This blog post originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Personal Care Europe
I started my career in the cosmetic industry in 1983. They let anyone in in those days. A few days in I got my first project, which was to reformulate a shaving stick. It wasn’t the biggest project, but it did lead my manager to make a prediction. He said that unlike him, I’d probably be spending half my time formulating products for men rather than women. He quoted some statistics which I believed, even though he probably made them up on the spot – 95% of cosmetic and personal care products were bought by women. But that was obviously going to change in the gender fluid world of the 1980s. After all, a lot of male pop stars were wearing mascara.
But it turned out that even Robert Smith didn’t buy enough to significantly impact the sales figures. Women continued to buy cosmetics. People continued to predict that men were about to start buying cosmetics. Marketing people continued to pay attention to female consumers and more or less ignore men.
After a while I came to regard the arrival of a significant male grooming sector as one of those predictions that everyone believed but that would never come true. A bit like the jet packs we were all supposed to be travelling around with by the year 2000.
But time rolled on and in the mid noughties it began to look like the age of male grooming was finally upon us. The strongest evidence was online in the form of male grooming blogs. Women had started beauty blogs more or less as soon as blogs started to be a thing, and they rapidly became a huge part of the social media universe. Men weren’t quite as quick off the ball. But by the end of the decade I was aware of quite a few and even read some of them. I wrote a quick blog post drawing attention to the three best ones. I did a bit of a teasing tweet saying that I had been looking at male grooming blogs, but not naming them. As I expected, people instantly asked me which ones I was talking about. All the people asking me were women.
I had a quick look at the comments sections of my favoured male grooming bloggers and discovered that the majority of the comments were left by women. I mentioned this to some marketing folks who cheerfully confirmed that the majority of sales of male grooming products were made to women, purchasing the products on behalf of men. They told me that they had started out consumer testing packaging concepts on men, but that it had been a total waste of time. As had mixed panels. If you want to sell male products you have to pitch them first to women. That at least was the thinking 15 years ago.
Having said that, there was one sector that suddenly seemed to buck this trend. The hipster beard fashion of the early 2010s spawned a lot of specialist products. Beard oil was the hero product of this slice of the market. The innovator was probably the Percy Nobleman brand, which had distinctly male orientated marketing. Percy Nobleman was not just the brand name, but also the name of an adventurous cartoon character who gave the brand its personality. This claimed to be, and for all I know may well have been, the first graphic novel to be published on Instagram. This was back in the days when Instagram was new enough to feel zeitgeisty.
Percy Nobleman was the leading edge of a wave of beard oil brands of varying levels of sophistication that flooded onto the market in the early twenty teens. Many were very basic indeed. All you needed was some brown bottles, a blend of some oils -possibly purchased from a catering wholesaler – and some artwork you could print out on your deskjet and you were away. The whole sector was very blokey with brand names such as Thatchface, Viking and the one I found a bit scary in the context, Cut Throat Stanley.
Beard oil brands were generally easy come, easy go. Few have lasted very long. New entrants are now much fewer and the fashion for prominent facial fungus seems to have waned somewhat. But I feel that it has had the effect of legitimising more broadly based male brands. The one that seems to have become established is Bulldog. I was skeptical of its chances when it first came out 12 years ago. It now has a modest but stable presence on big supermarket planograms. Men’s skincare has 65 listings on Sainsbury’s website at time of writing over 10 brands. General moisturisers are split into 5 sub categories, with a total of 154 products spread over 20 brands. Needless to say the promotion of general products is automatically geared towards the female consumer.
So the skincare market is still pretty much one where the needs of possessors of y chromosomes don’t get much of the action, but there is at least some kind of men’s product market. You still need a pretty strong nerve to launch a product aimed at men, and you would still be wise to take into account what the men’s partners are likely to be thinking. But if you are happy to accept that your product is much more likely to end up as a niche rather than a blockbuster then it can make sense.
I think male grooming is likely to be here to stay. The trend is for things to get more diverse and the days when everyone wore the same clothes, watched the same media and had the same length of hair are long gone. But while that means that the male grooming sector is likely going to grow, it doesn’t mean that it will produce any big instantly recognisable brands. It is more likely to be a large number of brands all of which are going to be pretty niche and pretty specialised.
For us people in the industry, it means we are going to need product concepts, packaging and formulations that cater to very specific and generally quite small market sectors. I predict we’ll see products for sports players, music lovers, travellers and other categories that men identify with rather than simply targeting males. I am not sure how formulators will meet this challenge, but I’m sure we’ll think of something.
Here are a few of my ideas for product formulations that are particularly suitable for incorporating into brands aimed at men.
Jungle explorer deodorant. The aim here is to blend in with the environment so you don’t scare the rare species you are trying to film. This could be an opportunity to use a non-aluminium based antiperspirant, maybe silver and perhaps combined with activated charcoal for total smell elimination. It would also be an opportunity to put in some extremophile plant extracts – after all this is the kind of product designed for the kind of guy who boldly goes where nobody has gone before. So protection against extreme environments would really be appropriate. It would also need to use mainly green ingredients. If you are out documenting the disappearing planet you don’t want to be destroying it while you are there. Palm oil free would be good, and certainly responsibly sourced as a minimum. Carbon neutral would also be logical. Innovative packaging would also fit the bill – not just recyclable, but fully compostable so that you don’t leave behind a trace of your presence.
Long laptop session eye cream. This is aimed at the budding tech entrepreneur who is still at the stage of staying up all night coding his startup’s revolutionary new web service. There’s no way to avoid a lot of screen time if you want to conquer the internet. There are already plenty of female orientated eye creams out there which would be a good model for this product. But this would be optimised for performance. You can get great glide across the skin with silicones nowadays, and maybe even fluorocarbons. This kind of consumer will be more interested in how well it works than how natural it is and will be interested in active ingredients with strong science stories behind them.
Indoor pollution protection face cream. Nobody smokes anymore, except for the kind of bohemians who hang out in cool late night clubs. If you are the kind of guy who spends most of his disposable income in the nighttime economy, then this will protect you from the worst effects of living on the edge. Face creams have always been about barrier function to keep the water in. Here we also want to prevent the particulate matter from smoke adhering to the surface. It would also be good to have a protective layer to prevent nicotine from penetrating the skin. This would be a good application of silicones.
Yacht owners sunscreen. Very high SPF, very high water resistance. If you are on deck you need to protect against the sun and the spray. You should probably be getting used to it now – you can buy the yacht later. Water resistance instantly suggests silicones to the formulator, and they do a great job. Don’t forget though that beeswax is pretty effective at that role too. A stick formulation might be helpful – you can keep it in your pocket for easy re-application.
Racing drivers grip hand cream. This will enable you not only to keep a firm hand on your steering wheel and gearstick, you’ll moisturise while you are at it. Motor enthusiasts might well know about additives to gearbox fluids that modify the rheology to prevent scratching. They’d be open to the same idea in their hand cream. The product would contain powders incorporated to increase grip and so improve driving performance. This product could be a rare instance where the formulator’s choice of suspending polymer could actually form part of the marketing story. I’d also imagine that hi tech actives like peptides would go down well with the kind of bloke who likes to know how things work.
War paint. Colour cosmetics are never going to suit the male level of patience. Most men have only the haziest notion of what any colour product more sophisticated than a tube of lipstick even is. They certainly aren’t going to be interested in colour palettes or blending. But they might, just might, buy into a colour range that is really easy to use. They might be persuaded to take a photo of their face on their phone to send in to an expert. They can then work out what they need and send it straight back to them. The difference between the formulations for men and women would be minimal – largely just a matter of the colour palette. But the packing would be radically different. Bigger pack sizes, so you don’t have to buy the damn things so often. Easy to open and use would be a prerequisite, to reflect the male impatience with anything to do with personal care. And there will be absolutely no point in spending money on making the pack look elegant or appealing.
Bike saddle chafing cream. Cycling is huge nowadays and feeds a large market not only for bikes themselves but also for ancillary products. You don’t just get on a bike and peddle somewhere anymore. You need a full lycra outfit complete with funny looking sunglasses and enough data gathering equipment to require a PhD student to analyse the statistics when you get home. It would be easy to include various personal care products that lend themselves to this kind of thing – particularly those that involve skin contact and friction. The saddle is the obvious pressure point, but grip products for the handle bars would make sense too. This could be positioned either as a way of minimising discomfort or of enhancing performance, or both. There’s a story that professional cyclists used to use a thin slice of steak to get the same effect – with the added benefit that a long day of cycling would tenderise the meat and they could eat it in the evening to provide a tasty high protein meal to set them up for the next day. Adding a hydrolysed protein would be an effective way to build on this. Vegetable proteins might be preferable in this vegan-friendly age.
Multipurpose Hair Gel. This product plays into the male desire to free up time for important things by cutting down on routine activities. If you are going to use hair gel, why not include an insect repellent, something to prevent grey hair like bismuth sulfate and a pheromone to enhance your appeal to the kind of person you want to attract. That would naturally come in three varieties depending on whether you want to attract women, men or both. Microspheres offer almost limitless options for additives so no doubt even more functionality could be added.
Food Repelling Beard Oil. The trend for extravagant and highly groomed beards has abated, but even the slimline versions that have followed them have the drawback that they can trap bits of your latest meal. This is pretty much the biggest drawback to full facial fluff. But maybe incorporating a quaternary compound into the formulation could provide sufficient anti-static action to keep your mane crumb free. This is, I’ll concede, not a straightforward thing to do. Oil is not a good medium for positive charges, so the trick would be to come up with a water based product that nonetheless looked and behaved as if it were an oil. Rheological challenges are generally tough work for formulators, but beard owners will be grateful if it succeeds.
Obviously some of these products are a bit far fetched and to a greater or lesser extent a bit tongue in cheek. But I don’t apologise too much for this. Skincare in general and male grooming in particular are likely to fragment into numerous niches. Products are going to need to become more and more specialised. They are going to need to appeal to narrower interests and needs, and so both the marketing people looking at the graphs and formulators working on the bench are going to need to think a lot harder about the kinds of products that are being sought. We’ll also need to work hard to deliver specific benefits for specific needs. We probably can’t expect too much in the way of feedback from the men themselves. Unlike the other half of the species, males don’t tend to be very good at articulately what they are looking for in the way of products. Speaking personally, I’m hoping someone will bring out a hard thinking forehead cream I can slap on when I get a particularly difficult brief I need to meet.
Colin Sanders is a formulator, beauty blogger, personal care business watcher and beauty futurologist. His lab is Colin’s Cosmetic Consultancy which focuses on skincare and regulatory support and is located in West Sussex. His blog is http://colinsbeautypages.co.uk