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Room To Play – The Global Cosmetic Industry and You, The Outsider.

March 30, 2022

The world is made up of in-groups and out-groups and generally, that sucks! Sometimes, the in-groups are small and transient, like that group of girlfriends from school, the ones that decided collectively that they don’t like you so you can’t sit with them at recess today because you like the ‘wrong’ music or have the ‘wrong’ shoes. But sometimes the in-groups are so big and permanent, so all-encompassing that we just accept them or fail to recognise them for what they really are, or the harm that they can do.

The global cosmetic industry is an in-group of sorts and that’s what my podcast (follow this link for 40 minutes of reflection on that topic) is about. But for those who either can’t stand the sound of my voice, can’t be bothered to listen to a podcast or are only here for the cheap thrills and summary keep reading. Actually, everybody keep reading a bit because I free-styled the podcast (didn’t make notes) so it’s more flowy and natural than when I read it but it also contains some references that I think work better when you can see what I’m thinking of in my minds eye. So do yourself a favour and suck it all up through a great big noodle-like straw. Yum…

The White Gaze Over The Global Cosmetic Industry

The main points covered in my podcast are here. I’ve not mirrored the podcast though so you’ll pick up different things there to here although they do cross-over of course.

  1. The global cosmetic industry has a style, aesthetic, norm and way of operating that stems from it being a white, western construct. While the industry has become more diverse and open, like any other system that was established around a narrow, victor-style worldview, the industry still has many built-in blind spots.
  2. The dominant narrative around the global cosmetic industry is still prioritising the wants, needs, aspirations, desires and norms of a white, western target market. The way this manifests includes how we talk about cosmetic and personal care products, the types of products we make, the beauty regimens we normalise and the outcomes sought. It also includes the way brands present themselves onto the market.
  3. Scanning the global cosmetic industry shows just how homogenous the market is around the world. There is a definite aesthetic that dominates how a cosmetic product should look and at the moment that’s in line with global interior design trends (which are also from the white western perspective). The ‘norm’ for boutique/ niche brands, lifestyle brands and clinic ranges is minimaist and neutral. Dominant colour schemes for packaging are typically black, white or neutrals. Multi-nationals take advantage of their ability to create their own brand identity and colour scheme and have largely stuck with visual signs of opulance, luxury and cleanliness with their gold, silver, pearly white, blues or reds. Both multi-national and smaller brands adopt a globalised approach to their branding as a whole which I will define next.
  4. The globalised approach to branding is what I tend to call a ‘blanding’. This is me being judgemental but as I see it, it’s a safe (well, from the Western gaze) construct divorced of deeper meaning. A global cosmetic industry would stuggle to penetrate if we were all wedded to our culture or more nuanced societal identities, our sensual selves, our meat and bone beings -as for intersectionality, don’t even go there! Instead, the global cosmetic industry first divided us into skin types (dry, oily, normal etc) before selling us solutions to balance our deficits or problems. Now it’s gone a bit further and is appeal to us on a deeper level using our values. Only these values are not so much personal and how we feel as they are political and what we think – think sustainable, vegan, ethical, vegan, free from/ safe, green, natural etc. While these two ways of organising people so as to sell them something they want are not bad, they have created a norm that is a cultural wasteland. This deculturisation or homogenisation of people is so ingrained as our norm that brands that join culture with product stand out a mile and look different.
  5. People that sit outside of this white, western identity can and do create brands that are successful in this space. People that do identify as white and western can and do create brands that sit outside of it. This isn’t necessarily about how you personally identify or what you CAN or SHOULD do, this is about understanding the dominant game as it is and intentionally choosing how you interact with it so that you have the power.
  6. When thinking of your potential or existing brand your whole self can show up in a number of ways, each of which is on a spectrum that you can explore to the max or just dip in a little:
    1. Packaging choice – materials, finish cut style, size etc. It may be culturally or personally significant for you to use clay pots as packaging and these might also tap into the mainstream trend of being zero-waste, recyclable, reusable. Or you might want to use ocean plastic in your bottles to make a subtle statement around your cultural or familial relationship to the sea. You might choose a bottle or container shape that has ancestrial meaning or choose to wrap your products in a culturally significant way rather than use a standard label.
    2. Colour scheme on packaging – colours mean different things to different people. Don’t be afraid of shunning white (a symbol of mourning in some cultures) and going with red, yellow or green as your base colour. Alternatively use splashes of colour or a colour pallet that’s meaningful in a way that’s subtle but that brings a layer to your narrative.
    3. Graphic Design/ Visual Stories – A culturally relevant logo or brand icon won’t necessarily make sense on a product that’s otherwise subscribing to the white western narrative but when paired with other layers of marketing, it can be a very obvious and attractive way to reach your people. These graphics can extend beyond a logo to include patterns, materials, art practices and styles that are meaningful to you and your target group.
    4. Ingredient choice – many people like to mention that their product features interesting ingredients but just mentioning you use Brazilian botanicals or Australian Native Bush Flowers, Ayurvedic medicine or Chinese herbs without adding a deeper narrative reduces their value. They become commodities that have been ‘bought’ or are being ‘used’ to serve the dominant narrative.
    5. Product Range Choice – The dominant skin and haircare regimen promoted by the global cosmetic industry may not be the best way forward for you and your brand. Don’t be afraid to assert your individuality and explore your cultural norms by switching things up in a way that best suits you and your target market.
    6. Language – English is the dominant language of the global cosmetic industry but this may not be the language you and your target audience are most comfortable with. I’ve seen brands use their language in creative ways for branding, in product names and to describe routines and practices. Strategic use of non-English language can be intriguing for the white western audience while being deeply comforting and a powerful way of connecting to your core target market. Then there’s what you say and how you say it. You can weave your individuality and group identity into this in ways that are subtle for the mainstream but will resonate with your core group.
    7. Formulations – last but not least is the stuff you put into the packages. Your formulations can and should be made to target the needs, wants and aspirations of your target audience while fitting their lifestyle and lived reality. This could manifest in terms of the weight and texture of the cream-based emulsions you make, the intensity and tone of the colours on offer or the way the product reaches its desired outcomes. This very subtle way to mark your territory is perhapse the most powerful and is what will keep customers coming back. Great formulations are what has helped Rhianna and her Fenty Beauty retain its audience and brand following now that the initial excitement over the range of shades has died down!

Summary.

The cosmetic industry is changing but it is changing slowly. Sure there are now more people of colour and people who don’t identify as white and western, developing their own brands and running their own businesses but this on its own isn’t enough. It’s not unusual for people outside of the mainstream to enter the cosmetic industry with a brand that conforms to the unwritten style guide of the global cosmetic industry. That’s fine when it’s done with intention but more often than not the choice is made subonsciously out of a lack of alternative options, either perceived or real. Don’t become ‘that’, don’t bland yourself down or abandon your perspective, narrative or insight. Instead, let ‘that’ become you – let the global industry shimmy along and make space for all that you wish to share in the way that you wish to share it. I’m passionate about broadening the narrative in all directions and yes, that includes my own white, western one as I’m not even so sure we got that one right.

I hope that makes sense and if you need any help in working out how to make this approach work for you and yours, drop me a line.

Amanda x

PS: Once again, the Podcast link is here: Podcast ‘Room To Play, The Global Cosmetic Industry and You, The Outsider’.

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