Staying Hot (AKA The Other Kind of Sustainability): Can Frédéric Fekkai Get His Mojo Back?

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\"RR-FrédéricIf you’re older than a minute, and in the beauty biz in any way, shape or form, you will remember the epic hotness of one Frédéric Fekkai.

There was another guy named Oribe who was equally epically hot at the same time, circa 1995, and we’ll circle back to him later. But in the spirit of serving short Internet attention spans, our task today will be to focus on Monsieur Fekkai, and how his once ground-breaking product and salon business has changed hands more times than a blackjack whale on a bender in Vegas.

While much has been made of Fekkai’s swarthy good looks and devastating French accent over the years – and there is zero question that both factored mightily into his early success – the fact of the matter is that the guy is really smart and incredibly driven. You don’t get from Aix en Provence with a pair of scissors in your hand to acquisition by P&G for north of $400 million simply by trading on your own charm and pulchritude. The beauty industry isn’t Hollywood. (But then again, judging by all the A-list actresses launching lifestyle brands, Hollywood isn’t even Hollywood anymore…)

So if Fekkai is so sharp and business-savvy, why did Procter, after having paid so dearly for his brand in 2008, recently off-load it for roughly 1/8th of what it paid for it? And what, if anything, can Fekkai do to restore the former glory of his namesake salons and hair brews?

First, let’s tackle the P&G piece. Clearly, the Cincinnati-based behemoth – once the biggest consumer packaged-goods company in the world – is on a divestiture tear right now, shedding lines right and left. If you’re booting a biggie like Duracell – nabbed by Warren Buffett for a cool $3 billion earlier this year – it only stands to reason that a hairdresser brand with a waning share of mind (and probably next to no awareness among millenials), would be vulnerable, too.

But the larger question is: Why didn’t P&G do right by Fekkai while it owned it? If for no other reason than to keep the value high so they could fetch a pretty penny for it when they decided to kick it to the curb?

At P&G, the Fekkai moves gets curiouser and curiouser

From the get-go, P&G made a series of head-scratcher moves with the brand, perhaps because it’s a tricky combo pack of standard retail product and high-end salons in tony locales like SoHo, Greenwich, Palm Beach and St. Bart’s. Although it already owned big professional brands that were sold into salons, namely Wella and Sebastian, P&G wasn’t in the actual salon business, per se. And while it might have made sense to fold Fekkai into its professional division alongside Wella and Sebastian, P&G didn’t do that.

Instead, ostensibly because the Fekkai hair brand isn’t wholesaled to salons (yes, it’s confusing), P&G slotted it into its existing retail haircare unit alongside its drugstore rock stars Pantene and Head & Shoulders.

And quelle surprise, guess what happened next? Within a year of buying Fekkai, P&G announced that it was developing a “Classic” line of products that would be sold into Walgreen’s and stores of that ilk. This would be a less pricey version of the “Advanced” products sold at upscale retailers. Needless to say, those upscale retailers balked; Sephora and Neiman Marcus couldn’t drop the brand fast enough.

And could you blame them? What P&G proclaimed they liked best about the Fekkai brand – its luxury positioning and solid foothold in chic stores – is exactly what they set about dismantling as soon they bought it.

Next, in 2012, came an exit from all 25 international markets, so au revoir to any Fekkai fans in France and beyond who might have wanted to get their mitts on his famous Apple Cider Shampoo or Brilliant Glossing Crème.

And in 2013, P&G made a really strange move: Forget this Classic and Advanced nonsense; from now on, there will be one Fekkai line for all! We’ll lower the prices, trim the SKU count and sell it everywhere – including some of those international markets we just got out of! The next thing we know, Fekkai was on the chopping block.

To be fair, P&G wasn’t the first company that couldn’t figure out how to grow the Fekkai business; by the time it scooped the brand up from Catterton Partners, Fekkai had already passed through Chanel’s hands.

Yet another new owner. Now time for a fresh plan of attack?

Let’s hope the new owner – Fekkai Brands, a joint venture between Luxe Brands and Designer Parfums, a subsidiary of Shaneel Enterprises – is packing a different playbook.

Not that Fekkai himself doesn’t have work to do. If he wants to regain even a sliver of his former heat, he’ll need to switch-up his game big-time.

Just ask hair-industry guru Reuben Carranza. Not only did Carranza log 20+ years at P&G, most recently as CEO North America of its Wella Salon Professional division, he’s now overseeing the V76 and R&CO brands for buzzy Miami-based incubator Luxury Brand Partners. Another one of Luxury Brand’s babies: the luxer-than-luxe Oribe haircare line.

Although Fekkai and Oribe started their careers at the same time, their paths diverged wildly. And right now, it’s pretty much a classic “tortoise and hare” scenario between the two former rivals.

But despite the fact that he now works for the competition, Carranza is wishing Fekkai, whom he likes very much, all the best in his comeback bid. “Can he be successful again? That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “Becoming and staying relevant, in today’s world, with the 24/7 nature of social media and the 18-year-old YouTubers who have a million followers, is very different from when Mr. Fekkai became relevant initially.”

What about the Handsome French Hairdresser bit? Does that still count for anything? Sure, says Carranza, especially if Fekkai can get the world to focus back on him for a while, until his new owners get the product positioning sorted.

“He definitely has the look and the expertise to certainly command some awareness,” Carranza notes. “But I think the gymnastics that have happened with his brand have created a mountain for him to climb.\”

How to start the trek back up Hair Mount Olympus? Carranza says Job Number One is building a rock-solid social media program that “tells a new story” for Fekkai, one we haven’t heard before.

From there, Fekkai can carve one of two paths for his brand: 1) Head back to a luxury positioning and distribution, gut it out and stay there this time. 2) Go super-mass and lock into a costly print and television advertising battle with big hair guns like John Frieda and John Paul Mitchell.

I vote for the first path – a return to straight-up luxury. Not only is it a hell of a lot cheaper, it’s what Frédéric Fekkai is all about.



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