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The Branding of Beauty – Part 1 of 3


Beauty, like fashion, is a category that confounds many marketers. And fascinates others (like me). It seem arbitrary, subjective, unpredictable, or simply unfair – what, $100 for that jar of crème? Are you kidding? And yet this is a regular occurrence, to the tune of tens of billions spent annually.

So this little series of posts will focus on the beauty category, attempting to reveal a few of its secrets…

When I was a child growing up in the tri-state region of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City, I would accompany my mother on Saturday jaunts to the nearest Lord & Taylor, or Saks Fifth Avenue, and watch as we made the inevitable gauntlet through the cosmetics floor that confronts you (nay, swallows you whole) as you enter the department store.

At first I was bored to tears, sitting on a stool as Estee Lauder or Clinique staff swarmed around her, applying makeup and lotions while showering her with compliments, as salespeople should do. I would fidget and roll my eyes impatiently as I waited my “turn” – i.e., going to the kids’ floor or escaping the store into the wilds of the mall. “Mom, this is so boooooring…” I would whine. She would wink and say, “Just a moment, honey. It takes some effort to look this beautiful.”

But as an adult who became a marketer, I had to look back and wonder how these companies were able to draw in intelligent, well-educated women by the millions, to spend thousands annually on something that seemed, well, made of nothing.

But it’s not as mystifying as one would think. As any good strategist should do, let’s break it down into its component parts, i.e., the ingredients that give a beauty brand the perceived value it does. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s focus on skincare as an example. In this post and the next, we’ll explore the 4 dimensions that I think are the key ingredients of creating desirability and enhanced value in beauty:

  1. Functional excellence
  2. Sensual pleasure
  3. Brand narrative – especially origin stories
  4. Health & sustainability values

First, there must be some kind of functional need it satisfies, such as relieving dry skin or cleansing the face. But often this is the least of the factors. It’s price of entry into the category.

But then occasionally there’s a “breakthrough”, such as the invention of “alpha hydroxy fruit acids” and the notion of “anti-oxidants” for the skin (which made billions for Clinique in the 90s, when I interned at their headquarters in Manhattan and saw the launch of “Turnaround Crème”).

What any breakthrough needs to put forward is essentially captured in the phrase “fountain of youth”. It is the crux of the category, the promise that this product (or brand as a whole) has a nearly magical ability to turn back the clock, or at least to hold it still for a time. For there’s nothing more terrifying to many women and men than the prospect of not only deteriorating health, but the appearance of decline.

But true breakthroughs are uncommon. In the next post, we’ll explore the other 3 factors, to understand how they enhance the value of even the most generic product by turning it into a brand that captivates the imagination.

– W.