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Lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs

Lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs

Before Estée Lauder was the name of a global billion dollar brand, she was just a girl with passion and a dream. Sound familiar? Back when she was born in 1908, in New York City, the world was very different. Women couldn’t even vote, for one thing. Estée got her start selling skincare products that her uncle, a trained chemist, developed in a make-shift lab. She then created a face powder, a lipstick, and then a perfumed bubble bath that transformed the cosmetics industry. Estée Lauder was an innovator and a disruptor who changed consumer behaviour. Valuable lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs will inspire and motivate you as you build and manage your small business. But first, let’s look at the reasons why she was so influential.


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3 Top Reasons Why Estée Lauder was influential

Daily life, marketing tactics, and business operations were very different back when Estée Lauder was building her brand. But there are 3 top reasons why Estée Lauder was influential. Technology, society, and consumer behaviour may be different, but much of what she did is timeless.

Estée Lauder was a marketing genius

Here – have a sample, and try out this new cleanser. Though it’s common practice now, when Estée Lauder was building her brand, this wasn’t a thing. She introduced using free samples as a marketing tool. It’s a smart and effective way to reduce barriers to purchase. Giving customers the opportunity to use, try, and test a product or a service establishes consumer trust and positively influences buying decisions. This tactic is still used today, across all sectors – even in e-commerce! There are free trials of software services, free returns of products within 30 days, and Amazon has introduced a Try Before You Buy program.

Basically, Estée built her brand with word of mouth campaigns. She understood that people telling people about her products was more powerful than an expensive billboard or newspaper ad. “Telephone – telegraph – tell a woman” was her mantra. And as a marketing genius, she put herself in the shoes of her customers, and considered their perspective and experience. This approach is still recommended by top business schools and marketing experts. 

Estée Lauder broke barriers for women

Equality and empowerment for women were embedded in the company culture from the very start. In the 1960s, Estée Lauder was a place of employment and opportunity for women, at a time when women were still expected to consider “housewife” as their only career. Today, the company still makes history.  Over 50% of the leadership team at The Estée Lauder Companies are women. Most notably, almost half their Board of Directors are also women – at a time when on average, corporate boards only have 25% women.

Estée Lauder built a multi-generational business

Have you heard of the 3-generation myth? There are different expressions for it, which all express the same concept – the father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells. Note that all these expressions use the male gender. Patriarchy runs deep! 
And here, Estée Lauder was influential. She built her global brand as a multi-generational business. The company was privately owned by her family for decades, right up to 1995. Her children and grandchildren are billionaires and still have shares of the now publicly traded company. Top leadership still includes Lauder family members, so they remain involved and active in the company Estée built.

I was unstoppable, so great was my faith in what I sold.

3 lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs

She has been described as having a “challenger spirit”, which makes sense. For a woman to build a powerhouse brand using her name when women were usually secretaries and receptionists – she must have been a force of nature! The times have changed, but these 3 lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs are as valuable today as they were decades ago. 

Lesson 1: Keep the message simple

First of all, she kept her message simple – every woman can be beautiful. As a tagline and as a concept, it’s timeless. No matter what trends come and go, that simple message has an impact. It’s a message that fit when she started out with just 4 products, and still fit when  Estée Lauder grew to be a global brand with many product lines. This is a great lesson for entrepreneurs today. In this age of information we are flooded with content, and attention spans are short. Consumers today can be easily distracted by shiny things, so a complicated message gets lost. Keep it simple. As Simon Sinek says in his  must-read book for entrepreneurs, start with your why.

Lesson 2: Don’t let barriers be obstacles

In the 1960s, Estée Lauder wanted to scale her business and start marketing. However, colour ads were beyond their budget. Clearly, that could have been an obstacle. Alternatively, she could have overextended their financials and bumped up to colour ads. Instead, she saw this barrier as an opportunity to be unique. They ran with black and white photos, and embraced it. Black and white ads became part of their brand. This “Estée Lauder look” helped the brand differentiate from competitors. The lesson here is that sometimes, instead of overcoming something, you can go around it. The beauty of entrepreneurship is that we (mostly) have the room to be creative and innovate.

Lessons from Estee Lauder

Lesson 3: Innovate to differentiate

As shown above, Estée Lauder was a disruptor who knew how to innovate. When she was building her brand in the post-war 1950s, the cosmetics industry was pretty small. Perfume was only worn for special occasions. Women were gifted perfume for birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. Simply, it just wasn’t a social norm for a woman to buy perfume for herself. As a result, Estée knew that if she could give women a reason to buy scent, the potential market would explode in size. So in 1953, she created a scented bath oil, with a fragrance designed to last a full 24 hours. This innovative product was called Youth Dew. When it launched, it “Middle America went bananas for it” and sales reached 5,000 units a week – astounding for the time. This innovative product not only set the Estee Lauder brand apart from everyone else, it boosted revenues, transforming the small business into a million dollar company. The lesson for entrepreneurs is that instead of copying what everyone else is doing, look for ways to innovate and create something unique.



Estée Lauder may have been born over 100 years ago and did business in a very different environment. But her groundbreaking marketing tactics, and committment to creating leadership opportunities for women had lasting impact. She stuck to a simple brand message, never let a barrier be an obstacle, and innovated to differentiate – which are all valuable lessons from Estée Lauder for entrepreneurs.



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Rebecca Page-Chapman