Toru Jhaveri
Guest Article

A better kind of vanity: Beauty brands in the new normal

What happens to an industry that’s all about appearances when the world is less stage, more living room? A planner peeks into the beauty segment.

Ever since it became deeply unfashionable – and simply unacceptable – to tell women that looking beautiful would ease their journey through a male-dominated world, the beauty business has had to reconcile multiple contradictions. Beauty brands promise women empowerment and self-belief, but for the price of their product(s) of choice. Brands tip their hats to the idea of inclusive beauty, which often means that we can now collectively ‘enhance’ what other generations simply tried to fix. Beauty is increasingly about feeling good, but you must also look the part.

The one thread that ties all of these contradictions together is the idea of beauty as something to behold – women (and increasingly, men) know they are being seen, and they want to modulate and shape what they show the world.

So, what happens to an industry that’s all about appearances when the world is less stage, more living room? When there are no admiring acquaintances and strangers, only the familiar folks you share that living room with? When even social media is less ‘#wokeuplikethis’ and more ‘#itiswhatitis’?

Beauty’s Resilience

In the first couple of months of the pandemic, it was easy to assume that cosmetics and beauty brands as we knew them were a thing of the past. They were inherently inessential. They would be dropped from shopping lists and would also stay off them for the near future.

While there’s no shortage of women who’ve cut back on their beauty regimes, the lure of preferred make-up and beauty products has proven to be remarkably resilient. Nielsen published data stating that India’s FMCG recovery in June 2020 was led by beauty products, a conclusion that admittedly surprised the company’s own analysts. A McKinsey study stated that sales of nail-polish, hair-colour and bath-and-body products surged in the US in April. And that, sales of luxury hand-soaps soared by 800 per cent in France as the country went into lockdown.

Some of the more dire predictions have played out – store and salon visits have crashed for obvious reasons, prestige products and entire sections of portfolios remain vulnerable, discounting has become the baseline. But there are also real opportunities to be found.

D-I-Y Beauty for Ugly Times

If there’s one pop-culture moment that exemplifies and explains the continuing appeal of beauty in ugly times, it was Eva Longoria shooting a home-made ad for L’Oreal Excellence Crème. Her film was candid, confessional and cheerful – she breezily spoke about the grays she wasn’t ready to live with and promised the ‘best ever before-after shot’, all while walking consumers through a step-by-step application process.

It’s an ad that encapsulates our changing relationship with beauty. Beauty is an indulgence and a pick-me-up, but it’s so much more than that. Women want to look good as a tribute to themselves. They want make-up and beauty routines that are low-stress and truly D-I-Y. Products need to perform and exceed expectations. Enjoyable, even playful self-care is both process and the desired result.

Adventurous Explorations and Deliberate Self-Care

As the industry tries to pivot, influencers have been among the first to adapt. Bloggers and vloggers of all stripes have been posting a plethora of tutorials that push the envelope on styles, with eye-makeup becoming particularly adventurous. Innovations are being propelled by their followers, who are increasingly experimenting with cosmetics as a creative canvas.

"The lockdown has also accelerated adoption of a trend known as ‘ugly beauty.’ True to its name, ugly beauty encourages the accentuation of flaws and make-up that’s messy and aggressively imperfect."

Both long-time beauty aficionados and beauty newbies are literally playing around with colour and texture, feeling emboldened to go where they have never gone before, whether it is with rainbow eyeshadow or statement hair-colours. The lockdown has also accelerated adoption of a trend known as ‘ugly beauty’. True to its name, ugly beauty encourages the accentuation of flaws and make-up that’s messy and aggressively imperfect. It’s the kind of exploration that women feel safe undertaking in private, test-driving looks before debuting them outside.

Other women are pursuing a different kind of exploration. They’re investing time and energy in understanding their skin, understanding products and designing a highly personal, efficacious regime. This approach to self-care is deliberate and research driven, and it’s a way for women to give back to themselves during a difficult time. These are the consumers who are driving curiosity around ‘clean beauty’ in India, although whether that curiosity gives way to loyalty remains to be seen. After all, product performance is key – a beauty indulgence should feel worthwhile, particularly when small joys are at a premium.

Of New Normals and Age-Old Vanities

Whether creative or care-focused, beauty rituals are empowering consumers to differentiate between weekdays and weekends, working hours and ‘downtime,’ between ordinary days and celebratory occasions. It might be too much to say that beauty regimes are therapeutic, but they do permit people a sense of control in uncertain times, infusing daily routines with micro-doses of delight.

Not everything about beauty’s new normal feels new, though. Vanity might be politically incorrect, but it’s still an incredibly powerful motivator. Having looked at themselves on one Zoom call after another and not liking what they see, people around the world have chosen to course-correct, contributing to a boom in elective plastic surgeries that journalists are calling the ‘Zoom Effect.’

If looking good still matters, then what exactly has changed? And what can brands do about it?

The Public, Made Personal

The greatest shift in women’s relationship with cosmetics and beauty this year is the fact that they are consciously negotiating their own relationship with beauty, minus the everyday noise, distraction and public-facing pressures of their pre-COVID lives.

“Do I want to have fun with beauty? How many beauty products are too few, too many and just enough? Do I want to nourish and nurture my skin in ways that I’ve never had the chance to? Does beauty help me take back control? Do I want approval and validation? Or do I honestly not care?”

Brands that can help articulate these answers are the ones that will thrive. They will need an ecosystem of idea and identity; communication and content; accessible expertise and products-as-experiences, in order to do so. They will have to talk about emotional and functional benefits in a completely different language. These brands can partner women in authoring authentic beauty stories, in which media and pop-culture have a smaller role to play. They can decisively turn the tide for beauty, transforming it into something as deeply personal instead of merely performative. After all, as the studies keep telling us, the face we look most at on those multiple Zoom calls, is our own.

(The author is strategy head at DDB Mudra West. Over the past 14 years, she’s worked on facewashes, neem soaps, anti-ageing moisturizers, shampoos, serums and hair colours – although not on the one brand of eyeliner that’s single-handedly getting her through the pandemic.)