In business to Benefit WHOM?

The Benefit brand is a very “neat” brand— their groomed and polished brand has a distinct look that is all its own, a difficult thing to do in a crowded category like cosmetics. The brand’s aesthetics even shine among other aesthetic powerhouses— as Benefit displays not just prestige like the others, but also a sassy and flirtatiously funny brand voice. They are the anti-clinical, anti-pure, anti-serious cosmetics brand— their shops and branded sales areas are decked out in a vintage look, with throwback polka dots and stripes in pink and white.Benefit post image

It is a pinnacle of what professionals would consider great branding— and is an “It” brand, as featured in the Top Ten Prestige Brands on Facebook, according to Scott Galloway, NYU Professor, Stern School of Business. It probably does not hurt that they are owned by the superpower LMVH, corporate owner of Louis Vuitton— an entity that certainly knows something about the power of fantastic branding.

Benefit has a long history, but was new to me a few years back, as they began to be integrated into Macy’s around the country. I’ll be the first to say I am no makeup connoisseur, so they likely flew under my radar before that because of my limited engagement with the category. They were a makeup company first, but I got to know them because of their ingenious Brow Bars.

What is a “Brow Bar”? Offering walk-in service rather than the labor of setting up and showing up for an appointment at a salon, the aptly-named Brow Bar performed an expert brow groom for only $20. It was the service of a salon with none of the pretentiousness and hassle, in the close-by and accessible Macy’s.

I used them happily for years— dropping in during a lunch break, or right after work on the way to the train, whenever the brows were feeling a bit shaggy (not always predictable enough to schedule an appointment). As Benefit grew and grew (pun intended!), so did the number of people vying for the two stylized, white client chairs. This wasn’t too difficult to get around, initially— dropping in during a less-popular time still meant a “walk-in” service completed in about twenty minutes.

Recently, I tried to pop in to the Brow Bar at a Macy’s nearby, and was told the brow specialists were “booked all day, actually booked all week” and was showed a ledger full of appointments to back up that assertion. Would I like to make an appointment? I was a bit taken aback, as a quick assessment found there were three more ladies in pink (expertly-branded!) aprons standing around the makeup area, looking a bit bored. Apparently they weren’t on duty for brows that day? “Ok,” I said, “I will come back later this week.” I politely declined the booking, as 1. I genuinely had no idea when I would be back in the area and 2. if I wanted to make an appointment, I would just go to a salon.

Later in the week, I went to Benefit to find I was confronted with the same chock-full appointment book. Again, looking around the area and taking stock, I saw one brow stylist working that day (as corroborated by only one stylist’s name appearing on the ledger). And again, three semi-apologetic employees were standing around serving no one, theoretically ready at a moment’s notice to assist customers who were sure to come in…. IF they wanted to try on makeup products.

And THAT is when I shifted my frustration from the employees to the Benefit company, who had clearly made some deliberate staffing decisions that reflected some kind of change in direction or policy. A corporate decision that was on-the-face-of-it (another pun!) inexplicable, as it forced their front-line employees be in a position where they regularly had to turn down business (two women were also turned away immediately after me).

How could turning away business possibly be in any company’s best interest? How could the age-old wisdom of staffing according to demand be tossed aside? After thinking about it, I could only come up with a few viable solutions— but the key, in my mind, came back to the outsized proportion of staff hanging around the makeup, at the expense of the brow area.

It had to come down to chasing margins.

I would imagine that Benefit’s margin on a $20, 20-minute brow service is not massive— likely FAR leaner profit than selling mass-produced chemical cakes that might just cost cents for each dollar they fetch. I suppose THIS is why you might have a sales force of four women, three of which are selling makeup and only one of which is doing what is written on the door— offering a “brow bar.” Ostensibly, this is why Benefit might be willing to turn away paying customers who want one service, to place more effort on courting service for a different product.

The non-apology offered by staff was, “we’ve become really popular”— good for you, Benefit? It rang of saying that ‘business is so good, we can easily afford to turn away customers.’ But that doesn’t help anyone who needed your formerly niche service. It was one that filled a gap— offering a counterpoint to the inconvenience and high prices of salon appointments via a drop-in place where brows were groomed expertly and efficiently.

I can’t think of an example in which moving away from filling a unique gap in the market resulted in a company doing crisper business. Most brands would be thrilled to have a niche in their area, a service only they provide and execute well— as it is astoundingly rare to have a bonafide competitive advantage. But Benefit seems to have made the (boneheaded?) business decision to undermine their own advantage, and shift focus to their higher-margin, lower-demand product offering at the expense of their higher-demand area. In doing so, service is now at-parity with salons— and with the added irritation of bored, pushy makeup saleswomen to boot. In one decision, “Benefit Brow Bar” essentially disavowed their own name.

And in doing so, they showed a remarkable disregard for people who use the brand, and the needs customers are asking the brand to meet. In each exchange where I was dismissed, I felt completely un-valued and certainly left with no solution to my problem. How can you move someone up the scale of investing money in the brand and its higher-margin products without meeting the needs they enter with first?

In choosing to staff on-a-prayer of increasing a more lucrative, but less-demanded area of the business, Benefit rejected their own niche and the needs gap they served. They also showed that they are very much more interested in lining their own pockets than addressing the problems of their customers. At least, their current customers. There is a chance Benefit is gambling that moving in this direction will get them a newer and more lucrative consumer base, but there is a reason the old adage exists about keeping a customer being infinitely easier than getting a new one.

Given that, benefiting margin at the expense of the needs of your customer is no way to do business: it won’t work out the way you might hope, Benefit. Because after a few interactions with the brand’s front-line staff, it becomes glaringly apparent to customers that you are doing just that— benefiting yourself and not benefiting them.

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