As a high school junior, I got invited to a Spring Prom at a fancy private school in Wellesley, Massachusetts by a girl I barely knew. I rented a tuxedo with a Spring-white dinner jacket. It was a hot May night, and there were lots of slow dances. At the end of the evening I had lipstick on my cheek and a dark brown stain on the right side of my white dinner jacket where her makeup had rubbed off. The Tuxedo rental place charged me $25 to remove the stain when I tried to return the outfit. It was my first introduction to makeup and its potential consequences and a lesson in cosmetic skin tone.
The fall of 1988 my company got the first of what became 30+ years of in-store market research for the beauty industry. It’s been a good, expansive cultural education. At a hotel bar north of Baltimore, our male client at the time — well into this third martini — explained to me that the beauty industry rested on the triumph of hope over soap. I laughed and filed it away.
Our first assignment was to set up cameras, position observers and then interview customers as they left the beauty section at drug, grocery and mass stores across the country. Back then the beauty industry was neatly divided into “mass” and “prestige” brands. While the interest and aspirations may have been the same, the presentation, price points and levels of service were distinctly different given the location.
The line between prestige and mass brands has been blown up by a series of disruptions. First, it’s just about the money. The traditional, exclusive connection between peaches-and-crème and global wealth no longer exists.
Before Christmas of that year, we reported the research results to an audience of some 25 people in a hotel conference room in Maryland. The findings were startling, and the mix of film clips, interviews and observations were a powerful indictment of both the brands’ failings and opportunities. It was a rough afternoon, and as I left, I gave myself a B- for my presentation. In the next year, however, we got work across the world and across all of the major mass and prestige brands from that audience of 25 people. The blunt realities of the in-store experience resonated, and while our presentation skills at that stage were rough, the message hit home.
Touches, reads, correct or incorrect returns to the shelf/fixture, conversion rates by estimated age and product categories, assistance rates and more: these measures included in the survey results gave insights into a completely different way of understanding how beauty was bought. The disconnect between the packaging and fixturing designers and the realities of in-store shoppers was intense. Although we were grilled on sample sizes and a host of different operational issues, the power of watching the film (not video back then) eclipsed the quantitative parameters of the survey results. The entire exercise transformed our firm and its expertise to be the coach, not the quarterback of the design and marketing teams. For the next 30 years, we have worked with beauty clients and the conversations have never been easy.
One of the key findings in 1988 came completely by accident. A drug store location we were sent to was in Southeast Washington DC. My team reported back that the customer base in that store was 85 percent Afro-American, yet they counted some 700 products in the beauty sections targeted at “blondes.” The team asked why the product mix wasn’t better assorted to the skin tones of the dominant customer base in the store. Survey results and the film documented customer frustrations. It set up an ongoing issue in our work about retail control – and the problems with cookie cutter distribution. From skin tone to weather, what happens in Miami and Duluth, much less Southeast Washington are bound to be different. The key to good retail is to hold onto the global brand but be sensitive to local execution.
In the three decades of research work in the beauty industry, the correlation between skin tone, product preference and money has changed dramatically. We have worked around the world at Beymen, the Turkish high-end department store in Istanbul; Selfridges in London; Takeshima in Ginza, Tokyo and Bloomingdale’s in New York City. In every case, that line between prestige and mass brands has been blown up by a series of disruptions. The biggest difference is about money. The traditional, exclusive connection between peaches and crème and global wealth no longer exists.
Emerging market women come in many shades. The Koreans with their focus on healthy skin, looking good in daytime and women looking good in the eyes of other women (rather than for of a man) challenged the roots of Western brands where day tends to be a toned-down version of night.
Internet brands like Glossier have reached out into youth culture – and made an impact. On the elevator at the Glossier store in Soho I overheard one teenager asking another, “Who is Sally Hansen?” And so many brands have opened their own locations – “we no longer have to make love to our customers through an interpreter.” That said, in a Post-Pan world the digital disruption has been critical. The future role of the beauty advisor given hygiene issues and social distancing remains to be seen. The magic given to us by Sephora in changing the nose-to-nose at-a-counter service paradigm is not going to return in the near term. Products can be tried digitally, whether in store or online. Peer reviews and demonstrating applications on Facetime and WhatsApp are fundamentally changing the role of the physical location. What happens to the beauty store is up in the air. That said, the appetite for the product remains.
Beauty and Culture
Let’s step back in 2020 and get into the cultural nuances of it all. Bear with me. Walk the streets of Istanbul and you see the cross section of eye colors and skin tones based on its location as the crossroads of commerce for the past 5000 years. Today’s citizens are no doubt the results of parental love, but also more brutally of rape and concubinage. In New Orleans at the start of the 20th century, you may have seen the same range of hues and could make a similar judgement as to the origins of the range of skin tones and eye colors. Two tough observations about two different cities, but very real.
In 2020, walk through Battery Park City or San Francisco and you see a similar rainbow of skin colors. Our open-mindedness about different cultures has become a new norm. In a shrinking world, many of us have found love outside of our villages. Me included; my tiny, dark, lovely wife looks completely different than I do. Many Americans have been startled on Ancestry.com to find out surprises about their genetic pasts. The melting pot of America is real. Across race and ethnic origin, our choice of mates and partners is driven by a new set of criteria. As a global traveler, one of the most difficult conversations I have consistently is about origins. Only the Brazilians seem to really understand the value and pride of ethnic mixes.
Global Beauty Points
My short list of insights about the New Beauty Culture:
- Wealth or affluence is about hard work, education, and opportunity. Skin tone should have nothing to do with defining success.
- For the beauty industry, understanding of the community location by location is critical.
- The line between digital and physical does not exist. The easiest place to teach someone to interact with you digitally remains in a physical location.
- The physical location is about introduction, education and resupply.
- The design of that physical location has to be easy to keep clean. After 33 years of beauty work, I am tired of talking about dusty fixtures that are hard to keep clean.
- In a Post-Pan world all of us are refocusing on health not cover up. I like what the Korean brands have done. Let’s migrate from makeovers to education.
That line that the beauty industry, the triumph of hope over soap bubbles, is back but with a different twist. Understand that looking good and feeling good are intertwined. After seven months in confinement – and still counting for some – beauty, particularly inner beauty – has taken on a new dimension. With our lives held up to the mirror, there has been some deep thinking going on. Yes, a good soap helps, but hope wins out on both existential and physical levels.