Today’s beauty brands have a new audience to win over when debuting their products: the ever-growing group of skin-care and makeup junkies that is burgeoning online. But with that has come increased competition, as these customers are surfing through social platforms crowded by other brands and influencers, all hoping to entice the same group of customers.
To solve for this, companies have started focusing on what’s trending online from the get-go, altering both their product formulations and outside packaging to better catch the scrolling eye.
The result is an uptick in products that emphasize texture, viscosity, light and color, often with special effects like glitter or foam added in. Products with unique application processes, like those utilizing water droppers and sponges, and all manner of masks, are also popular.
“This is a huge trend — we talk about it every single day,” said Rinat Aruh, the co-founder and CEO of Aruliden, a branding and product design consultancy that works with brands including Maybelline and Kiehl’s. Now, these brands are spending thousands more on product development, she said, thanks to a longer list of requirements for success.
Farsali’s gold-infused Rose Gold Elixir
And, although brand aesthetics may differ, no one brand in the category seems immune to the tactic.
K-beauty stalwarts like Glow Recipe and internet-born brands like Farsali have led the charge, but many others have followed suit, including the more traditional, artistry-driven brands like MAC Cosmetics and Too Faced, and the more minimalist, newer entrants like Glossier and Drunk Elephant. Even mass brands like Maybelline and Covergirl are taking part.
“There’s a big desire today to create something that results in an Instagram moment, where a product is very photogenic and encourages consumers to take a picture of it,” said Natasha Jen, a partner at the branding agency Pentagram, which counts Dr.Jart+ and Oliveda as clients. “Those moments lead to word of mouth and are huge advertising opportunities.”
A light-reflecting highlighter from Anastasia Beverly Hills
Indeed, given social media’s impact on consumer purchases, this phenomenon is not surprising. In 2016, a Facebook IQ report found that 53 percent of beauty purchases are influenced by what beauty experts share on social media, while 44 percent of them are influenced by what brands post on these platforms.
Setting the scene
That beauty brands care about the way their packaging looks isn’t new, but today, they’re approaching it from a different angle.
“We used to use the lens of: How do we design to create an impact on shelves?” said Aruh. “But now, we design for the thumbnail, which really changes some of the choices we make.”
Where once tactility might be essential to a product’s outer packaging, for instance, light and color now take its place. Shiny glass and plastics, colors that pop and all manner of sparkle are common.
Palettes decorated in metallics or graphic patterns — which also allow shoppers to capture various textures and colors in one snap — have also seen success, with brands including Tarte Cosmetics and Gigi Hadid for Maybelline putting their spin on the format.
When Glow Recipe founders Sarah Lee and Christine Chang chose the glass container for their brand’s Watermelon Glow Sleep Mask, its resemblance to ice was intentional, they said.
In planning the product’s debut last May with Sephora, its launch partner, the multi-retailer had specifically requested it involve “social media–worthy packaging,” said Lee.
Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask
As K-beauty practitioners, they’re used to the idea. The skin-care category is known for brands like Tonymoly, Too Cool for School and Ultru, all of which incorporate packaging that’s louder and more fun than its American counterparts.
“It’s such a saturated market, and packaging designs today are so beautiful,” said Lee. “Everything is screaming for attention and you definitely need a point of difference.”
Even product mailers are being transformed in the hopes of garnering online attention.
In 2017, the subscription service Birchbox — already known at the time for its rotation of patterned beauty boxes — redesigned their shippers to a shade of salmon-pink, with positive affirmations like “Yes!” sprinkled across them. Each shopper’s name on the mailers is now also preceded by adjectives like “The Tenacious….” or “The Clever….,” to add personalization to the overall effect. It increased not just social mentions, but brand loyalty, too, said Fran Gaitanaros, the company’s vp of creative.
Bringing the inside out
It’s not just the outside packaging that counts. Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Sleep Mask may not have performed as well (it sold out seven times) if the actual product wasn’t a pretty pink, gel-like substance.
“Korean beauty is uniquely suited to Instagram because the textures are unique and the experience is very sensorial,” said Chang. Whenever the brand posts images or video clips of the watermelon mask online, she said, followers go nuts and like the posts more than any others.
Korean beauty sheet masks sold on GlowRecipe.com
And the idea has spread beyond K-beauty.
Glossier has played up the texture of its products, including its thick Cloudpaint blushes and its sticky Haloscope highlighter. MAC Cosmetics and Too Faced have popularized the “baked” product look, championing bronzers and eyeshadow palettes that evoke tightly-packed, shimmery sand. Others, like Farsali and Dr. Jart+, have emphasized the liquidity of their products using water droppers, mists and sheet masks.
“These unique approaches to beauty have really been able to thrive visually and have helped to bring skin care out from behind closed bathroom doors, so that it’s now a social sharing moment,” said Chang.
While branding and product consultants like Aruh and Jen once only focused on the packaging aspect of a product, they’re collaborating on the actual formulations more and more.
“It’s less about the chemistry behind it and more about the so-called ‘goop,’” said Aruh. “We’re helping to bring the inside out and make the overall brand story [more tangible].”
Assorted Glossier products
The efficacy question
But not everyone is convinced this emphasis on social media appeal is really serving the consumer, as the ingredients that create buzz aren’t always good for skin, and the “effects” seen in a well-crafted photo or video aren’t necessarily easy to replicate (or truly important, for that matter).
“I think we’re losing sight of what is actually good for consumers, product-wise,” said Jen. “There’s a strange shift in priorities happening where things are very surface-driven, even for beauty.”
Lee and Chang agreed, noting that they’ve made a point not to include things like parabens, synthetic dyes and phthalates that are often responsible for some of these Insta-worthy effects — but they’re an exception.
“There are a lot of Instagram-popular beauty products that have catchy hooks and can be visually satisfying to watch, but that doesn’t always mean they deliver results,” said Lee.
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