‘Today’s big thing is tomorrow’s cautionary tale.’
The digital world evolves so rapidly that I had two meetings with the man who agreed to be my informant about what beauty brands were doing online. There were perhaps eight months between our first rendezvous and our second – during that period, he told me, a great deal had changed.
He asked me not to use his name or that of the company he works for. It’s an upmarket French cosmetics brand – one of the biggest in the world. Xavier, as we’ll call him, heads the digital department there. When we first met, he had complained that many beauty company executives, particularly at the luxury end of the market, were uncertain about the possibilities of digital, which they regarded as a bolt-on resource rather than a central pillar of their marketing strategies. He added that digital agencies were not used to the extreme sense of detail that luxury brands required when communicating with their audience: historically the web had not been an aesthetic environment.
‘What’s happened since then is the gradual merger of specialist web agencies with traditional advertising agencies,’ he says. ‘As a result, the agencies have been pushing their digital expertise among their clients. The result is that we’re now open to doing something a little more sophisticated than just putting a video – a glorified TV ad – online.’
He mentions the social networks, which have exploded since our last meeting. Like most brands, Xavier’s has a fan page on Facebook. Unlike many of its competitors, however, it has a coherent strategy: announcements on Facebook are planned months in advance to reflect the entirety of the brand’s communications: product launches, advertising, competitions and so on. Comments posted by consumers are monitored, and responses are carefully thought through rather than being dashed off. ‘The trick with Facebook is controlling the conversation rather than letting consumers run away with it.’
Facebook has evolved into a valuable customer relations marketing tool. ‘Visitors to the fan page are interested just as much in what other customers are saying as in what we’re saying. I’ve seen research suggesting consumers have only about 20 per cent confidence in a product that’s been advertised; but they have 80 per cent confidence in one that’s been recommended by another consumer online.’
Social networks resolved a problem facing many beauty companies: a lack of direct contact with the customer. Their brands are often sold through retailers rather than from an owned environment, so it’s difficult for them to develop relationships with those who buy their products, or to build customer databases. Thanks to loyalty cards, the distributors have a great deal of data, but they keep it to themselves because they see the brands’ e-commerce sites as competitive with their own online operations. Social media short-circuit the distributors and put brands face to face with customers again.
Another advantage of a Facebook fan page is that it’s entirely transparent: consumers know that it is being run by the brand. ‘There was always something manipulative about brands commenting on forums or blogs about beauty issues. There was a temptation to arrive in disguise, to chat with customers without saying you were a brand. On the occasions consumers found out they considered it extremely intrusive.’
One notorious example of this was the French blog Journal de ma peau (Diary of my skin), which appeared in April 2005. The blogger was identified only as ‘Claire’, a woman of a certain age. But the blogosphere was not fooled: both on the blog and within the community, bloggers commented that Claire’s posts read rather too much like advertising copy, which was exactly what they turned out to be.
‘Diary of my skin’ was a fake blog launched by L’Oréal-owned French skincare brand Vichy and the advertising agency Euro RSCG to promote a product called Peel Microabrasion. When Vichy confessed, it faced a storm of criticism from bloggers and something very close to ridicule by the marketing press. In retrospect the case was a landmark in other ways: it taught L’Oréal and its rivals a great deal about interacting with consumers online. The aftermath of the disaster was that Vichy changed its tack and developed a branded blog that allowed consumers to ask for advice about their skincare problems.
‘Consumers like to engage with brands,’ says Xavier. ‘We’re not necessarily seeking advice that will enable us to develop or change products. We’re a luxury brand, so we’re supposed to be one step ahead of consumers in terms of innovation. But we’re inviting them to join the family, so to speak.’
Xavier’s comments are echoed in reports from across the beauty sector. In early 2010, Advertising Age reported that Procter & Gamble had overcome ‘serious reservations’ about the use of Facebook as a marketing tool. ‘Now, the world’s biggest marketer wants all of its brands to get a presence on Facebook… and has recently opened a research-and-development office in Palo Alto, California, not far from Facebook’s headquarters, in an effort to co-develop capabilities in digital and social media.’ The article added that P&G rival Unilever had turned to Facebook to promote its men’s personal care brand Axe. ‘The page has become a place to host viral videos the brand launches, and Axe recently added a human face aimed at appealing to its male clientele – Jennie from Axe, actually part of the brand’s team at PR shop Edelman’ (‘Once skeptics, brands drink the Facebook Kool-Aid’, 22 February 2010).
Use of Facebook will evolve – or maybe it won’t. ‘One of the problems of this job is that the ground is always shifting beneath your feet,’ says Xavier. ‘Who a couple of years ago could have predicted the almost complete desertion of Myspace? Today’s big thing is tomorrow’s cautionary tale.’
This raises the subject of Twitter, for which Xavier finds little use ‘beyond straightforward PR purposes’. He adds, ‘People use it as a news resource, not for conversations. Something like 80 per cent of Twitter accounts are inactive.’
I wonder aloud where all this leaves blogs. Years after the Vichy fiasco, the web is still crammed with people blogging with varying degrees of professionalism about cosmetics. One standout name is Michelle Phan, who set aside a straightforward blog to become a ‘vlogger’ on YouTube, uploading video make-up tutorials that eventually reaped millions of views. She was so successful that Lancôme signed her up in 2010 to make videos showcasing its products. Retailers such as Boots and Sephora use blogs to add ‘branded content’ to their online shopping sites. And make-up tutorials are a by-now-familiar aspect of the brands’ own websites.
The relationship between brands and bloggers is almost as vexing as the one between brands and journalists. Traditional beauty journalists are in thrall to their advertisers and deluged with free cosmetics. Any hope that bloggers might represent an independent voice beyond the controlling arm of the brands’ PR departments has long gone – they too receive free products and invitations to chic launch parties, making them as straitjacketed as their print cousins when it comes to offering an objective viewpoint.
‘The problem with recruiting bloggers for PR purposes is that there are just too many of them,’ says Xavier. ‘Even the best ones don’t rise to the surface in Google searches, so you have to stumble across them or hear about them from someone else. Strategically, that doesn’t make much sense for the brands. There’s also the fact that, as soon as they’re regarded as being too closely tied to one particular brand, readers begin to feel that they’re too commercial and move on.’
Still, he acknowledges that brands should work with bloggers. ‘The question for me is: are they part of social media, or are they press? Most brands treat them like journalists but, since brands have recruited social media specialists, responsibility for building relationships with bloggers could move out of the PR department.’
At the time I first met Xavier, he was grappling with the implications of the iPhone and the iPad. Beauty brands swarmed into this new media space with applications. Nail products brand OPI, for example, launched a free virtual nail bar allowing users to access the whole range of more than 200 colours and match them with their skin tone. The result could be saved and the phone could then locate the nearest OPI retailer. L’Oréal also plunged in with a free app allowing users to browse make-up looks, watch tutorial videos and receive personalized product recommendations after providing details about their skin and hair.
‘We were all pretty excited about apps – at first,’ says Xavier, ‘but once everyone had launched one the space became less interesting. People tend to download an app, play with it a few times, then let it lie dormant. I must have downloaded about 50 apps on my phone – I regularly use about five of them.’
He believes a mobile site that can be accessed via myriad devices is far more interesting. Mobile communications, in general, interests beauty brands a great deal. For example, the L’Oréal app included a barcode scanner allowing users to access product-related tips and advice in-store. Once again, this kind of application allows brands to bypass the retailer. As we’ve established, vendors at retailers tend to recommend whatever product they’ve been told to push that week. Barcode scanning devices that link consumers directly to brands’ websites could be the answer. ‘I can talk directly to my customer while she’s still at the point of sale,’ explains Xavier.
The one thing we haven’t discussed among all this digital strategizing is the humble website.
‘It’s the hub: the departure point for all the content the brand creates. It should also provide unique content: science videos, launch videos, tutorials and so on.’ And e-tail, presumably? ‘Yes, but for me the main vocation of a website is one of image building. E-tail is important, but an online shop usually achieves the equivalent in sales of a single flagship store, so it’s never going to replace your other points of sale. That’s why you have to be careful to provide other content. A purely commercial site would have a negative impact on your image.’
The internet has also allowed beauty companies to address the sensitive problem of ethnicity: it is easier to depict different skin types online than in a costly traditional advertising campaign.
Co-founders Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, who met at Harvard Business School, say they created Birchbox ‘to help women cut through the clutter of the beauty world to find products that really work for them’. They’ve signed deals with a wide range of ‘brand partners’, including Kiehl’s, Korres, Marc Jacobs, Serge Lutens, NARS and Stila, to name a few. Barna and Beauchamp pay nothing for the samples. But the advantage for the brands, obviously, is that they are exposed to a self-selecting audience of discerning potential customers.
‘We realized that, when people walk into Sephora, you opt out of making a choice to learn more because there is so much to choose from,’ Beauchamp told the New York Times. ‘With four or five samples a month, you can really sink your teeth into a new product and decide if you want to buy the product in a full size’ (‘Birchbox aims to simplify the business of beauty’, 20 April 2011).
The service was officially launched in September 2010 – by April the following year more than 22,000 people had signed up. Beauchamp said she got the idea for Birchbox during a stint at Estée Lauder, when she saw how much money beauty companies spent sending out samples or including them with larger purchases. ‘Including a gift with a purchase to an existing customer makes it very difficult to track that investment… Birchbox is a way to track that return and give them data about purchasing behaviour.’
She added that early research suggested around 20 per cent of its subscribers went on to purchase full-sized products after testing a sample. The site also incorporates a blog about beauty trends.
Advances in technology are constantly making the online experience richer for consumers. ‘It’s great that they can upload photographs of themselves and then experiment with make-up, for example,’ Xavier says. ‘Augmented reality will transform the shopping experience, too, with virtual mirrors that allow you to test looks without the need to apply actual product. The borders between screen and reality are coming down.’
The size and mutability of the digital world make it a daunting environment for any company. In 2010 Unilever was one of a number of organizations that sent executives on a digital safari to Silicon Valley to explore the opportunities available to them. ‘The marketers visit Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo in search of digital solutions to marketing problems – a clear acknowledgement that today’s digitally savvy consumers are forcing the hands of brands that continue to spend the bulk of their marketing dollars on traditional advertising’ (‘Clients go direct to tech’, Adweek, 13 February 2011).
Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed told a conference: ‘The most challenging thing I see right now is the amount of choices out there… You physically cannot get through the day without being bombarded with all of these messages, and the way you get through the day is by engaging with the brands you want.’
In other words, brands must fully harness the communications power promised by digital media. Right now, they’re painfully aware that social media like Facebook – and the consumers themselves – are writing the script. Beauty brands, those great storytellers, must find more compelling ways of doing what they do best.