Kiehl’s SVP Steven Waldberg on How Being “Where Culture Is” Powered >100% YoY EMV Growth

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Aug 15, 2023

In Ep. 92 of Earned, Conor sits down with Steven Waldberg, SVP of Global Brand Engagement & Communications at beloved apothecary skincare brand Kiehl's. The brand is a fan favorite online, ranking among the top 10 skincare brands by EMV in H1 2023 and enjoying impressive 102% half-over-half and 105% year-over-year growths. 



To start the show, Conor and Steven dive into Meta’s latest app launch—Threads—and Steven shares his thoughts on the platform thus far, explaining why marketers should be there to test and learn. With a plethora of social channels that exist today, Steven emphasizes prioritizing your investment based on where your target consumers are. Next, we take a step back and discuss Steven’s experience growing up in France with a French father and American mother, and hear how joining L'Oréal after college allowed him to live out his American dream of moving to New York. After many years spent at L'Oréal, Steven shares why he decided to venture into the fashion industry and take on global communications roles at Bulgari and Calvin Klein, before eventually returning to his “home” at L'Oréal. Conor and Steven then unpack the evolution of social media and digital marketing, and Steven emphasizes why brands should “be where culture is,” and lean into emerging platforms and creators in order to connect with their consumers. Steven also explains why the only way to be successful on new and existing platforms is to test and learn with curiosity and a willingness to fail. We then explore Kiehl’s’ approach to global marketing, and the keys to resonating with consumers across markets and cultures. To close the episode, Conor and Steven talk about overcoming their people-pleasing tendencies and the isolating nature of leadership. 

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“You have to be where culture is”: Steven Waldberg on Why Kiehl’s Leans In to Emerging Platforms and the Creator Economy

Conor Begley: Have you seen an acceleration within L'Oréal in terms of their focus on influencers, TikTok, all those channels?

Steven Waldberg: 100%. Data speaks. So you do these tests, and you see what it does to your business, and you're able to acquire new customers—younger customers—who are going to help future-proof your brand. So, of course, you lean in. The company is investing more in that, and that's absolutely the right thing to do. We've had some successful campaigns as well with Kiehl’s in the SAPMENA region, and some in the U.S. as well. So it's definitely something that is very, very relevant for us, and for most brands. It's the natural evolution of things for sure.

Conor Begley: What's funny is, it feels natural now, but I think you leaned in really early. I mean, we've known each other for so long, and there weren't a lot of leaders leaning in and around that time. So it feels natural that it’s occurring today, but it wasn't natural 10 years ago.

Steven Waldberg: Yeah, that's true. But I think you have to be okay with saying we don't know what we don't know. And so you go in with curiosity, with humility, and with the willingness to sometimes fall flat on your face. And if that's the case, you get up, you look at what you learned, and you move on. To me, that's the only way forward. 

Fear cannot get in the way. You have to test and [learn]. It's the same thing with Threads. It didn't take us two seconds to get on Threads. First of all, it's Meta. We're obviously on Instagram, we advertise with them, and of course you do some due diligence. You play with it a little on a personal level, but then you jump on it, and as a brand, you start seeing if it works for you, if it makes sense.

And if it doesn't, then it doesn't. You just move on to the next. But you have to be where culture is. You can't just be an observer, you can't just sit back and just watch the world go by. You have to be a part of it. 

Yeah, it comes with risks, but they should be measured risks. First of all, right now, Threads isn't monetizing, so right now it's an organic play. So just get in there. If you have a community manager, get in there, play with it, have fun, learn what's going on. These are the early days. It's not that complicated. Just get in there.

“You provide the framework, and then you have to let the countries do what they know how to do best, which is activate their customers”: Steven Waldberg’s Approach to Global Marketing With Kiehl’s

Conor Begley: One of the areas I think you have a lot of unique insight into is this idea of global marketing, so marketing from a global lens and perspective. And the other thing that I think is unique about you is you also speak multiple languages, which I think helps with translating through French or Spanish. 

Other cultures are different: they have different jokes, different mannerisms, different styles, different preferences. How do you go about navigating those differences as an organization? How do you manage so many unique cultures as a business?

Steven Waldberg: That's a really good question. Kiehl's is a global brand. We're present in over 60 countries across the continents. I think that where it all starts is you have to have a very strong foundation for your brand in terms of knowing who you are as a brand, what you stand for, what your purpose is, what your values are, and who your tribes are. And then you go down into how that manifests visually, how that manifests from a tone-of-voice perspective. So all of your truths, if you will, are going to be a common denominator for all of the markets in which you operate. And with that, you create a framework and you make it very digestible for your markets.

Then you have to workshop that with them, or certainly that's been our strategy with my team. You make sure that it's crystal clear to them. You make sure they understand it. You have to take in their questions, their challenges, in order to fine tune your brand's truth internationally. You provide that framework, and then you have to let the countries do what they know how to do best, which is activate their customers or potential customers, [using] what they know about those cohorts—but again, with that frame in mind.

I think humor is a really good example. I see humor as a big new rising category within our marketing and even creator space. I heard this at the Cannes Lions festival a few weeks ago: 90% of consumers say they want brands to use humor, but only 20% of brands do so far. I've noted a very drastic acceleration in the last few months in our space, in the beauty space, and we've leaned in and other brands have leaned in as well. But humor is something that is very, very local, and something that can be funny to us here in New York as Americans is not necessarily going to resonate in Spain or in China or in Australia the same way. There are so many nuances there. 

So again, that's where you go back to your frame. If you're talking about humor, how can you be a little bit more specific? What are the underpinnings of that humor that makes it Kiehl’s? Is there a rawness about it? Is it a certain form of sarcasm? Then you go and you tell the markets, okay, these are the criteria, now go and work your magic. 

We work so closely with all of our markets, so keeping that dialogue open is so critical. And then they will be quick to come back and tell us when they feel something doesn't work or isn't valid for them. So then we evolve, we pivot. And that's been my recipe for working with markets, never forgetting that as a global team, we are here to serve the markets.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is selling the products. That's what they do. I don't get paid if markets don't activate successfully and sell our products, right? So I'm here to, of course, provide them with a vision and a strategy, but that strategy is not set in stone, and they are part of it. They challenge it, they add to it, and it's a constant exchange. But they are my “clients,” if you will. And then their client is the person who buys Kiehl’s and who basically pays the rent for all of us. You have to have the utmost respect for that.


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