Estée Lauder: Female Guerrilla Marketer

By George Farris

Are you awed by the marketing savvy, strength and perseverance of visionaries like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?  Does their commitment to building their respective brands (Apple, Tesla and Amazon) into culture-changing powerhouses impress you? You should be impressed – considering their innovative, aggressive, unrelenting styles.

Yet, if Jobs, Musk or Bezos had to go head-to-head with a petite lady named Estée Lauder, my money would be on Lauder.

Estée Lauder – the company – is the global leader in cosmetics with annual revenues of $14 billion and 48,000 employees working across the globe. But the story of Estée Lauder – the person – is not well known. Lauder’s natural marketing skills, moxie and commitment are largely responsible for the position of the company today.  

George Farris

According to, Lauder was born in New York City in 1908.  She learned her first marketing lessons as a child in her father’s hardware store: assertive selling, perfectionism, promotion of quality products, and, above all, attention to outward appearance. Drawn to fashion and beauty at an early age, she learned the secrets of making lotions and skin creams from an uncle, a European skin specialist. 

Estée founded Estée Lauder Inc., in 1946. At the time, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Charles of the Ritz, and Revlon dominated the industry.

Undaunted by these industry giants, Lauder listened to women talk about their insecurities with their looks. She set about creating solutions women craved and she succeeded.

Then she tried to get her products in the high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. But these hotshot establishments didn’t want to stock products from a company with a name that was virtually unknown.

So Lauder scraped together $50,000 for an advertising campaign to try to make her company’s name better known, according to an article in But many advertising agencies turned her down because of the small size of her account.

Estée then decided to invest the entire $50,000 advertising budget in producing samples. Those samples were offered through direct mail, charity giveaways and as gifts with purchases. She started giving free demonstrations and makeovers at salons, hotels, the subway and even in the street. She also began visiting the homes of her customers, where she would do makeup for their friends and sell more cream. It wasn’t long before Lauder was a fixture on the guest lists of New York City’s most influential hostesses.

When first-time buyers of Estée Lauder products went to the high-end stores to get refills, they found their favorite stores didn’t carry the products and they complained – loudly.  Soon, the stores were forced to stock Lauder’s products. 

In 1985, she published an autobiography, Estée: A Success Story. In it, she described some of her basic strategies: opening the Estée Lauder counter at each new store in person, offering free promotional items, and remaining personally involved with the company. 

Today, what she did would be called guerrilla marketing. Estée Lauder also believed in word-of-mouth marketing. One of her most famous (and politically incorrect) marketing quotes was, “Telegraph, telephone… tell a woman.”

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Estée Lauder believed in her products. But she had the one-on-one connection with people that nerds like Jobs, Musk and Bezos could not imagine. Successful as they are, they are lucky Estée Lauder wasn’t one of their competitors. If she were, I’d have one piece of advice: “Get used to second place.”

George Farris is CEO of Farris Marketing. Email