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Clinique Is the Brand People Love But Never Talk About

The nearly 50-year-old beauty brand has more die-hards than you realize.

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Lynn Foster is a 25-year-old pharmacist in New Jersey who just wants her face to look like her own face, but, you know, better. She started wearing makeup when she was a teenager and has never been one to suffer makeup trends.

On a trip to a Clinique counter a few years ago, Foster realized she needed to consider exclusively using its products. After all, she had been buying the brand’s brow pencil and eyeshadow duos since she was a teenager in the 2000s. She was looking at the selection at the counter and realized, “I should just get all my makeup here,” she told me on a phone call this summer. “It’s just really good-quality makeup.”

She left with all the products she needed for her Your Face But Better look. All from Clinique. And she never looked back.

Clinique hit the markets in 1968 when it introduced its iconic 3-Step Skin Care System, developed with Vogue editor Carol Phillips and a dermatologist. (You know those pastel toners, I know you do.) Since then, the brand launched a skincare line for men, makeup, and a whole host of skincare options for women — all with the goal of bringing out the best in your face.

When I finally convinced my parents that I was old enough to wear makeup outside of dance recitals’ garish red lipstick and deep blush, Clinique was what they bought me. I was 11 and the proud owner of a purple eyeshadow trio and black mascara that the consultant promised me (and my mother) would naturally bring out my deep brown eyes. Natural makeup and quality skincare have been the company’s mission for nearly half a century.

As a low-key brand not known for a bubbly social team swatching until their phone battery dies, Clinique has largely not embraced the age of Instagram makeup. Despite the decrease in brick-and-mortar sales, the brand keeps retaining customers. Despite the lack of big-name collaborations and its nonplussed social approach, the nearly 50-year-old brand remains an important part of the Estée Lauder Companies’ push to reach those critical younger dollars. But for better or worse, we’re living in the age of trendy makeup and indie brands. So where does a classic brand fit in the age of Instagram makeup? And does being “cool” even matter when profits are the true queen of beauty?


Clinique City Block was Laura Feinstein’s gateway product for Clinique. After getting her skin read, she found out years of driving in college had damaged her skin on the left side and she knew she had to get serious about sun coverage. City Block gave her sun coverage, but didn’t solve her other skin problems.

Feinsten’s skin is problematic, to say the least. “I’d been using the heaviest possible over-the-counter acne wash for like a decade,” she tells me. But it was the convenience of ordering online instead of braving the Bloomingdale’s counter that brought her into the Clinique fray. After a refill for City Block, it was time for one of the brand’s promotions where if you spend a certain dollar amount, your order comes with a big bag of samples.

She timidly explored the sample bag. First, a creamy face wash and the pink Moisture Surge moisturizer. She realized her heavy acne wash was no longer necessary. And when she went to by full-size versions of the face wash and moisturizer, she got even more samples.

The next sample was an under-eye cream and then some mascara. “Pretty soon, I realized I was all Clinique everything, but I noticed my morning routine was getting easier,” Feinstein says. But most critically: “I wasn’t getting breakouts.”

It was Clinique’s long-time marketing decision to make sample readily available to customers that sealed it for the Brooklyn resident. “They’re so good at hooking you in because the more stuff I ordered, the more new products they gave me. Like, I do need a new body wash, and this is also awesome and so much better,” she says. (Clinique’s parent company, Estée Lauder, pioneered the “gift with purchase” marketing technique, according to an article from the Los Angeles Times.)

For the longest time, Feinstein associated the brand with her grandmother, who had great skin, but she never thought of adopting it herself. “Now I’ve been telling everyone, ‘just try it.’ I don’t know what kind of magic is in it, but it’s fixed so many of my skin issues,” she tells me.

Now in her early 30s, she realizes there’s only so much she can do to make up for the skin damage of her early 20s, but she’s taking positive steps. Trimming the size of her medicine cabinet has helped, despite Clinique’s price point. “It was really hard initially, but I think that it actually works, because when you look at most women’s medicine cabinets, they’re filled with hundreds of dollars of things that didn’t work... if you find the thing that does work, you’ll pay whatever to just know as opposed to trying a million drugstore things or trying a million Sephora impulse purchases.”

When I first started reporting this story, I turned to Facebook. I’ve lived all over the country, so I figured I’d start with a fairly diverse focus group, at least geographically, which due to climate would mean a variety of skincare needs. Despite conversations among friends and the confidence of my editor, I was still worried. It turns out my worries were completely misplaced, because even some men had opinions on Clinique products they used and loved.

An overwhelming number of women’s first perfume experience was Clinique Happy, and the lipstick shade Black Honey is similarly beloved. Despite their passion for these products and many others, few publicly talked about it. Clinique isn’t a Cool Brand, so people kept the contents of their makeup bags under wraps and went on with their lives.

When I talked with Clinique Global Brand President Jane Lauder this summer, she emphasized how important it is to provide a wide range of skin-tone options, because women on both the lightest and darkest ends of the spectrum are largely ignored by beauty companies. According to her, Clinique matches 98.5 percent of skin tones and 100 percent of skin problems.

“Sometimes when people see a counter that’s white with the white lab coat, they think it’s a brand for only Caucasians, but really, we are able to go super deep and match all of these skin tones,” Lauder tells me. “And [we] go really light. We don’t discriminate against women who are super fair or super dark. We really work to run that gamut.”

Writer Jascmeen Bush recommended a Clinique product to Racked readers as a part of the “Just One Thing” series. As she wrote, “Right before I felt the striped walls begin to cave in on me, I found the Clinique Beyond Perfecting Foundation + Concealer in a bevy of brown shades. (Truth be told, any shelf lined with more than one is a bevy in my eyes.) How the hell had I not heard of this?” She also noted that few beauty influencers were advertising the brand’s makeup products: “Where were the #ads? The #inpartnershipwiths? The #spons? Why is no one talking about this foundation? Why hasn’t a Samantha Jones-in-training sent me a press release? Where are my freebies and my personalized note?”

The lack of #ads associated with makeup internet communities are by design. The brand’s outside collaborations are few and far between. In recent memory, there’s the collection with interior decorator Jonathan Adler, a partnership with Golden Globe Award-winner Gina Rodriguez, an influencer campaign with actress and writer Tavi Gevinson, and Crayola’s take on its Chubby Sticks. While Clinique doesn’t eschew beauty influencers or celebrities, the brand doesn’t seem to actively court them the way younger brands like Benefit Cosmetics or BECCA Cosmetics might. (Clinique’s parent company, Estée Lauder Companies, did just scoop up BECCA for a reported $200 million in October, though.)

“We’ve always been about product first, and it’s always about custom fit. There’s not one ideal of beauty,” Lauder says. Being a brand for all gives you a rather wide net to work with. “I think that we’ve done some collaborations with like-minded brands where we’ve both collaborated around a brand or people that have a deeper message to tell.” The aforementioned campaign with the Jane the Virgin star Rodriguez, for example, was about education, empowerment, and how Clinique was “breaking the norm” around beauty.

Love is beautiful. ️‍ #pride #pridemonth #pride2017

A post shared by Clinique (@clinique) on

Collaborations and new products must toe the line between standing out and staying true to Clinique’s ethos. “You want to add a bit of fun and light-heartedness, because there are so many brands out there about crazy makeup,” Lauder says. Of its collaboration with Crayola, she explains, “We have basically grown-up crayons... it’s two brands coming together to create a dynamic, fun environment, and that’s what makeup should be about.”

But a beauty company can’t completely ignore industry trends, whether that means a ubiquitous product like highlighter or the decline of IRL shopping. In its efforts to meet customers where they are, Clinique has on-campus counters at university bookstores — schools as disparate as Yale and Ohio State University. The program, which is 25 years old, started at MIT and is now at 30 universities.

On the other end of the customer spectrum, for environments like Sephora, where products are displayed right next to its competitors, Clinique launched the Pep Start line. The line is packaged in bright boxes and tubes with the promise of the instant benefits of a Clinique product — but portable. Lauder says this line is for the on-the-go millennial woman. It can be taken boardroom to bar and back, she explains. In what reads an effort to meet younger customers where they are, Clinique’s Pep Start line recently added a bubble mask, a product typically associated with (now trendy) Korean skincare regimens. The brand also joined the category of workout-proof makeup with its CliniqueFIT line.

Instagram may be far removed from Clinique’s original department-store counter set-up, but the platform (along with YouTube) is becoming increasingly important to brands trying to reach young consumers. Clinique’s Instagram strategy is bit subtler than most brands. While many younger brands employ social teams to give daily how-tos and product explanations, including regular segments like Tip Tuesday, Clinique’s feed is defined by flat lays with product explainers in the captions. Its feed may not be filled with social media producers who feel like friends, but that doesn’t mean Clinique’s choices, while more clinical in comparison, aren’t effective.

Because the brand isn’t known for dramatic makeup, Lauder says one of its most effective social campaigns had to find a way to get noticed anyway. “Because when you try to show someone putting on moisturizer, it doesn’t exactly show a transformation on film,” she says. “So we took our Take The Day Off Balm and we had these reverse makeup tutorials to show a transformation from a full face of makeup ... into [a face with] all your makeup removed.” Social media is the new frontier of makeup advertising, so it’s critical for legacy brands like Clinique to figure out where its subtler products, like moisturizer, fit into the jam-packed landscape.

When I tell her how many people I’ve talked to came to the brand and continue to stick with the brand, Lauder says it reminds her of her journey with the company. As the granddaughter of the Estée Lauder, she started using the three-step system when she was 11 because she herself had troubled skin. It’s Lauder’s third time at Clinique, after stints at other Estée Lauder brands like Origins. She keeps coming back to the brand — just like her customers.

“When people say, ‘I haven’t given up,’ it’s because if something works really well, you stay with it,” she says. “We say quality never goes out of style, and that’s what we focus on. It’s hard in this new day and age where fast fashion can sometimes overcome quality. We need to make sure we’re really speaking to her, or him, in ways that we can communicate the quality and the efficacy.”

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