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Consumer First: A Beauty Tutorial for the Fashion Industry

As the New Year begins, one sentiment seems prevalent amongst fashion consumers: fatigue. Their pain is felt acutely on the bottom line of fashion companies that were once the talk of the town. While many consumers complain about high prices, most feel truly let down by the lack of excitement as well as the lack of relevance between fashion products and their own lives. All of a sudden, fashion does not thrill us anymore. Is there a way out? Can the passion for new colors, textures, cuts, and shapes be rekindled?

The answer, thankfully, is yes. And the solution may be as close as the beauty aisle.

The cosmetics industry adapts more easily to outside threats and seems to break through them with clever strategies. This is admirable because, like fashion, the market for cosmetics is highly competitive. And it’s totally dependent on customer loyalty, which is hard won in the case of preventative care products that take a long time to show results.

Both fashion and beauty serve some fundamental utilitarian needs but mainly they cater to the consumer’s soul. It’s all about the emotional benefits. Satisfaction, confidence, and empowerment are feelings that both fashion and beauty products aspire to instill in the wearer. But fashion brands have lost their ability to stir emotions. Ironic as this may be, as fashion is one of the most creative fields, lack of creativity may be the culprit.

While fashion is an industry that relies on its designers’ creativity, fashion brands have had problems translating it into marketing campaigns. Several fashion executives confirm that their business operations are often disconnected from their creative teams.

Further, young fashion professionals often think creativity is about personal inspiration, inward reflection, and arbitrary stimuli. Part of it is. But creativity is more than that. It is an informed and inspired solution to a design problem—one that derives from users’ needs and wants. Therefore, and for the sake of argument, if creativity could be measured, it would be 70 percent user driven and 30 percent designer based. The beauty industry has internalized this and consistently applied it in its marketing efforts. In beauty, the consumer is the center of the brand’s marketing efforts from positioning, to messaging and styling.

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Milk Makeup: consumer sponge

Take Milk Makeup, for example. The line from creative agency Milk Studios is a direct response to millennials’ lifestyles. They’re constantly on the go, with mobile offices, gym class passes, and shared Über rides. These young professionals refuse to settle for any particular location, work space, workout routine or weekend retreat. They need beauty products that are easy to use, conveniently shaped and packaged, clearly identifiable as products but easily adjustable to each person’s personality and beauty flair.

Indeed, the brand defines their customer as “girls who spend less time getting done up and more time getting stuff done.” It was therefore important to deliver not just convenience in terms of packaging (that includes a: Mini Cooling Water stick; Mini Lip+ Cheek stick; Mini Matte Bronzer stick; and Mini Blur stick) but also adaptability. The millennial urban trotter wants to have all options available to her, without the burden of bulk or weight, in a fresh, stylish shape and coloring that reflect her modern lifestyle and in a flexible grouping that allows her to play with the sticks and create her own ideal beauty. And it doesn’t hurt that the brand is transparent when it comes to ingredients and animal rights, a positioning that the fashion industry is constantly struggling to achieve.

Taking that consumer-centered attitude one step further, from product development to marketing, Milk has created a highly animated gallery of instructional videos populated by a variety of real, cool girls. Each one of them is genuinely cast on specific lifestyles with distinct behavioral and cultural ideals expressed on screen with authenticity and a hint of sarcasm. The combination is an extremely appealing digital presence that motivates the customer to buy.

Let’s compare this example with the norm in fashion styling and marketing. Too often merchandisers are restricted by the corporate structure of the brand or unable to execute strategy on the retail floor when it has not been deeply developed in the corporate office. In other words, that missing link between business and creative hinders the expression of the brand in a way that draws the consumer in.

Fashion brands need to reflect contemporary lifestyles and behavioral norms and develop consumer-centered presentations, messages, and styling so that their products appeal to the public. In going through that exercise, brands would find that their designers’ creativity is left incomplete if it is not translated into a business specific (SKUs) merchandising sensitive narrative that truly responds to the customer’s needs and wants.

Bobbi Brown: content queen

Another strategy the beauty industry seems to have mastered is the application of digital beyond e-commerce. A great example of this is Bobbi Brown. With a content-rich digital presence, the Bobbi Brown brand delivers technical tutorials on how to apply its products; elaborate thematic chapters that move beyond single product presentation to make-up lessons centered around a specific feature; and advanced guides that explore product collections and their individual traits. This three-tiered approach to content marketing has given Bobbi Brown an edge as the authority of make-up, a trusted source where people flock for both advice and product—e-commerce is seamlessly incorporated in Bobbi Brown’s educational platform.

While there are fashion brands that have tried to offer something beyond just e-commerce (an often heartless, voiceless electronic inventory of items for purchase) they all fall back into the idea of “looks.” These prescribed combinations of items are very useful but they’re outdated in today’s market that is ruled by fluidity on all levels—gender, price, and quality fluidity among other types.

Glossier: constant chameleon

Finally, beauty brands do a better job in answering a question perpetually inscribed on the consumer’s mind: “What is this product going to do for me?” In highly competitive industries such as beauty or fashion, the product alone (its style, quality, pricing, and aspiration) is not enough. Brands must learn to speak about their offerings as well as visualize them in a way that clearly differentiates them from others, stays authentic to the brand, and closes the gap between brand and consumer.

Glossier, “a beauty brand inspired by life” built its entire presence based on the premise that every single product offered is a new essential, easy-to-use skincare and makeup item that “forms the backbone” to a person’s “unique beauty routine.” It therefore speaks with authority to its consumer while also respecting their individualism. The latter is perhaps the most innovative trait of the Glossier brand and very well translated in the presentation of its products. Discreet packaging allows the individual to make the product their own while product description (with text and emojis) seems to resonate with life as narrated in the now.

Fashion brands can combat consumer fatigue and turn it into excitement. To do that though, they need to better utilize creativity as a means to solving consumer-centered problems that are extracted from contemporary culture. For some brands, this needs to be addressed at the business level to bridge the gap between their operations and creative teams. For others, it needs to be executed properly and manifest itself in new form in front of the consumer. It can take the form of consumer-centered packaging/grouping, communicated in a context that stays as close to reality as possible, and activated via signs and codes that are authentic and flexible. If beauty can do this, so can fashion.

Thomai Serdari, Ph.D. is a strategist in luxury marketing and branding. She helps clients launch, grow, and successfully manage luxury brands. She also teaches at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at NYU and Parsons School of Design.