How Kiehl’s No-Frills Creme de Corps Became the Go-to Lotion for Stars Like Oprah

1.5 bottles sold every minute

Every brand hopes for a free plug on TV—"earned media," as the trade calls it—but endorsements don't get much better than they did on Oct. 25, 2012. On a Good Morning America segment called "Deals and Steals," a special guest cast her approving glance at a 12-ounce jar of skin cream, pronouncing it "an ash killer" and, simply, "fantastic."

The guest: Oprah. And the product: Kiehl's Creme de Corps skin lotion.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Even in the $460 billion world of cosmetics where youth potions and miracle creams are a dime a dozen, Creme de Corps is an unlikely hit. While competing lotions are lightweight, Creme de Corps goes on like cake frosting. Its plain-Jane packaging seems better suited to a generic brand of shampoo. Advertising support? There isn't any. Yet Creme de Corps has been a best-seller for four decades now. An average of 1.5 containers of the stuff sells somewhere in the world every minute.

"If there's something you can do to make a tried-and-true formula better, you should," said Kiehl's president Chris Salgardo. "But if it's that good, you don't have to."

And where is this fabled formula from? Well, Kiehl's actually isn't sure about that. What is known is that Creme de Corps appeared sometime in the early 1970s, during the tenure of Aaron Morse—whose father had bought the business from pharmacist John Kiehl, who himself had taken over the old Brunswick Apothecary, in business since 1851. An eccentric man who rode around in a limousine with his pet chimpanzee and filled the store with his collection of vintage motorcycles, Morse wasn't big on keeping records, but he loved to concoct new products.

"He was meticulous about using the best ingredients," Salgardo said. "He didn't care about the packaging. And he wanted the labeling to be smart." (Creme de Corps' label advises: "Continued use for 10 days will provide a skin texture heretofore unattainable"—which has to be the only time "heretofore" has ever appeared on a cosmetics container.) Morse's preoccupation with rich ingredients such as shea butter, apricot oil and squalane also left Creme de Corps with a jarring yellow color—a seeming liability that's actually worked in the product's favor. "People tell me all the time, I love the yellow stuff!" Salgardo said. Plus, he added, "It's really good for your skin."

Creme de Corps is even good for those who don't use it. Under Salgardo's leadership, Kiehl's has developed a robust philanthropy program. Each holiday season, Kiehl's invites a noted artist (Jeff Koons and KAWS are alums) to produce a limited-edition run of Creme de Corps, all proceeds going to charity.

Finally, about that Oprah thing. It wasn't a one-off. She really digs the stuff. "I'd happily send her some," Salgardo said, but "she comes into the store and buys it."

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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