Free the birds

Beauty, Branding

Brand Design To Deliver Distinctiveness

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

Words to live by from Dolly Parton. Proudly larger than life, her over-the-top style is matched only by her commitment to career and philanthropy (her children’s literacy project recently sent out its 100 millionth free book). But what does this have to do with the beauty industry?

It’s about standing out from the crowd. There are plenty of talented singer-songwriters, plenty of larger-than-life blondes, plenty of humorous, wise women, plenty of philanthropists. But there’s only one Dolly, combining them all into one irresistible package.

And that’s precisely what great brand design needs to deliver today: an utterly distinctive package in the broadest possible sense. Gone are the days when some pretty packaging and occasional print ads cut the mustard.

Unfortun­ately, looking at the typically crowded drugstore beauty shelf in 2019, we find a sea of black, white and pink, with a dash of silver and gold. Even the most tactile of velvet-touch lipstick bullets with a satisfyingly heavy click is virtually indistin­guishable among hundreds of thumbnail images.

In order to be truly distinctive, beauty brand design has to stand out in every single channel. That means brands considering exactly how they look, feel, sound, smell and behave, in an utterly consistent way.




The starting point of great brand design has to be a distinct and relevant brand purpose that runs like silver thread through everything else. Dolly knows exactly what she’s about; her beauty line would be glitzy, ‘out there’ and effective, certainly not monochrome, aloof or overly green.

Examining and reexamining brand statements is a must. For example, Glossier’s ‘skin first, makeup second’ is a clear statement of intent. Even the new high-impact Glossier Play reflects this DNA as a ‘brand of dialed-up beauty extras.’ By contrast, many legacy beauty brands have lost any meaningful sense of purpose. For instance, Max Factor’s ‘Makeup for Makeup Artists’ is simply no longer true.



It’s important to know what you want to say and how you say it. A distinctive Tone of Voice brings a brand to life. A fantastic example is Pat McGrath Labs. The brand founder has been nicknamed ‘mother’ by the supermodels she works with due to her vast knowledge and warm nature. Therefore, when consumers subscribe to the brand’s newsletter there’s no bland ‘thank you for subscribing.’ Instead shoppers get: ‘You signed up. Mother’s wrecked. Pat sends her love and your discount code.’

The advent of voice search and digital assistants means this needs to be taken to the next level, with serious thought required regarding Sonic Identity. We know that listening to something really gets under the skin, which is how consumer decisions are made. Therefore, it’s critical to consider what a brand should sound like. Is it a he/she/zie? Does it sound different in different places? What music reflects its character?




Finding a distinct Colour Palette is essential in brand design, and brands that deliberately push against category codes have huge success in catching the eye. Glossier’s pale pink was almost shocking when it launched, and has since been joined now by a slew of copycats. Similarly, Asarai’s bright block yellow literally jumps off any page, screen or shelf. In men’s wellness, hims goes against every rule of men’s branding with pale pink and curved lettering miles away from the harsh grey and black of its category.

Twenty years ago, bespoke packs were standard, but with the global recession and increased competition on the market, investment in unique structures has been squeezed. But the simple fact of the matter is that Standout Structure has never been more important. Fenty’s hexagonal shape and The One by Frederic Fekkai spring to mind. Distinctive formats can have a similar impact. For instance, Trinny London’s informal, yet high-end, makeup stacks pop against traditional luxury brands’ compacts and bullets.

Unique designs can also unleash a sustainability story. For example, Myro’s a refillable, beveled deodorant pack looks fantastic and also uses 50% less plastic than conventiional deodorant.

Understandably, we often hear brands can’t afford to change their packaging, but something that can be done is to pilot and experiment with Limited Delights to see what’s possible – whether that’s collaborations, revisiting heritage packaging or exploring new sustainable packs. Having personally queued up at Harrods for a limited edition of the classic British condiment HP Sauce designed by Paul Smith, I can testify to the excitement factor in something quirky and rare!

Of course this must be carefully considered in order to avoid being hackneyed, irrelevant or just plain rubbish, but true partnerships and format and structure innovations can reinvigorate and maintain consumer excitement.




The retail approach of brand blocking – taking more and more room on shelf – has created sprawling product ranges.Every new hero ingredient, every new format, every possible price level is often bolted on without much thought given to whether it’s relevant to the brand. Today, it’s far better to clean house, have simpler shelves with fewer SKUS and interactive, informative point-of-sale designs that help the consumer navigate to what they actually need.

Challenger brands win through their offer’s simplicity. Even at a $1-billion-plus valuation, Glossier has just 14 products in skincare, compared to 34 and 35 for Burt’s Bees and Aveeno respectively.




The most magical quality of new indie brands is their ability to create immersive Brand Worlds. Goop and Glossier don’t just have a look and feel, they also have a lifestyle, a fashion, a fragrance and even food attached to them. Pop-ups and retail experiences are essential to this, but also multichannel content creation and partnerships that reflect and amplify their brand. For example, Lush creates documentaries and activist conferences on key social issues.

Quite often the product is the last piece of the puzzle; it’s not about selling but instead engaging in conversations. This is something that Chanel has clearly noted with its Atelier Beauté beauty playground in Manhattan, where buying is less important than trying.

Big brands try to tap into this concept via celebrities and influencers, vicariously promoting a lifestyle that may bear very little resemblance to the brand promise or experience in store. Instagram clicks mean little if the influencer will do a sponsored post for anyone. It’s just a different sea of sameness. And that won’t be enough in the long run.




Being a distinctive brand means thinking and behaving differently and always trying to deliver more to an increasingly demanding consumer. This will never be achieved by going to the research. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

The same is true in branding. If you’d asked male consumers what they thought about a pale pink, curvy brand making jokes about erectile dysfunction, hair loss and skin ageing, the answer would probably be ‘no thanks.’ That is the advantage of a challenger brand: they’re allowed to step outside the norm and go with their insight and creativity.

Only time will tell if the big beauty companies have the appetite and bravery to rethink their business as usual brand design and really ask themselves whether they know who they are and if they are truly doing it on purpose.

Nick Vaus

Published in Global Cosmetic Industry