyond that of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The name had been cropping up since the late 1950s, and now it was one to be reckoned with.