Revlon makes cosmetics, but what they sell is hope. That's how Revlon founder Charles Revson described the Revlon company's mission and marketing and the secret of its success. Founded in 1932, Revlon began by pitching opaque nail polish. It grew from that simple beginning to become a billion-dollar business, though one that is currently struggling financially.

The Rebirth of Cosmetics

Women and sometimes men have used various forms of cosmetics for much of history. By the early 1900s, however, cosmetics had acquired a somewhat unsavory reputation as something associated with sex workers and actresses. Beauty guru Elizabeth Arden was a major force in making cosmetics popular for everyday use, paving the way for Revlon and other cosmetics companies.

Arden opened more than 40 beauty salons in cities around the world, promoting the idea that any woman could look good if she made an effort.

  • Arden introduced eye makeup to the United States and helped convince the country that it was acceptable for even respectable women to use.

  • She created the first travel-size products.

  • Arden marketed her goods with a team of traveling saleswomen, an innovation that countless other cosmetics companies would adopt in the century that followed.

  • A shrewd marketer, she allegedly introduced lipstick for suffragettes, though some historians say that's a myth. She later developed a special shade for women serving in World War II.

  • Arden introduced the idea of in-store makeovers for customers.

  • The now-standard lipstick case was Arden's idea — a way for working women to keep lipstick in their pocket.

  • Elizabeth Arden beauty products often had fragrances added, a radical innovation at the time.

  • Arden hired chemists to work on refining and improving formulas for beauty products. Her face cream, for example, was fluffy and pleasant to apply rather than oily.

Revlon acquired the Arden brand in 2016. Although she had no involvement with starting Revlon Inc., Elizabeth Arden's standing as a cosmetics icon is so great that she's listed on the Revlon company website as a Revlon founder.

Charles Revson, Revlon Founder

In 1932, brothers Charles and Joseph Revson and chemist Charles Lachman founded Revlon. Of the three, it's Charles Revson who served as Revlon company president for the first 30 years, and he is identified on the company's website as the Revlon founder.

Other online biographies of Revson refer to him as a "strange genius" who was shy, brilliant, private, crude and a perfectionist. His success was due not only to his intelligence and marketing savvy but also his perfectionist drive. As his remark about selling hope shows, Revson had a knack for sensing what women wanted from cosmetics.

At the time he cofounded Revlon, Revson had been selling nail polish for New Jersey's Elka Company. Revson had his own ideas about beauty and shaking up the world of nail polish, but Elka wasn't interested. On March 1, 1932, Revson, his brother and Lachman started their own firm with initial capital of only $300.

Revlon: First Nail Polish

The founders initially planned to name their new company "Revlac," a combination of "Revson" and "Lachman." The name didn't sing, so the founders retooled it to Revlon. Having sold nail polish, Revson made that Revlon's first new product, making women in hair salons the target market. Revson figured that after getting their hair done, it would be easy for the staff to sell women on a manicure as well.

Selling nail polish was a sharp move. Manicures were one of the few beauty treatments that hadn't lost sales during the Great Depression. The biggest challenge was finding a supply of polish, but that was where Lachman came in. He'd married into the Dresden Chemical Company, which manufactured nail polish, and Lachman's half share in Revlon guaranteed a steady supply.

Up to this point, most nail polishes were transparent, only covering part of the nail. Revson's inspiration was to introduce a line of opaque nail polish that covered the whole nail, concealing any flaws. Beyond that, Revlon's first nail polish line had something else that stood out from the competition: color.

Polish, Color and Success

Revlon wasn't the first company to push a range of colored nail polish or to suggest that women choose a color based on what would work with their clothes. However, the palettes of the 1920s and early '30s had been bright, metallic and chosen to mesh with glamorous evening wear. Revlon emphasized dark and smoky shades of red that suited the more subdued, down-to-earth mood of the Depression.

The spectrum of polish benefited from Revlon founder Revson's eye for color. The company offered a palette of reds that complimented women's hands and also fit well with 1930s clothing styles and colors. Revlon's business soon expanded beyond beauty salons to drug stores and department stores and to 21 shades of creamy enamel.

Part of Revson's genius was to treat nail enamel as fashion because fashion changes constantly. Through 1937, the Revlon company brought out new colors in spring and fall, promoting them and letting older colors fade from view. That kept the company's offerings new and fresh in women's eyes.

Quality and Sales

Marketing and color were only part of the story. Revson was also determined to deliver a top-quality product. One distributor in the 1930s said that the Revlon company's nail polish beat the competition by being chip-proof, longer-lasting, glossier and more lustrous. The Revlon first nail polish did take a long time to dry, but Revson eventually developed a superior, fast-drying version.

Revson himself was a skilled salesman, willing to travel to hair salons and pitch Revlon products in person. He was willing to arrive with his nails painted in Revlon company colors because that forged a connection with salon customers.

Revson's younger brother Martin became the company sales manager in 1935, training each member of the sales force to be an "advertising specialist, a display specialist, a stock specialist and an expert in the use of make-up," according to one company history.

Playing Hardball

Charles Revson made no bones about the fact that he was a tough, driving taskmaster and often difficult for his employees to deal with. He pushed hard and ruthlessly, and many executives chose to walk away rather than to keep dealing with Revson. The attitude that Revlon should play hardball filtered down to Martin Revson's sales force.

According to company and industry histories, if salespeople "accidentally" smashed a few bottles of a competitor's line, they were authorized to pay for the damage and then replace the loss with Revlon products. Several salons said that Revlon pressured them to not carry competing products, which led to federal cease-and-desist orders in the 1950s regarding Revlon's business practices.

Lipstick Without a Trace

In 1939, Revlon entered a new market — the world of lipstick. A big part of the hook was to emphasize lipsticks that complemented a woman's choice of nail color. Another was that starting in 1940, the company offered Fire and Ice lipstick that didn't smear off when the wearer kissed someone. A woman should leave a trace in her life, the slogan ran, but not lipstick traces.

In 1943, Revlon trimmed down its line to cope with wartime product shortages but still added several new lipstick products. Mrs. Miniver Rose took its name from a popular 1942 movie, though, without an attempt to license it from the movie makers. The lipstick came in a plastic case since metal was in short supply.

Revlon would branch out into other types of beauty products including hair coloring, face powder and fragrance. In 1968, in conjunction with designer Norman Norell, the company launched Norell, America's first designer fragrance. It sold for $50 an ounce and grossed $1 million in sales the first year it was on the market. Charlie, marketed as a more unconventional, youth-oriented fragrance, became a hit in the 1970s.

Advertising and Supermodels

Back when Revlon began, many cosmetics companies avoided spending money on advertising, and many tried to compete on price. Charles Revson rejected both options; he marketed the Revlon company's products as quality goods and advertised in upscale magazines such as The New Yorker. In the 1950s, they turned to TV, sponsoring the hit game show "The $64,000 Question_"._

The company has also linked the Revlon logo to various beauties as part of Revlon's marketing campaigns.

  • In 1960, Suzy Parker, the supreme supermodel of her time, became the center of Revlon's American Look advertising campaign.

  • In 1970, Revlon became the first beauty company to use an African-American model in its advertising. Naomi Sims was the chosen model.

  • In 1974, Revlon made Lauren Hutton its first brand ambassador, a kind of prototype influencer.

  • In the 1980s, the "Most Unforgettable Women in the World" campaign used famous models including Iman, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer.

  • In 1996, Halle Berry became Revlon's ambassador.

Revlon: The Corporation

Like any long-running business, there is a lot of history on the corporate side and not just in the products that Revlon sells. After years as a private company, Revlon went public in 1955 with the initial stock price at $12, rising to $30 in a few weeks.

In the 1960s, the company segmented its product line into several different brands with different target demographics and images: international glamour, hypoallergenic, youthful, dry skin care, high-priced products and affordable makeup. The company also diversified by acquiring companies in other industries: shoe polish, toilet cleaners, electric shavers and pharmaceuticals.

While the pharmaceutical acquisitions did well, many of the other purchases tanked. The company continued to grow throughout the 1970s, but by the mid 1980s, competition from the Estée Lauder and Cover Girl brands had eaten into Revlon's success.

Debt and Struggle

In the 1980s, wheeler-dealer Ron Perelman bought Revlon through Pantry Pride, a grocery-store company that was part of his corporate empire. Perelman took Revlon private again through a leveraged buyout, saddling the company with a $2.9 billion debt load. He then divested Revlon of many of its previous acquisitions.

By 1990, Revlon held only 11% of the U.S. cosmetics market. Because it had to spend millions servicing the debt, it was running big operating losses, forcing Perelman to sell off corporate assets to make the payments. In 1992, Perelman tried to take the company public again, but the IPO failed miserably.

Revlon's CEO turned the company around, however, and a 1996 IPO succeeded, though Perelman retained almost all the voting stock. Since 1996, the company has floundered further, and as of 2019, Perelman was "exploring options" about what to do next. He has yet to announce what options he'll pursue.