In April I had the pleasure of meeting up with Irish born Helen Gaughran, the woman behind Benefit Cosmetics Branding (all those catchy tags and story lines). Basically she is responsible for my irresponsible spending at Benefit Cosmetics! I love the packaging and their individual stories. I am almost sold on the branding alone – thank goodness the products are amazing too or I would be in serious diff’s.
She is primarily based in sunny San Francisco, but I was lucky enough to get hold of her for a quick chat while she was back home, meeting up with her at Benefit’s stylish Dublin Boutique.
I can honestly say I have never met someone in such a high-powered job who is so graceful and down to earth. I felt instantly at ease and welcome in her company – definitely a Champion member of the team for Benefit Cosmetics.
(Nuala) So your official title is Director of Story and Voice? I’ve heard on the grapevine that you are known as simply ‘THE VOICE’.
(Helen) Yes that’s right, the team back in San Francisco tease the hell out of me to get us to drop the ‘Story’ bit of the title so they can just say “Here comes the Voooooice” *Queue Spooky Echo*
N: How does it feel to be back in Ireland again? Does it still feel like ‘home’ or is San Francisco more like your home now?
H: Ah that’s a tough one, I’ve actually lived in San Francisco longer now than I lived in Dublin. I’ve been there since ’89, so about 25 years. Oh Wow – you’ve ruined my day, I feel so old! I was only 22 when I left here [Ireland]. I mean, San Francisco is my home now. It feels familiar there whereas Dublin has changed like you wouldn’t believe. Even so, Dublin will be home.
N: Can you run me through a typical day in your job, is that even a possibility?
H: No, there’s no such thing as a typical day in my job. What’s interesting is that obviously you guys see all the product names and the big splash they make but there is a huge amount of work behind the scenes.
For example, take ‘Big Easy’. So we’re thinking through stuff like, what’s the name of the product going to be and what are our tag lines? We know that the product is an uber BB Cream because it’s got better coverage and it’s easier to use. So, we call it the ‘Big Easy’ and then title it ‘Bigger than BB’, but this takes a lot of time – even with a little tag line like “A Multi-Balancing Complexion Perfector’.
These details are hugely important though. We pull people in with the fun sexy names we use. However, you will notice that more and more of our product names are starting to have a touch of directionality to them. For example, for problem-solver products we’re looking for names, titles and tags that give an idea of what the product is and does (e.g. Porefessional – Agent Zero Shine) and this is essential in guiding customers to choose the right product for them.
Then there is the time spent talking about product testing, meetings with toxicologists and lawyers So we have that side of things which is all very business-like. Then there is the fun sexy stuff – we’ve just got done with a new spy gal theatre commercial which was hilarious and so much fun to be part of creatively.
And then, of course, there are a whole lot of emails to get through each day, and ya know how that goes!
N: It seems like there would be a lot of brain-storming in your job?
H: Yes, we probably brainstorm a lot more than other places and, selfishly, I like that. You have got to be a bit of an introvert to be a writer and it can get really lonely if you sit up in a walled off tower, so me and the girls head out to a little bakery nearly every day to sit and brainstorm instead! To tell you the truth, it is productive as hell – sometimes even in the act of walking to the bakery we get the next idea figured out. Then we are so pleased with ourselves that we just stay there anyway and eat cake. What’s the rush, right?!
N: What are the best and worst parts of your job?
H: The best part is the lack of creative limits. That’s awesome. A lot of brands think, ‘What can’t I say?’ and, don’t get me wrong, we do that to a degree too but for the most part we feel like we can push good ideas out there. I mean, the
whole story of how Benefit started was with the nipple tint! [In 1976, Jean and Jane Ford opened up a small makeup shop called The Face Place, in San Francisco’s Mission District. Their first product was a blush and lip tint called “Rose tint” (now renamed “benetint”). They originally created the rose flushed tint for an exotic dancer who was in need of a nipple tint.] A company like that has, as you can imagine, a lot of creative latitude, there’s not much off limits and this come from a creatively oriented leadership.
The toughest part of my job is the pace. You have to be able to think fast and make changes and decisions quickly. There are a lot of different moving parts to the organisation. For example, the legal team who might tell us that we can’t have a certain name which we loved. Or, we might have to change strategic direction following feedback from a customer. You can’t get too attached to what you were doing last week, even if you were all convinced it was perfect as someone might come along the next day and tell you “yeah we’re not going that way anymore” – when this happens you just have to be like “Oh. Alright, suppose I’ll head off to the bakery then!”
You need to have stamina. You need to have serious stamina. Very few people have that straight out of the gate, you have to build it up, grow a thick skin and tolerance. You also have to build up confidence. Early in your career, you might to get a certain place in your marketing and think, ok I’ll stop there, I’ve found something that’s good enough. We don’t do that. We really push our ideas. We sleep on them or even come back to them a month later and we keep trying to make them better. I love that but it definitely takes a lot of stamina.
N: When you were growing up, did you always picture that this is what you would be doing? Was this always your life plan?
H: Oh never in a million years, I went and studied commerce at University College Dublin, which was the weirdest decision I’ve ever made. You know what it’s like when you’re 16 and you just tick a box on a little form? I tried to drop out of commerce, it was horrible. I needed a tutor in accounting, my brain just couldn’t work out the whole debit and credit thing. I remember in my last year saying to a friend, “what are you going to do after?” and she said “Oh I’m doing marketing”, and I thought, Oh! You can do that? So gradually I made moves into marketing and then into advertising. I was in the account management side of advertising and from there I jumped over the fence to the creative side of advertising, which took some doing! And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Even though it’s a lot of ‘work’ at Benefit it’s also a lot of fun. The people I work with are so much craic – they are very open-minded and creative.
N: What do you feel is your greatest achievement to date with Benefit Cosmetics?
H: Ooooh, just one? Really? It has to be the ‘Benefesto‘. How to summarise this company with it’s amazingly rich heritage, it’s crazy beauty locker-room banter, it’s sense of fun, it love of faking it and bringing the best beauty solutions to people. How to boil all that down into a tight little story so that everyone knows, ‘This is us’. It was hugely satisfying to work on that with a fantastic team.
N: OK, so this is a very important question. If this lovely benefit boutique was burning to the ground and you could only save 3 products, what would you save from the brand?
H: Oh you are crafty!! OK, no doubt about it, ‘they’re real’, ‘gimme brow’, and ‘Big Easy’.
N: One more sneaky question, is there anything new we can expect to see hitting the shelves over the summer?
H: Oh product wise?? You know, someone else asked me that earlier and before I could even open my mouth to say “I’m not allowed…” someone else jumped in and said “Oh she can’t say that!”
There is something really big coming up that I wish I could tell you put you’ll just have to wait and see!