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Champions of Design: Kiehl's

The cosmetics company, steeped in New York tradition, has become an internationally successful brand.

In 1851, John Kiehl joined the Brunswick Apotheke shop in the East Village neighbourhood of New York City as an apprentice. In 1894, he bought the shop.

In 1910, he took on a herbologist named Irving A Morse. A decade after joining the company, Morse bought it from Kiehl, who was retiring, and went about providing a service in keeping with an enduring, family-oriented message, 'We are delighted to serve you.'

Kiehl's became famous for its fragrant blends, which it marketed as having a positive effect on users' luck and charisma. Some of the more popular blends included Money Drawing Oil, Attraction Oil and Purity Oil.

The first essence oil it produced was Kiehl's Original Musk Oil in 1921, followed over time by variants such as coriander, vanilla, grapefruit, amber, gardenia, cucumber and many more. The company now offers an extensive range of products including creams, balms and toners.

Though now very much an international brand, Kiehl's remains closely identified with its New York roots, to the extent that in 2003, mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that 12 November would be 'Kiehl's Day', in recognition of its contribution to, and association, with the growth and life of the city.

Kiehl's opts to promote its brand by focusing on sampling rather than traditional advertising. It distributes about 8.5 million sample units each year.

One of its most high-profile promotional activities was its sponsorship of a team of explorers who climbed Mount Everest in 1988. Kiehl's gave them a small pack of products designed to protect them against the extreme weather conditions on the mountain. This included products such as Creme de Corps, Washable Cleansing Milk and Cucumber Herbal Alcohol-Free Toner.

Kiehl's has always tried to stay true to its stated mission of "giving". It has done so in more recent times by selling some products it has created expressly to raise money for charity.

In the 1990s, it developed a formula dedicated to raising funds for a charity working to overcome the problems of HIV and AIDS.

The company is also involved with environmental work. In 2008, it created an Aloe Vera product that was 100% biodegradeable. With the assistance of Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, the company managed to raise a considerable amount for the charity JPF Eco Systems, which supports global environmental initiatives.

The company continues to strive to live up to its heritage of innovation. Last November, it brought out an Actively Correcting and Beautifying BB Cream, which, it claimed, represented a 'beauty industry advancement'.


James Joice, client director, JKR

By James Joice, client director, JKR

Kiehl's has mixed together a powerful design potion all of its own, with an ingredient that's normally used only sparingly in packaging: the written word.

The visual impact and persuasion of Kiehl's is delivered by verbal content. Whether we read it or not (and I suspect most of us don't), the fact the brand has so much to say about its products inspires confidence. The language itself is straightforward and medicinal in tone.

That, of course, is no coincidence. Kiehl's has genuine apothecary roots of which it's rightfully proud. Its stores, with lab-coated staff, model skeletons and bell jars, have all the accoutrements of an old-fashioned pharmacy.

On the surface, this could all feel a little contrived and predictable for a cosmetics brand, but Kiehl's projects an eccentricity that couldn't have been created artificially. Old motorbikes, family photos and other artefacts also furnish its stores, giving the impression of a brand that has evolved to reflect the personality of its forefathers.

This feeling is reinforced by a naivety in the packaging. Across the products, fonts vary, the Kiehl's logo is used inconsistently and there is just enough disorder to suggest that the brand is led by the pharmacist and not the marketing department.

In 2000, when L'Oreal bought Kiehl's, it pledged to help build its presence with the promise that it would leave the brand to be "true to itself". It rightly recognises that there is no substitute for authenticity.


1851: John Kiehl started working at the Brunswick Apotheke, a forerunner of the original Kiehl's Pharmacy.

1894: Kiehl bought the Brunswick Apotheke and continued to prescribe skin and hair remedies.

1910: Kiehl employed Irving A Morse as an apprentice. They worked together to prepare countless formulas from exotic plants.

1950s: Morse taught his son Aaron the trade.

1960s: The Kiehl "try before you buy" philosophy was introduced and acted as a successful alternative to advertising campaigns.

1970s: The brand's original Ultra Facial Moisturizer was introduced. It remains one of the company's most popular products.

1988: Kiehl's sponsored an expedition to climb Mount Everest.

1990s: Several products were made to help raise funds for HIV/AIDS charities.

2008: Kiehl's made its first biodegradable product, with profits going to support global environmental initiatives.

View more Champions of Design


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