By Elisabeth King
In 1979, Estée Lauder launched Prescriptives, complete with beauty advisors in white coats custom-blending foundation in scientific-looking machines. The multinational finally shuttered the brand in 2009 as a department store regular, reviving Prescriptives two years later as an online-only offer. On the cusp of customisation in beauty becoming a hot topic again in 2013, Lauder re-introduced its cult custom foundation service via e-commerce. Customers now upload images of themselves, answer a probing questionnaire and within a week or so receive their ‘made for you’ foundation or powder.
For the past three years, the buzz around customisation has gained real momentum. But will it be easier today for beauty and skincare brands to offer the real deal rather than a mere facsimile?
In Asia, brands are opening lip bars which allow customers to test two or three shades at a time to mix their own colour. The problem is that women have been doing this for decades in the comfort of their own homes. Ditto foundations. It’s very easy to make a DIY foundation mixing lighter and darker bases in the palm of the hand.
The beauty market has essentially split into two mega trends - multi-benefit, one-size-fits-all products and personalisation similar to the fashion industry. It’s been much easier for fragrances to step up to the plate. Le Labo, now owned by Estée Lauder, offers personalised packaging. British perfumer Floris and Guerlain both offer high-end bespoke fragrance services. The Mixologie brand offers a set of eight rollerball fragrances at an affordable price which are designed to be layered. In store, Tom Ford counters advise customers which of the fragrances are good for layering - two or three at a time. Jo Malone has trademarked its Fragrance Combining, blending suggestion ‘service’.
In skincare the introduction of dual-chamber skincare products is viewed as the springboard of the current concept of customisation. The format allows for multiple formulations to be packaged so that the consumer ‘mixes’ the treatment just before application. Body products, self-tanners and foundations have also been marketed in blend-at-will packaging.
Sephora has played a significant part in the rise of personalisation in beauty. The open-sell environment of the world’s largest beauty chain has encouraged shoppers to do more testing themselves, instead of waiting for a BA to offer them products and advice from behind the counter. Crucially, store staff aren’t tied to single brands and can sell across a range of products. A sales approach that has sparked the popularity of the so-called ‘cocktailing’ trend as a way to achieve customised shades through cherry-picking from different brands.
Sephora executives actually research new beauty products and brands that dovetail with the popular trend. Sheer lipsticks that blend easily, mascaras featuring two formulas and individual eye shadows that offer more scope for experimentation than multi-hued palettes. According to Wende Zomnir, founder of L’Oréal-owned Urban Decay: “Palettes have a specific point of view in the way they suggest certain combinations and many beauty mavens like to define their own look”.
Leading makeup apps such as YouCam and L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius have made beauty purchasing decisions easier by providing a straightforward way to change a look instantly because they guide women towards products that suit their colouring and skin tone.
The Internet has also been a major enabler because it’s now far easier to collect personalised data on a mass scale. Consumers can create a custom profile online by answering questionnaires about their hair colour and texture, skin tone and features. Professional experts can then recommend personalised approaches and treatment routines which can be bought online or in-store.
A Mintel survey in 2014 discovered that many women were no longer willing to be passive purchasers of standardised makeup, skincare and haircare. While younger, more tech-savvy consumers are more likely to mix and match makeup and use online diagnostic tools and apps, women of all ages are looking for solutions which suit their individual needs. In the UK, one in four hair colourant users said they were interested in in-store colour matching services. In the US, a huge 72 per cent are interested in skincare products that suit their lifestyle.
Dermatologists and plastic surgeons have been prescribing customised skincare for their patients for decades. But is it feasible to offer such customisation in skincare on a large scale? Even though it’s long been known that different skin types have their own characteristics, skincare brands have largely stayed within the safety of general classifications such as dry, combination and oily. But dry skin is often sensitive and oily skin can also be sensitive and pigmented.
Answering online questionnaires can only go so far. True customisation in skincare still involves a consultation with a skincare professional to address all of a consumer’s concerns. Kiehl’s recently launched Apothecary Preparations, which relies on one core product - a skin strengthening serum. When a customer goes to a Kiehl’s store, their skin is diagnosed and the therapist will recommend adding other products which address such issues as pigmentation or sensitivity. The customer leaves with instructions to mix the products at home when needed. Skin Inc, a Singapore brand utilising Japanese technology, is stocked by Sephora and also offers this approach. An extra shot of hyaluronic acid or retinol to address dryness and wrinkles are added to core products at home.
Multiculturalism is also a major driver of the customisation trend. Many apps have become popular in Western countries where non-Caucasian consumers feel they have been ignored in the past. Asia is again leading the way. According to Joanna Chan, research analyst with Euromonitor, customisation is on track to be the dominant trend for skincare in the region. In the data company’s 2015 global survey, 50.5 per cent of respondents selected ‘suited my skin type’ as the factor behind their path to purchase with the demand at its highest level in China, India and Indonesia. Three years ago, the L’Oréal-owned Yue Sai brand launched Customized TCM Beauty Solution Ultimate Refining Serum, China’s first customised serum formulated in-store according to the specific needs of the client. There are five vital parameters Asian consumers are looking for in personalised products, says Chan - age, moisture balance, ethnicity, gender and lifestyle. When targeting the multicultural market, she notes, successful brands should cater to the specific needs of consumers as related to their ethnicity and culture, and which also take their lifestyles and the climate where they live into consideration. Last October, the Korean government legalised customised cosmetics, which were previously banned in the trend-setting country because of potential safety concerns. The legalised categories include perfumes, skincare and makeup. The move is aimed at further diversity and expanding Korea’s fast-growing local and international beauty markets.
The term bespoke is bandied about too freely these days. From a cost perspective, it would be very difficult to manufacture truly customised skincare and cosmetics on a large scale. The main reason Prescriptives was taken out of store was the high cost. Eleanor Dwyer, a beauty industry analyst at Euromonitor, believes that the majority of consumers are still not willing to pay a high premium for individually customised beauty products.
A degree of customisation is achievable and for many that’s more than good enough. Sephora’s Color IQ system, developed in collaboration with Pantone, uses in-store scanners to judge skin tone and recommend the appropriate products. Australian natural brand, Adorn Cosmetics, offers a Colour Match service, where consumers upload an image of themselves and experts recommend the right foundation or lipstick. Sephora-stocked Cover FX has Custom Cover pure pigment which can be added to all manner of face products, drop by drop to create a customised complexion enhancer. A drop in any serum gives a customised light coverage, 3-4 drops in a foundation enriches the colour for tailored, full coverage. Australis and The Body Shop both have lightening and darkening products that adjust the shades of foundation to name a few developments.
The day may come when technological advances make truly customised products cost-effective. But the current takeaway for beauty brands and companies is that the trend helps them to interact and connect with consumers more deeply than ever before.