Benefit Cofounder Jean Ford, 71, Remembered as Disruptor, Creative Visionary
Jean Ford, cofounder of Benefit Cosmetics, died from cancer on Jan. 17. She was 71.
“It is with great regret that I learned of Jean Ford’s passing," said Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, in a statement. "Alongside her sister, Jane Ford, Jean cofounded Benefit Cosmetics — an innovative brand that inspires feelings of joy and of well-being. On behalf of the entire LVMH Group, I extend our collective condolences and sympathy to her family and all the Benefit Cosmetics staff that had the privilege of working with her. Jean’s lighthearted spirit and creativity, combined with her tireless pursuit of product excellence, are reflected in every aspect of the brand and customer experience. It is these qualities that enabled Benefit Cosmetics to grow from its first San Francisco boutique in 1976 to the internationally renowned brand it is today.”
Ford was widely viewed as a creative visionary — someone who put customers first, but did things with her own signature twist. In the early years, to drive foot traffic for example, the Ford twins once drew a chalk outline of a body outside the store, complete with police tape, to get people to come inside and ask what happened.
Then, they'd start talking to them about makeup.
Unusual, but perhaps on-brand for the duo, who were described by those who worked with them as tireless entrepreneurs. Part of what made them so successful, said Jean-André Rougeot, ceo of Benefit and soon-to-be ceo of Sephora Americas, was "stubbornness."
"It was refusal to give up," Rougeot said. "Jane would talk about that quite honestly — the dozen times when they said 'It's over.' And the fact that they always came back the next day and said, 'That's OK, let's open the doors and see what happens.'"
" mom was a force," said Annie Ford Danielson, one of Jean's daughters and a chief beauty ambassador for Benefit. "She always believed in doing the right thing — in making other people’s day. She spent her whole life creating a world where women could find joy and happiness in themselves. She truly believed when you make someone look good and feel good, they will be good….She was the best woman I will ever know."
"She had a way of connecting with people," said Maggie Ford Danielson, daughter of Jean and also a chief beauty ambassador for Benefit. "A way of breaking down barriers, most often with a laugh, that people just shared things with her. I think that’s what she loved most about Benefit. Makeup was her conduit for connection. She created her own world in which fun, sass and friendship was the currency. She said to me once, 'A Benefit product is like a mystery, and you have to buy the product to figure out the answer.’"
"Jean was a creative genius," Rougeot continued. "She had an incredibly wacky sense of humor. I call it a 'Monty Python' sense of humor. She could just throw you off balance completely with what she was saying, but she was a creative genius. She had the ability to think about products, packaging, visuals in a way that frankly — I've been in this business a long time — I've never seen anybody like that."
He also remembered Ford for her relentless focus on the consumer, and for walking into Benefit boutiques to survey customers on what they liked and what they didn't like, even after LVMH had taken the reins.
"Jean owned the world of 'fierce,'" said Jane Ford. "And if you couldn’t produce new, it was 'off with your head!'"
Jane recalled one customer who gave feedback that Benefit's liner pencils were too long. "Jean stretches out her hand, takes the pencil, puts it between her teeth — crunch, she sharpens the jagged edges gives back to the customer saying, 'See, now you have two pencils,'" Jane said.
Aurelian Lis, who worked as general manager for the Americas at Benefit before his current role as ceo of Dermalogica described Ford as a "disruptor" before it was something they taught at business school. He also said she was "quirky" and an incredibly hard-working entrepreneur.
"Both her and Jane always were focused on the girl next door," Rougeot said. "They didn't think about the runway models or the stars — it was the girl next door and they'd talk about their beauty problems, the girl next door beauty problems, and that's what they'd try to solve and they came up with extraordinary products, obviously Benetint being the first one, the first Badgal Bang mascara, Hoola bronzer, Boi-ing concealer — those were just incredibly smart products and it was two women at a wooden table ."
Benefit had its own store, and in the Eighties, launched a catalogue — but not a traditional one.
Rougeot called it "revolutionary."
"Jean created a catalogue that was basically cartoons. Nobody had ever sold cosmetics with cartoons," Rougeot said. "People sold cosmetics with very thought-through model shots and cute blonde women holding products — that stuff — and she did these crazy cartoons, which in some cases, had nothing to do with the products. She was telling stories. She was a great storyteller — a fun, wacky storyteller."
Colleagues credited Jean with building one of the first truly indie beauty brands.
"It was probably the start of indie brands," said Bob Mettler, former ceo of Macy's West. "I'm a twin myself, and seeing the closeness and what they came up with, it's kind of amazing. Many people may have not even if they weren't close enough, understood that through all of the fun and through all of the crazy names, etc., they were very smart business people."
Rougeot remembered their loyalty to one another during meetings.
"It was always funny because Jean and Jane were twins. So I'd be in a meeting, and they would argue with each other back and forth — it was like watching a tennis match. And if I dared to say something, they would both gang up on me," he said.
" would come into the office in the morning and had 75 ideas and she would draw sketches and she would grab materials in the office and make stuff — it was very interesting to see her mind at work," Rougeot noted.
Jean's sense of humor — which still runs through the Benefit line — was revered.
"She loved to put people off balance, she loved to interject with some great stories and anecdotes," Rougeot said.
Mettler called her "sneaky funny."
"She had such a keen sense of humor that if you weren't aware you didn't pick up on all the nuances she had — in spite of that, she was also a great listener," he said.
At one point, her language choices even prompted use of a "swear jar" at the company, Rougeot noted.
"She could have a foul mouth," Rougeout said. "They had a swear jar for a while, because of how much they used foul language, and most it it was filled by Jean. A little bit by Jane, not many by other employees. It was really Jean and Jane's contribution to the Friday night bar run."
Gradually, the indie brand scaled into more distribution channels, including Bendels, Macy's and Sephora. In 1999, LVMH bought a majority stake in the business — the Ford twins eventually sold the rest of their stakes to LVMH, and exited the brand in 2012.
Before they retired, the brand created a 40-minute film called Glamouriety that detailed both the rise of the twins and Benefit in a distinctly Benefit fashion. It was weird, and it was funny. "It's really wacky, very Benefit, completely crazy, we still use it as an induction tool," Rougeot said.
There were cartoon versions of Jean and Jane literally putting lipstick on a pig — a callback to their early days in Indiana. There was a doctor that brought people back to life by making them feel beautiful. There was a stripper who credited Benetint — one of the brand's cult products — with helping her aureolas stand out. The Ford twins went on a global tour with the film.
"They talked a lot about the fact that they'd put little theater shows on for their family when they grew up," Rougeot said. "They were on stage from a very early age, so they were comfortable with that part of their lives. They were not farmers from Indiana — they were people who came with a sense of stage."
One time, they even accepted a CEW award via song.
"I'll never forget when they were honored in New York by CEW and…they broke out in song about the beauty business, and it was just sensational," Mettler said.
Jean was open about her illness, and called WWD in early January to talk about the humor and whimsy that were important to her as part of Benefit’s ethos. She was also critical of what she called "quick turn brands" and “copycatting” in the industry today.
As of press time, service plans had not yet been made. Flowers can be sent to Maggie and Annie’s attention at Benefit Cosmetics, 225 Bush Street, 20th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104.
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