The vanity business is a lucrative one, and it’s an industry from which other industries can take a cue. Even in the worst economy, the beauty industry thrives, as consumers seek solace in small confidence boosters like a tube of lipstick or a manicure. And while it inherently plays to our ego, today’s world of beauty is much more than skin deep. Once you peel back the surface layers, you’ll discover the industry’s recent ongoing success is driven by one precious skill: active listening.
According to Collins Dictionary, active listening is a two-way communication process; to actively listen is not just to hear but to understand, interpret and evaluate what is heard. The beautiful thing about the beauty industry is not that it listens, but that it delivers on insights learned from listening in meaningful ways. For those who haven’t noticed, gone are the days of peddling glamour alone. While it is still an underlying current, today’s beauty brands are known to be empowering, progressive, and mindful.
How was an industry long considered superficial able to flip that notion on its head? By opening its ears. Here’s what beauty brands can teach companies in any industry about being better listeners to ensure growth:
Let’s start with a lesson about inclusivity and how it can open new doors, while giving existing fans the fuzzies about a brand. Despite the population’s diversity, companies have been slow to recognize this in both product development and marketing. However, when social media gave neglected communities a voice, beauty brands were among the first to court and cater to them.
The move to enlisting transgender and male brand ambassadors is a perfect example of how social media helped propel an industry forward by opening its eyes to an overlooked market. With major players like CoverGirl, Maybelline and L’Oreal all breaking away from the social norm, it became clear beauty was no longer just for the girls. Other online movements such as #BlackGirlMagic, which Julee Wilson from the Huffington Post described as a way to “celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women," have spurred brands to expand shade offerings addressing the vast spectrum of skin tones and take an all-encompassing approach to marketing mixes further fueling success.
Perspectives change. It can take years or it can happen in a flash, so the key is to never stop paying attention. However, it’s important to not just recognize change when it occurs, but to understand what is at the root of it so the company can choose the right course of action. In the case of beauty, consumers had grown tired of unrealistic standards being dictated to them, so they started making their own rules. We now regularly see themes of self-acceptance and individuality in campaigns rather than the conformity of beauty’s yesteryears.
Capitalizing on this trend, brands like NYX Cosmetics have jettisoned to the forefront by building a community around artistic expression, with Tribe Dynamics ranking NYX fourth in terms of earned media value and social media growth in January 2017. To put this into perspective, Maybelline rests at ninth. A recent Mintel report, “The Millennial Beauty Consumer, U.S. - February 2017,” also reveals women prefer a more natural look, which explains why musician Alicia Keys’ au natural 2016 album cover became a catalyst for the #nomakeup and natural texture movements. Brands who anticipated this movement, such as No. 7 skin care and KEVIN.MURPHY, are just a few enjoying success from marketing platforms centered on healthy skin and hair serving as the foundation for flawless, stripped-back beauty.
Consumers are seeking brands with a conscience, as is evident in the backlash towards Jessica Alba’s Honest Company’s not-so-honest ingredient claims. And beauty brands have been quick to act as evident by the 1,700-plus brands that have secured the PETA-approved Beauty Without Bunnies cruelty-free emblem. According to the aforementioned Mintel report, millennials are results-driven, but they also prioritize natural ingredients and ethical claims such as cruelty-free, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced.
Securing verified seals from organizations such as the NON GMO Project might be costly and complicate manufacturing processes, but when the consumer is clamoring for it, why wait and fall behind? It’s easier to start the process now than lose out in the end.
A lot can be discovered about people through their social media habits, and beauty brands were a quick study, learning that above all consumers want bragging rights. As someone who has spent the last 15-plus years in beauty, I can confidently say this new consumer mindset has both revolutionized and bolstered the industry, completely redefining the shopping experience.
While most brick and mortar stores are reeling from the Amazon effect, Sephora and Ulta are experiencing exponential growth due in part to virtual experiences. They’ve found the sweet spot because unique experiences like Charlotte Tilbury’s in-store virtual magic mirror double as social media currency. There are also hundreds of beauty apps capitalizing on our cell phone addictions. Moral of the story is companies should be looking for ways to effectively tell their story through technology by pulling the consumer into their storyline.
Multichannel shopping has turned most industries upside down, making way for indie brands that are agile and more in tune with their consumer because they are social media savvy and engaged. There was no way to quell the uprising of emerging beauty brands, so multinational corporations eventually acquired them.
Thankfully, parent companies have learned to leave a good thing alone and let indie brands do what they do best: innovate through active listening. They are also learning more about their consumers from these more agile, connected brands. The takeaway? Regardless of size, companies can maintain their relevancy by following the lead of the more agile and engaged indie brands who are in lockstep with customers’ wants and needs.
As with most things, beauty is subjective, so how can a company cater to its audience if they aren’t listening and learning? Like any relationship, two-way communication is the only way to ensure a long, fruitful love connection that withstands the test of time or, even more challenging, an economic downturn.
Mia West is vice president of publicity at Havas Formula.