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Kendall Jenner, the Next Face of Estee Lauder: The Surprising Lesson this [almost] Kardashian Can Teach Us

When I grow up. It’s the age-old opening clause that’s conditioned into our vocabulary from day one, which in one fell swoop defers notions of “achievement” and “success” to some later, ambiguous, and always older date. But with the rise of social media and its fast-moving culture of growth and innovation, being young might actually be a career asset. The sudden rise to fame of Kendall Jenner, nineteen-year-old model and TV celebrity, pinnacled recently with her role as the next face of Estée Lauder, thereby introducing a different vision for young people with big aspirations, one that rejects the perception that to be young is to have nothing to offer.

We first met Kendall as an awkward pre-teen on the widely critiqued and wildly successful show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But with dreams of reaching model stardom, Kendall has moved away from her reality TV origins, dropping her last name with its immediate connection to America’s infamous curvy clan and even requesting said family to stay out of her modeling spotlight (Closer Online). She certainly has found success; her young career is already marked with fashion greats, including shows and ads with Chanel, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, and Gucci. However, Kendall’s most recent career move, namely, a contract signing her as the next face of Estée Lauder, has resulted in a controversy that has nothing to do with her notorious family.

As the fourth largest cosmetics company in the world, Estée Lauder established its brand with iconic beauties such as Carolyn Murphy, Elizabeth Hurley, Paulina Porizkova, and Karen Graham on the face of its campaigns. The company has a prestigious reputation for providing sophisticated, high quality products. Just walk up to any Estée Lauder counter and it’s not hard to see why the brand’s image is so deeply rooted in the sophisticated “woman” and not the adolescent girl. At a company where the package is as important as the contents, richly hued bottles with gold accents scream luxury (the company’s founder, Estée, first selected the “pale turquoise color for the brand’s jars” because of its “sense of luxury” and the fact that it “matched all bathroom decors”) (Estée Lauder). Decades later, with high price tags, high-end sales locations at Saks and Harrods, and established celebrities for spokespersons, the company has only continued to cement a consumer audience of “mature” women, presumably with matching bathroom decor. Therefore, it was no surprise that the announcement that named Kendall Jenner as the youngest face in Estée Lauder history led to pushback.

Recently, Estée Lauder has begun to expand its marketing focus, targeting a consumer base composed of younger, “social media savvy” persons (Forbes). By officially adding this brown-eyed beauty to the brand’s marketing face, the company inherently contracted the million Instagram followers, 9.1 million Twitter followers, and 7.3 million Facebook followers devoted to Kendall. Kendall’s 19-year-old face carries a lot of influence. Rather than passively filling the role of “another pretty face,” Kendall actively engages with the consumer and impacts marketing strategies through her impressive online following.

Kendall’s recent announcement received a mixed public response, and while many have praised the model’s striking looks and youthful energy, others feel that she is unsuited to the Estée Lauder legacy. One online commentator asked, “Who are these 50K people??? Also, are any of them old enough to even purchase the makeup?” (The DailyMail). However, this is no accidental marketing campaign; Estée Lauder has made a calculated decision: a recent fiscal report for the year 2014 made clear the company’s intentions to grow and expand onto new media platforms. President and CEO of the company, Fabrizio Freda, attributes “Targeting opportunities in high-growth channels” to the company’s increasingly globalized presence, noting,

Online continues to drive double-digit sales growth in both established and emerging markets as more consumers adopt this channel. Our success in innovative digital marketing and social media campaigns has contributed greatly to increased consumer engagement with our brands and drove sales across e-commerce and m-commerce brand and retailer sites (Estée Lauder Fiscal Report).

Kendall represents the ultimate “social media campaign”; when her announcement hit the Internet, the Estée Lauder website “…received six times the number of unique visitors as on an average Saturday. Within 48 hours of the announcement, 90 percent of visitors to the site were first-timers, 71 percent viewing the site on a mobile device” (New York Times). The numbers are hard to argue with: net sales steadily increased from 7.8 billion in 2010 to 10. 97 billion in 2014, with a 16.1% operating margin and net earnings of $1.16 billion.

The immediacy of Kendall’s success and the impressive public response to her new position points to larger trends in hiring: as the efficiency and accessibility of social media continues to engage larger audiences on a globalizing scale, attending to a consumer base demands a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of who you are selling to. And young people tend to possess this skill set. Roselinde Torres notes in her article “The Rise of the Not-So-Experienced CEO” that it’s younger leaders, rather than the traditional, time-tested CEO, that corporate boards increasingly tend to favor when hiring, because they represent “confident global citizens, able to operate in developed, emerging, and frontier markets and lead across diverse cultures” with “an acute understanding of shifting demographics in their customer base” (Harvard Business Review). It is this unique ability to understand both the platform and its audience that makes these younger leaders so appealing to companies interested in keeping up with their consumers. Call Kendall what you will, she certainly knows her audience and her platform. And she does it well.

Perhaps what’s important about Estée Lauder’s recent decision is not who the company selected from its large celebrity roster, but rather, how its selection criteria has changed over time. Certainly, there’s a valid argument in the claim that the decision to make Kendall the company face is merely an exploitation of the easy appeal of the “pop culture celebrity.” However, this argument risks overlooking a more critical message in this shift, namely, that the desired skill set is changing for models, leaders, famous faces, and CEO’s—a fact incredibly relevant to collegiettes such as ourselves. It can pay to be young. If Facebook and Twitter are condemned for encouraging the growth of the conceited, egoistical teen, then they must also be praised as strategic platforms for partnerships, advertising, and campaigning—tools left primarily at the feet of America’s younger generations.

Kendall’s online celebrity acts as a medium between the often-polarized parties of salesman and consumer to demonstrate a more comprehensive (if not fractured) means of reaching and connecting with audiences worldwide. In the words of Estée Lauder herself, “Glow,” after all—not a number—[is] the real essence of beauty…”(Estée Lauder). Perhaps it’s time to let go of Kendall’s age.

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