When I give a talk I rarely use notes, but I have generally written out what I am going to say in advance and to some extent memorised it. But I am now getting to the stage in my life where I don’t really worry too much about getting up to speak in public. What’s the worst that can happen after all? So when I was invited to speak at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent meeting on anti-ageing I decided to risk getting up to speak with very little idea of what I was going to say. I think the technical term for it is ex-temporising.
I didn’t go totally unprepared. I had an outline in mind and some slides to fit in with it. But basically I busked it.
It was quite an interesting experience – though I don’t think I’d want to do it for anything very technical or in depth. But it was sort of fun. When you listen to someone else you interest is held because you don’t know what the speaker is going to say next. When you dv you share the audience’s surprise with what comes out of your mouth.
So in a way, I am now reviewing what I said in much the same way as someone who watched me. So what did I come up with?
I’d chosen to speak about what makes a good anti ageing product – and I picked six products which I knew I would have something to say about. The first was the Empathy range. You have almost certainly not have heard of this brand unless you have a very good memory stretching back to the early eighties. It was launched by Johnson and Johnson who aimed to have the first haircare brand aimed at the older consumer. The development was done by a friend of mine who diligently studied the properties of ageing hair and carefully came up with formulations for a shampoo and a conditioner that would be suitable.
He must have done a pretty good job as the initial feedback was very positive and sales were above forecast. Then they started the TV campaign. The adverts showed a sassy middle aged woman who cheerfully announced that she was forty and proud of it. I must play tribute to her acting skills because she really did convince me that she was indeed proud of it. Unfortunately it also convinced anyone thinking of buying it that they were indeed announcing to everyone who cared to notice that they too were over forty.
The moral is that if you are selling products for the older consumer, you don’t really want to remind them they are getting on a bit.
The tragedy of the Empathy brand story is that the products probably were very suitable for their intended purpose. If you don’t have brand managers involved, efficacy in itself is enough to give you a successful product. Retin-A with 0.05% of tretinoin – on of the more active of the vitamin A derivatives – has done very nicely without much in the way of advertising. As a licensed medicine there are quite strict restrictions on the way it can be promoted and how much money can be spent to do so. But as a licensed medicine it has also had to go through a clinical trial programme to justify the claims made for it.
You rarely get that kind of approach used in cosmetics, but the RoC range has specialised in using effective levels of retinol and so getting results that can be noticed by the consumer. As a brand it does have a fair bit of advertising behind it, but I think that its continuing success is as much to do with the results you get from it as with the marketing dazzle.
And what is for sure is that they keep their message simple.
One company that certainly doesn’t keep things simple is Genue. They operate from a shop in New Bond Street and offer to test your DNA and to analyse the results to offer you customised cosmetics tailored to what your genes have determined that you need. Scientifically speaking this is a fairly ambitious claim. It is true that we are decoding the genome rapidly and making many advances in our understanding of how the whole process works. But it is still a bold claim to be able to work out just what kind of skincare you need on the basis of the particular hand of cards the process of mitosis has served up to you.
Nonetheless that is what they are doing, with a price tag that matches the extraordinary nature of the claims they are making. From a strictly commercial point of view this is an interesting example of how people are prepared to part with quite high sums of money for products that they believe will work for them. Not everyone can afford to shell out several hundred pounds for their skincare. But enough people do for this to be a viable business. When it comes to looking younger, high price tags are very much not a problem to the right product.
That means that this is very definitely a market where the right innovation can bring substantial rewards. This was illustrated extremely well by the phenomenal success of Nanoblur. This was the first of what has become a new product category of optical blurring products. They work by manipulating the refractive index of the top layer of skins so as to make its imperfections.
Nanoblur was a huge hit, clocking up phenomenal sales when it was launched in the UK. One of the platforms it was distributed on was the stands you get in big department stores and large branches of Boots, which are manned by (hopefully) well briefed advisors. The fact that you could see an instant effect on the back of your hand was a gift for this kind of sale. Who could resist a product that you could see working instantly before your eyes?
It generated a lot of excitement. Like just about every other product on the market, it didn’t work for everyone. But it worked well enough to win over converts very quickly.
The other people who moved quickly were formulators at other companies. I had an equivalent product ready in a couple of weeks and it wasn’t long before everyone in the lab end of the business had done the same. The products were appearing on the shelf in less than a year and before long optical blurring products had become a new line in every big beauty range. This left the company behind Nanoblur without its unique selling point. They are still around and as far as I can tell are still doing well enough. But their moment of glory has passed.
The lessons are fairly simple. This is a sector where consumers are open to new ideas and will give something a try if they think it will work. So innovation is definitely something that can create big hits. But the drawback is that innovation is rapidly copied and so it won’t give you a long term advantage.
And when you look at a conventional product from one of the biggest players it is easy to see why a small innovative company is no match once they have got into their stride.
Olay is one of the most enduring brands in the Proctor and Gamble stable.
Olay Regenerist is a classic product that follows the template of how these products are marketed. It is sold at an affordable but far from bargain basement price. Its packaging is impressively stylish. And it makes clear what its benefits are. This is how it is introduced on the website.
Olay Regenerist 3 Point Anti-Ageing Firming Cream is a moisturiser with luxurious, skin-plumping formula. It firms skin for a lifted look and reduces the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Hydrates to improve elasticity and helps exfoliate, smooth and revitalize the look of the skin.https://www.olay.co.uk/en-gb/skin-care-products/regenerist-3-point-treatment-cream
So that all sounds pretty tempting. The actual actives used to achieve this result come second to the benefits. They are – Amino-peptide, Oil-vitamin Complex and Lastin. The first two are not particularly specific, and without looking at the ingredient list I’d have no idea what they are. The last one defies the powers of both my memory and google searches to reveal its true identity. I looked for further clarification, but this is clearly not a priority for the website designers. I finally tracked it down, but what it clarified wasn’t the chemistry but the marketing approach.
The typical marketing campaign for products in this sector uses consumer trials to generate favourable data, powerful images distributed through the media and celebrity endorsements. This one got the normal treatment with the exception that rather than a celebrity they chose to talk to editors of magazines. It was an interesting choice and I’d love to know the thinking behind it. The resources devoted to this kind of campaign are comparable to a small war, and the strategies are worked out with meticulous planning. I don’t doubt it was considered deeply.
So that is what you are up against when you enter the anti ageing market. It’s a tough game. If you don’t have the resources of a multi-national company behind you then you will need something special to compete.