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Beauty, Insight

The Language of Beauty

The Three Essential Pillars of Beauty Branding

Written for SPC Magazine’s March 2017 issue, Nick analyses the key beauty trends within three visual and verbal pillars that form The Language of Beauty. And suggests that beauty brands need to rest confidently on at least one pillar, but the sweet spot is all three…

One thing is clear about 2017 so far: the beauty sector is reaching new heights of fever-pitch activity. New lines, range extensions, brands, mergers and acquisitions and innovations abound. So much so that it’s increasingly hard to distinguish meaningful trends from passing fads among all the ‘noise’.

The big ugly truth for beauty brands in 2017 is that they’re operating in a marketplace that’s growing exponentially and is incredibly fickle, with consumers spoiled for choice. Any big brand idea keeps ruthless focus, and responds to emerging cultural truths and technological innovations. In packaging, that means being instantly recognisable and utterly captivating in-store and online. Three visual and verbal pillars form the ‘language of beauty’ – Beauty brands need to rest confidently on at least one of these, but the sweet spot is when they touch on all three:

• Pillar 1 – Beautifully Uncomplicated Look

• Pillar 2 – The Power of Touch and Emotion

• Pillar 3 – Telling a Compelling Story


Pillar 1: Beautifully Uncomplicated Look

Much like a chic Parisian woman, less is more. Packaging codes – across skin care, cosmetics and fragrance – are cool and premium, and uppercase lettering has room to breathe in a calm white space. Think Chanel as the gold standard.

The Beautifully Uncomplicated Look is often interpreted as ‘crafted simplicity’. This incorporates the white, heavily spaced aesthetic with a wider, neutral colour palette of grey, brown and greige, with heavier text and simple typography. Aesop sets the benchmark, but is now joined by Marlowe, Sort of Coal, sans [ceuticals], Byredo, RODIN and Reverie. Another feature of this pillar is ‘monochrome and monochrome’, particularly in colour cosmetics, where new brands stick to the black-and-white-pack-is-best approach. There’s often very little visual differentiation here – witness Jay Manuel Beauty, Beauty Pie, 3INA and koyVoca.

"Much like a chic Parisian woman, less is more. Packaging codes – across skin care, cosmetics and fragrance –are cool and premium, and uppercase lettering has room to breathe in a calm white space."

‘Credibility in science’ focuses on semiotic cues from health care: metallics, ‘scientific’ motifs and structures and reassuring on-pack claims to evoke trust and deliver compelling reasons to believe. As a result, both doctor-led and ‘laboratory’ style brands are trending. Deciem goes straight to the molecules in naming and design with its disruptive stable of science brands likeNIOD, stemm and Hylamide. M&S’ recently rebranded Formula range also plays in the science space with a more positive, personal tone of voice.

M&S Formula

Then there’s ’21st century genderfluidity’, a social trend that came to the fore in 2016. So we see photographer Rankin team up with Azzi Glasser of The Perfumer’s Story on unisex scent S&X Rankin, CoverGirl and MAC featuring LGBTQI models in their campaigns and Giorgio Armani’s range of tinted lip balms”for him/for her”.

"The big ugly truth for beauty brands in 2017 is that they're operating in a marketplace that's growing exponentially and is incredibly fickle, with consumers spoiled for choice."

Milk Makeup plays firmly in the gender- neutral space and another key beauty trend ‘multi-purpose on the go’. Its sleek, white and silver transparent bullets and sticks with multifunctional solid colour and skin care actives cater to busy millennials and gen-Zs who touch up and take selfies on the run. Other convenience formats include single-use mask sheets, ampoules and pods inspired by K-beauty.

Pillar 2: The Power of Touch & Emotion

Beauty is intimate. Products are applied to the most sensitive of surfaces, the human skin, often while we are naked and vulnerable, and used to buoy confidence or treat ourselves. Tapping into sensuality and emotions is a must. Inner and outer packaging that actively engages consumers with pleasingly tactile finishes enables brands to stand out from the crowd. This imperative is currently expressed in several ways.

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The physical experience of handling beauty packaging remains the most notable and immediate way to become a ‘striking structure’. There’s no one way to go about it, it’s about standing out in context. Herbivore Botanicals’ Lapis Oil combines the pipette trend with a heavy bottle and distinctive colour to great effect. Benefit redesigned its entire brow collection with divisive but striking silver beveled and faceted packaging. In secondary packaging, Sebastian Professional hair care partnered with tattoo artist Maxime Büchi to create etched collectable cardboard outer tubes in striking black, silver and grey – reminiscent of how artwork is sold.

"Inner and outer packaging that actively engages consumers with pleasingly tactile finishes enables brands to stand out from the crowd."

‘Surprising sensoriality ‘plays out on the products themselves, with carving and moulding figuring heavily in cosmetics. Lipsticks, blushes, eyeshadows and high lighters feature flowers, pearls, waves and more. Hourglass’ Clé de Peau Beauté Luminizing Face Enhancer and Sonia Kashuk’s Knock Out Beauty Skin Glow are both standouts. Others work with unusual textures: Asian brands like China’s Kailijumei and Chosungah 22 deliver jelly-decorated and chai tea-scented lipsticks. K-beauty innovations like cooling products, jelly, gel-to-oil and other textural surprises also feature in skin care.

‘Personalised perfection’ is a fashion trend now seen in beauty. How better to engage with the individual than with something actually made for them? Lâncome’s Teint Particulier uses scanning technology to deliver personalised foundation. Function of Beauty and eSalon do the same with personalised hair care products. While currently in its infancy, a new innovation that could significantly disrupt packaging design is Texen’s collaboration with E Ink which offers digital, personalised packaging that’s updated and powered by Near Field Communications. The opportunities for targeted on-pack advertising and social engagement are almost endless – but there’s still a long way to go before it’s visually appealing enough.


Also playing on a deeper consumer experience are ‘technobeauty’ offerings. New innovations include Kerastase’s connected hairbrush Hair Coach, Neutrogena’s Light Therapy Acne Treatment Mask, Crest Whitestrips with Light and Samsung’s S-Skin that analyses the skin’s condition and treats problems with microneedle patches. With a less than overwhelming consumer reaction to the Kerastase hairbrush, it’s clear that new technology isn’t good enough if it doesn’t also deliver tangible results and a great experience. Another sensorial trend is ‘dynamic interaction’, where consumers engage in making their own beauty products. Clinique has just launched BIY Blend It Yourself Pigment Drops that let consumers transform their moisturiser into a BB, CC or fuller-coverage foundation. Palette London’s Create Your Own Nail Paint Collection does what it says on the tin.

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There’s a distinct overlap between this DIY space and the rise of ‘gastrobeauty’. Influenced in no small part by the rise of wellness and clean eating, new products – from masks to powders – are mixed and sometimes even consumed in a ritual by the consumer, all in the pursuit of beauty. Yllo’s Turmeric Mask Scrub is all about bespoke blending of food ingredients. Cap Beauty’s soon- to -be launched The Captogenic is a cannabidiol oil product in a coconut/olive oil base that’s consumed in smoothies or on toast.

Pillar 3: Telling a Compelling Story

Brands with meaningful heritage and a compelling story stand the test of time. Rather than focusing on fads, they have a loyal fan base. The flipside is that they have to innovate. New brands, on the other hand, need to bring something entirely new to the crowded marketplace – something that goes beyond design and experience. There are several ways that brands can articulate something unique in naming, packaging and social storytelling. However, inauthenticity isn’t the answer, with Target’s retro English range Mayfair Soap Foundry a particularly unfortunate example.

"Brands with equally balanced beautiful visual equity, great sensorial cues and a compelling story set themselves apart. Ignore any of them entirely at your peril."

‘Creative collaborations’ are proving extremely fruitful for established beauty brands, enabling them to leverage the fans and followers of other brands, and give them far greater freedom to play by borrowing brand equity. Notable examples in early 2017 include Butter London + Pantone, Clinique and Crayola’s colouring for adults crayons and signs of another Estée Lauder x Victoria Beckham collection. MAC has taken it to the next level by creating ten personalised lipsticks for ten of the world’s biggest beauty influencers.


It’s nothing new in the beauty industry to have the founder’s name on the brand, but a new genre of ‘autobiographic beauty’ brands are springing up, with design and communications that say something truly meaningful about them. Last year saw a diverse range of entrepreneurs. Charlotte Mensah’s luxury afro hair care range is designed to reflect the award-winning stylist’s dual life between London and Accra. Latin American businesswoman and philanthropist Angélica Fuentes launched her A Complete skin care range. Both of these are also focused on using profits from their lines to empower women and girls.

Estate agents always say it’s about location, location, location. This can be similarly true in beauty, with ‘powerful provenance’ used as a vital ingredient in branding. Explicitly provenanced brands include African Botanics, Nubian Heritage and Haeckels Made of Margate. Then there are brands like Hungary’s Omorovicza, whose storytelling is implicitly woven into all brand communications.

charlotte mensah

‘Hero ingredients’ feature quite often in autobiographic and provenance stories, but are popular as story creators themselves. Drawing on the gastro and wellness trend, Youth to the People focuses on kale, Maya Chia on chia seeds and Kush Creams are hemp-based.

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And never forgetting that a large part of beauty is about fantasy, there’s ‘magical narratives’. Storybook Cosmetics leads the way with genuinely fantastical ranges based on the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones universes, while Luxie Beauty is developing a Wonder Woman collection to coincide with the launch of the movie mid-summer.

2017 is no doubt going to be a rollercoaster ride for the beauty market, so keeping focus is vital. As we move deeper into this year, all three pillars will play equally important roles. Brands with equally balanced beautiful visual equity, great sensorial cues and a compelling story set themselves apart. Ignore any of them entirely at your peril.