‘You have to dramatize science.’
I find myself wondering: ‘How exactly does all this work? I understand why people buy skin creams, but what happens before they come on to the market? What’s the process?’
So I find someone to ask: a friend of a friend, who works as a product manager at a major beauty company that has already been mentioned in these pages. She spoke on condition of anonymity, but let’s call her Caroline.
As we’ve established, skincare trends come and go almost as fast as fashion fads. Plant extracts, antioxidants, peptides, stem cells, bioelectricity: all of them have had their time in the sun. Beauty companies watch one another like hawks to ensure that they don’t miss out on a new active ingredient.
‘You constantly monitor what your competitors are doing,’ confirms Caroline. ‘You want to be sure you’re maintaining your fair share of the market, so you may find yourself launching a product to react to the competition or respond to a success story, but that’s by no means the only impetus. When you have a successful range of products there’s natural erosion. You can maintain interest by launching an extension to the range, or you may have to repackage and relaunch the entire line, changing the marketing message entirely.’
That’s when you need to contact the laboratory and find out if there’s a new active ingredient – a new story to tell. ‘Everything starts with a concept. You actually sit down and write this – and a lot of what you write typically ends up in the advertising copy at the end of the process. You take that concept to the laboratory and discuss it with them. They can tell you whether their research supports your concept. You go back and forth for a while adjusting your concept until it agrees with the research, and finally you’ve got a coherent story to tell the consumer. A good example of this, in my view, is Vichy’s LiftActiv Derm Source. Vichy is basically targeting the papillary dermis, the layer of skin below the surface – the epidermis – which it has renamed the ‘derm source’ in its marketing. This implies that it is the source of all your skin problems and that, by targeting it with a plant extract, they can improve the elasticity and radiance of your skin.’
A beauty brand may launch two or three products based on the same story, with others to follow if it proves successful. For an anti-ageing product this might be one serum, one cream and maybe a serum for the skin around the eyes. If the product is focused on hydration, the range might be larger because of the different skin types: dry, oily or combination. A range can gradually expand to embrace 10 or more products. ‘Lately there’s been a trend for launching the range with the serum,’ says Caroline. ‘Women are getting into the habit of applying a serum that prepares the skin for other beauty treatments.’
The laboratory then makes up samples, conducting tests to see how the active ingredients react with the commonplace elements that go into a cream – water, preservatives, colour, fragrance, slip agents and so on. The type of packaging is decided on very early too, partly because the chosen material may react negatively with the ingredients. (‘I remember one cream that actually melted the plastic,’ Caroline recalls.) The packaging is also a vital part of the storytelling process, so it’s important to get it right. This involves various meetings between the marketing team, the design agency and the packaging producer, with numerous debates and adjustments. Moulds need to be prepared, slots booked at factories; glass containers require a particularly long lead time.
The product manager then receives several sample creams of different consistencies. ‘Texture is very important – we have sensorial specialists who work exclusively on that,’ says Caroline. ‘But it’s also quite subjective. I tend to always like the same type of cream. Usually a few of us test it to determine which is the most popular.’
If there is any doubt, the sensorial specialist is asked to make a decision about which texture delivers the most pleasing experience.
Once a sample has been validated, the cream is sent to a test centre to find out how it goes down with consumers. Volunteers take part in blind tests with competitive products. They’re also asked to use the cream for between 15 days and a month, to see how it affects their skin (see ‘Welcome to Cosmetic Valley’, below). The sample groups are small – as few as 30 women. This enables the beauty companies to claim that ‘80 per cent of women tested noted an effect on their skin’. Positive test results give the product manager ammunition to convince the sales and marketing team – and ultimately the CEO of the company – that the cream merits the money and effort that will be put behind it.
While all this is going on, the product manager is working on the creative elements of the packaging and advertising. ‘You’re looking for the most attractive way of translating science into a scenario that sells the benefits of the product to the consumer.’
Another contact, this time at an advertising agency, tells me that there is not a great deal of difference between working on beauty brands and detergents. ‘They both require the same skill,’ he says. ‘You have to dramatize science. With detergent, we’re showing you how the enzyme or whatever it is eats up all the dirt on your clothes. With a skin cream, we’re showing you how the active ingredient reacts with your cells. There’s always a certain amount of scientific language and maybe one of those close-up illustrations you see in biology textbooks.’
The language of beauty marketing is a kind of surreal poetry. ‘Natural’, ‘radiance’, ‘flawless’, ‘visibly reduces’, ‘enhances’, ‘renews’, ‘boosts’, ‘rejuvenates’, ‘revitalizes’, ‘replenishes’, ‘exclusive’, ‘patented’, ‘tested’, ‘proven’, ‘advanced’: choose from a smattering of these, and add some science (extra points for the use of the words ‘cells’ or ‘cellular’) and preferably a few French words too. Many US beauty ads still prefer the word ‘crème’ instead of ‘cream’, because regulations once forbade the use of the word ‘cream’ unless it related to a dairy product.
Advertising restrictions concerning the beauty business are getting tougher. The United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regularly lashes out at claims it considers dubious, and as a result cosmetics companies regard the UK as one of the strictest regulatory environments in the world. ‘If you get away with a claim in the UK, you can probably get away with it anywhere,’ one beauty advertiser told me.
Digitally removed wrinkles and ingeniously manipulated statistics, alongside claims such as ‘younger-looking skin’ and ‘reduces the look of fine lines’, have provoked complaints from consumers, often upheld by the ASA, which has pressured the likes of P&G and Beiersdorf to withdraw certain ads. Ads for hair and eyelash products have come under fire, too, with L’Oréal and Rimmel, among others, facing criticism from the ASA for the use of hair extensions and false lashes. This is despite the fact that advertisers have begun peppering ads with small print that comes clean about the enhancements. Overseas brands are frequently obliged to adjust advertising copy for the UK market.
The beauty industry is becoming increasingly worried about this development. At the inCosmetics trade show in Munich in May 2009, cosmetics consultant Chris Gummer urged the industry to ‘get tough with regulators’. ‘They are being over-diligent about our claims and not really understanding the consumer,’ he said. He suggested regulators be invited to cosmetics companies and shown consumer research. ‘This is an area of perception, of beauty and emotion, and they need to know how consumers really respond to these products.’
He was convinced that consumers knew how to interpret claims and were not being misled. On the other hand, he agreed that cosmetics companies needed to be more diligent about the data they were providing. Particularly, he pushed for more in vivo tests (on live subjects) rather than in vitro (purely lab-based). ‘In vitro only says something possibly will work or might work. It gives you a guide to take the next big expensive step to the in vivo trial’ (www.cosmeticsdesign.com).
Caroline believes most consumers are willing victims. ‘They’re never 100 per cent convinced it will work. They’re perfectly aware that there’s an element of fantasy.’
Very often, that fantasy is symbolized by a celebrity. Some lines have an established star endorser, such as Sharon Stone for Dior’s Capture Totale, in which case you just need to shoot her for the latest product. But if you’re launching a new line – or relaunching an old one – you need a fresh face.
Caroline says: ‘Between you and me, I think consumers are getting a little tired of the celebrity game. They are well aware that she’s had little or no involvement with the conception of the product. But it’s considered important internally. If you launch without a star, the industry thinks you have no confidence in your product. After all, if you’re willing to sign up a celebrity for 8 or 10 million dollars, that sends out a message. I also think it’s important for corporate morale. You tell yourself that all the stress and crap you put up with is worth it because you work in a glamorous industry.’
The combination of a big star and an intriguing science story will also attract the attention of the press. Caroline acknowledges the importance of beauty journalists – and, more particularly, of the awards handed out by glossy magazines. In France, the Marie Claire Prix d’Excellence de la Beauté is considered particularly prestigious. I was told major brand owners put pressure on magazines if their products are overlooked by such prizes. The conglomerates that now own the bulk of the world’s luxury beauty brands wield tremendous advertising clout.
With positive press coverage in hand and a dazzling VIP figurehead beaming down on a whey-faced populace from posters, the product is ready to fly from shelves. According to Caroline, the journey from concept to launch takes 18 months.
During that time, it’s likely that the product will have passed through France’s beauty heartland. They call it Cosmetic Valley.
Welcome to Cosmetic Valley
Cosmetic Valley is more of a concept than a location – although it is a geographical area, spreading outward from the Ile de France like a blotch of spilled scent on a handkerchief to Tours in the heart of the country and Normandy in the north. Embracing over 200 laboratories, six universities and more than 7,700 researchers, as well as businesses concerned with every aspect of the beauty industry, it is the perfume and cosmetic sector’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. Many French brands have research and packaging operations there; almost all of them have depended on it at one time or another. Jean-Luc Ansel, director-general of the association, says, ‘Eighty per cent of beauty products on sale in duty-free shops come from this cluster.’
The development of Cosmetic Valley began in the 1970s, when beauty companies began quitting Paris and its suburbs for cheaper and more spacious accommodation in neighbouring regions. By the 1990s a busy hive of enterprises had grown up, but they barely communicated with one another. Cosmetic Valley was created to develop joint training and employment initiatives, organize conferences and trade fairs and promote the region as a single entity abroad. Growth accelerated in 2005 when it was named one of the French government’s ‘competitive poles’, offering tax breaks to companies that relocated there. ‘Cosmetic Valley plays an important role in maintaining the prestige of “Made in France” in the luxury and beauty fields,’ says Ansel. ‘It is a wellspring of innovation.’
While plenty of straightforward bottling and packaging goes on in the region, scientists there are also studying everything from the effects of biodegradable plastics on active ingredients to the use of ultrasound to measure the depth of wrinkles.
It is through Cosmetic Valley that I meet Patrick Beau, founder of a clinical trials centre called Spincontrol. One chilly October morning I pay him a visit in Tours, a staid but by no means unpleasant town whose handsome white houses are crowned with bruise-coloured slate.
Rather than the maze of glass-fronted laboratories I’m expecting, Spincontrol turns out to be an unassuming enterprise based in a small Art Deco building. Inside, it is clean but functional – more provincial clinic than luxury spa. It seems to have little to do with the glamorous actresses and gold-tinted posters advertising skincare products in Paris.
Beau himself is relaxed and friendly, with the bright blue eyes and faintly ruddy complexion of somebody who prefers fresh air to a laboratory. Escorting me through the corridors, he unlocks a door to a large storeroom. The shelves are stacked with white plastic tubs of cream in various sizes, all marked with a code number. ‘The volunteers never know the brand name of the cream they’re being asked to test,’ he tells me. He picks up a tub and peers at its anonymous white contents. ‘Even I’d be hard pressed to tell you what that is.’
All test subjects are volunteers recruited via word of mouth – Spincontrol has a pool of around 15,000 of them. A study can take anything from two months to a year, depending on the product and the demands of the client. ‘First we need to know who their target market is and what they expect of the product. Then we’ll propose different techniques in order to arrive at a tailor-made study that follows international regulations.’
Beau opens more doors, revealing various incomprehensible devices: steel frames equipped with chinstraps, spotlights and cameras. The company uses advanced photography techniques and software to analyse dark spots on the skin or circles under the eyes, and ‘fringe projection’ – projecting light on to the skin to obtain a microscopically detailed 3D image – to judge the efficacy of slimming creams and anti-wrinkle treatments. ‘We were the first to bring fringe projection to France, a decade ago,’ Beau tells me.
He founded Spincontrol in 1991, and it now has 42 employees in France, as well as outposts in Thailand and Montreal. He’s also thinking of opening branches in India and Brazil. ‘There is a growing demand for rigorous testing because the cosmetics companies are making increasingly ambitious claims for their products, while at the same time consumer groups are calling for more transparency. Obviously, the results would be questionable if the brands conducted tests themselves.’
Spincontrol has obtained ISO certification as well as official approval from AFSSAPS – the French health products safety agency – as an independent ‘place of biomedical research’. Beau stresses, ‘We are impartial. We don’t advise the brands on what they can or can’t say. We just give them the facts. What they do with the data is up to them.’
I ask him about the small sample sizes. ‘A typical study involves 30 people,’ he confirms. ‘But that’s all you need, especially if you are considering a very specific target market. If you think about it, the smaller the number of people tested, the more the product is proved effective if there is a measurable change.’
He admits that the way the data are used might leave brands open to criticism. ‘They are more likely to say “reduced wrinkles in 95 per cent of women tested” than “reduces wrinkles by 5 per cent”, for example. They tell the story to their advantage.’
I’m surprised to hear that there is any real change at all, but Beau assures me that some creams can have an impact, if not a dramatic one. ‘In any case, I don’t think you can reduce creams to their efficacy. They’re also designed to provide pleasure: the packaging, the fragrance, the texture. We’ve conducted well-being tests proving that the use of cosmetics reduces stress.’
He does believe, however, that anti-ageing creams have begun to supplant conventional make-up. ‘Once upon a time, if people had wrinkles and blemishes, they hid them. But now they hope that, even without cosmetic surgery, they can get rid of them.’