When it comes to launching a successful modern beauty brand, Helen Steed knows her stuff.
As the first creative director of Glossier, the London native helped to build that ubiquitous brand from the ground up when she joined in December of 2014 — touching everything from the product design to the website. Steed was first brought on to define and hire the sort of creative talent required for a direct-to-consumer beauty brand, which Steed described as “non-typical and cross-functional.” Working for the brand’s CEO and founder, Emily Weiss was nothing short of inspiring, said Steed: “She’s a true visionary.”
Prior to that, Steed spent about 10 years heading up creative for Bumble and Bumble, where she worked closely with founder Michael Gordon. “I feel pretty lucky have been part of building both brands,” Steed said of the experience.
Add to that a stint at the wearables company Jawbone and time spent at various UK branding agencies, and Steed has over 25 years of experience.
After leaving Glossier in late October, Steed is now moving back to the agency side, joining the branding agency Aruliden as vice president and creative director in December. It’s a good fit: Aruliden’s beauty clientele is stacked, including the likes of Shiseido Group, Coty and Estée Lauder.
According to agency co-founder Rinat Aruh, it was Steed’s ability to step back and look at the bigger picture (beyond the pretty packaging) that intrigued his team. “As a creative leader today, you need to look to a variety of [areas] to become relevant: product, brand and even business model innovation,” she said. “It’s essential to go beyond just being a great brand or product.”
We recently spoke to Steed about she learned while at Glossier, what the greatest challenges are for beauty brands today and how she plans to help Aruliden’s roster of older clients adapt for a younger, digitally-savvy consumer.
What would you say were the biggest lessons you learned about building a modern beauty brand while at Glossier?
To build any successful modern brand, I think it takes a willingness and desire to truly think outside of the box, to deeply know and understand your prospective audience, to know what’s missing, and then — with a strong, stubborn vision — to start defining the story and brand. Find the team you need to bring that vision to life, then never give up.
I’ve learned over the years that brands are no longer created in a vacuum — or in a boardroom, for that matter. The customer must be part of the conversation and has to have a seat at the table, hence it’s vitally all-important to listen to your customer and engage.
To maintain relevancy, it’s important for brands to always look forward and to reinvent, based on needs and wants, and to not look back or around at how other brands in the same sector have succeeded and then imitate. This only leads to short-term gains. To be relevant, brands need to stay fresh and not settle.
You were tasked with rounding out the initial Glossier team. What did you look for?
I looked for and built a very cross-functional, non-typical creative team: graphic and packaging designers that were from architectural design backgrounds, a very talented former head of design from Bumble and Bumble, and digital designers with backgrounds in both tech and beauty. It’s so important to have that range of experience — each team member should have unique superpowers that complement one another.
When it came to our messaging, voice and content, the secret sauce was editorial expertise, which is part of the Glossier fabric — so, people with both beauty space and customer engagement experience from Into the Gloss, as well as a former creative operations director at Spotify.
What are the greatest challenges facing a modern beauty brand today?
Choice. Given the wide number of options out there, a brand needs to decide how it can stand out: Is it price? Quality? Design? Relevancy? Does it stand for something? Why should a customer choose you over the competition?
Participating in and developing forums and online communities that will help customers make the right decision is incredibly important. Brands can’t just be OK at this — they must seriously embrace and exploit it. This goes for pretty much any sector, whether choosing a face wash, a mattress or the best, most responsibly made cashmere sweater.
Why do you think it’s harder for traditional brands to adapt?
It can be harder for more traditional brands to be able to move fast enough — to adapt and change — especially if they are attached to complex operational procedures and protocol. But that’s not to say this isn’t changing; larger corporations are creating or acquiring smaller, more nimble sub-brands that can appeal to those customers who love and desire a constant stream of newness or more accessible price points.
What will your day-to-day entail?
At Aruliden, there’s a good chance the team may be working on 10-15 different projects and multiple brands on any given day, all at different stages of development. I’ll be partnering with the design teams, strategists and clients to solve their problems and tell brand stories through meaningful design. We’ll be working on a broad mix of brands — from startups to established brands — in the technology, beauty and lifestyle spaces, which keeps it exciting and and will surely keep me on my toes.
What will you look at first when helping these companies translate their branding for today’s consumer?
It’s always important to dive in and fully understand a client’s market and who their customer is: What’s their story, and what are their aspirations? We must ask: What problems are we trying to solve? It’s important to start from a solid knowledge of where we are — who we are selling to and what they want form the brand — as well as where we’re going.