The Importance Of Innovation In The Beauty Industry

Chinwe Onyeagoro is the CEO of PocketSuite where she is responsible for strategy, customer success and growth. 

When the time comes to take our first cautious steps in a post-Covid-19 world, anyone in the $532 billion beauty and personal care industry might want to consider the theory of the lipstick effect on the future of the business of making people feel and look good. 

What does lipstick have to do with looking good during the pandemic? Evolutionary psychology suggests a Darwinian basis for the lipstick effect. We strive to look good to make us more attractive to potential mates. A contemporary interpretation, however, is that during periods of economic uncertainty, consumers forgo luxuries but remain committed to what they consider “essential” needs.

Data confirms this postmodern telling of the lipstick effect. When the economy tanked after September 11, 2001, sales of cosmetics, skin treatments and massages surged (registration required), but high-ticket items (think expensive vacations and luxury cars) slowed to a crawl. While there are parallels between 2001 and this year’s pandemic-caused economic shutdown, there are important differences. 

I am reminded of a maxim attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” What rhymes today is that higher-ticket purchases are taking it on the chin, as they did after 9/11. What makes today different, however, is that consumers want to purchase luxuries, but the delivery of services has been made all but impossible by restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. Moreover, legions of hairstylists, nail and lash technicians, makeup artists, and fitness instructors who worked for large and small chains have lost their jobs.

Against such strong headwinds, many have found inspiration in innovation. Julie Lindh, a New York City-based esthetician (and a client of my company), enjoys an international following for her clinical-based skin care products and treatments. When the pandemic forced her to close, she pivoted to developing do-it-yourself skin care kits, which she supplements with individual video consultations. 

Lindh’s clients are far more focused on the top half of their face than on the bottom half: Who cares about lips when they’re hidden behind a face mask? Lindh’s treatment kits emphasize the eyes. 

This experience is consistent with the findings of Boston-based marketing firm Klaviyo, which reported in early July that daily average orders for lipstick were down 5%, but eyeshadow was up 64%.

In May, a McKinsey report estimated that U.S. beauty industry revenue could decline as much as 35% in 2020, bringing an end to a 15-year period of uninterrupted growth. McKinsey also revealed that while lipstick sales are suffering, skin care and bath and body products are benefiting from trends such as self-care and pampering. 

Since the release of the McKinsey report, the U.S. has gone from shelter-in-place restrictions impacting a majority of the population to a broad reopening of the economy and back to widespread closures due to a resurgence of infections. Where we will find ourselves come Thanksgiving is anybody’s guess. But it’s likely that until a vaccine is available, masks and social distancing will be the norm. 

Restrictions on mobility have accelerated the pace of digital adoption and innovation across many industries, including beauty. The accessibility and affordability of technologies such as videoconferencing make it much easier for self-employed beauty professionals to maintain relationships with their clients during this period. Mobile apps that provide text-based communication, sales and booking for virtual treatments and products and payment processing provide beauty pros the ability to maintain clients and develop alternative sources of income.

Perhaps one legacy of Covid-19 will be that the lipstick effect is forced into retirement. In its place, we may cite the eyelash effect to explain McKinsey’s prediction that the beauty industry will be resilient, despite the effects of the pandemic on the economy.

Evolutionary psychology may remain the best explanation for why we continue to spend money on beauty during an economic crisis, but we may need to make room for the role of innovation in how beauty is delivered.

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