The cost of making cosmetics is relatively low compared to what they sell for. They have what business people call a high margin. This makes the sector very attractive to entrepreneurs who scent an opportunity to make a lot of money. And some indeed do. But the high margins don’t always translate into high profits. Overall the return on investment for the cosmetic sector is respectable, but only a little higher than that for manufacturing as a whole. The reason is simple and you’ve probably guessed it already. You have to put a lot of effort into selling them. They all have to have some kind of unique selling point – or USP.
So with the possible exception of supermarket own brand products, every cosmetic you buy has some kind of story. This might be a true story – or it might be something that has been completely made up. It may be something that has developed organically along with the company that makes it. Or it might have been created by a team of marketeers sitting around a table with a flip chart.
Finding the story can be very interesting. Is this a brand created by an individual with a particular way of looking at the world? Such brands are not too common so it is quite a joy to find one. It is much like meeting a new person. Who knows, they might become a new friend.
Most brands are not produced by individuals but by the marketing departments of big companies. Unpicking what they were thinking when they came up with it can be a lot of fun. The best example of this is a brand launched by Johnson and Johnson many years ago called Empathy. This was intended to be a set of hair care products aimed at older people. Your hair does get drier as you age and the proportion of older people in the population is increasing so it made biological and financial sense. And I gather it sold fairly well initially. But then the advertising campaign kicked in. Once the television adverts started the bottles stayed resolutely on the shelves. Nobody wanted to buy a product that expressly indicated that they were old.
I wonder how that one went down when they reviewed it internally.
Once you have worked out what the story is you can spot why certain design choices have been made. Green brands for example tend to heavily use the colour green, and combine it with muted shades. More scientific brands favour primarily white packs.
The brand image continues to have an influence when you look at the ingredients list. Natural products will have plenty of botanical names (largely tip ins). They also tend to have explanations of just how natural the origin of their ingredients is. So for example the glycerin will probably be “plant derived” (as almost all glycerin is). High end skin care has often got a very long ingredient list packed full of all sorts of stuff. If you know your INCI names well enough you can often spot expensive actives listed that are not part of the marketing story. The most likely explanation for this being that the formulator was briefed on the project before the final sales proposition was settled on.
It is in any case an interesting exercise to see how closely the ingredient list matches the claims that the product makes. Which brings up the next source of entertainment. What claims is the product making and how believable are they?
A close reading of cosmetic claims usually reveals that they are not making much of a claim at all. They use all kinds of weasel words to give an impression, without actually promising anything concrete. Most of us only half read things anyway, so the companies are on firm ground here. A common trick is to simply mention a keyword which gives the kind of impression that the company wants to make. “Helps treat the signs of ageing” for example can mean more or less anything.
Trials of dubious relevance are another source of amusement. I particularly like the ones that go ” x% of women agreed that it had some kind of vaguely worded benefit”.
So we’ve already had fun and we haven’t even opened it yet. But there is also the actual product itself. The first thing you notice is the smell. Most cosmetic products rely on the skills of highly skilled and trained chemists to give them the right kind of smell. They incorporate a fragrance blend created to meet whatever image the brand is aiming for. The ultimate goal is to produce a fragrance so distinctive it defines the category. The best example of this is Johnson’s Baby range whose fragrance is so pervasive some people think that is what babies smell like. Smell is very evocative and a good fragrance can make a big difference as to how successful a product is. It is also a powerful form of communication and will often be used to create the brand image. It is fun to see if you can unpick their thinking. Green products for instance often go for fresh fragrances.
And finally you try the product itself. The texture and the colour, or lack of it, will have been carefully thought about. Observe how closely it matches it’s intended purpose. Does it actually do what you bought it for?
Most cosmetic products will do a pretty good job of what you are actually buying them for. Moisturisers will moisturise. Washes will wash. The differences in performance between different brands are not huge. So you are generally going to get your money’s worth whatever you buy. The fun to be had unpicking the marketing is basically a bonus.