In Exclusives, Insight, Marketing

Every single person’s face is unique to them, their DNA and environment interacting in an entirely unique way; even the most identical of identical twins have slightly different faces. And it’s faces that the beauty industry is traditionally focused on—even for products that don’t involve the skin at all, like hair and nails. For the most part, those faces have been young, thin, symmetrical, petite featured, and overwhelmingly white, and any tiny deviation from that is considered enough to deem a person’s beauty “quirky” or different. Think, for example, of Isabella Rossellini’s tooth, Cindy Crawford’s mole, or Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows.

But today’s consumer—quite rightly—demands far more than one type of face on which to see their beauty products. Inclusive beauty is finally starting to get mainstream traction. And it’s hugely gratifying to see models and influencers of all skin tones used as the face of products, and even some older and male faces too (mostly in skincare for the former and color cosmetics for the latter). It’s starting to become an everyday thing, and that’s great.

But those faces are still, by definition, always going to be exclusionary, even if you show three or four (or more faces!) for every color product it sells. It’s simply impossible to reflect the uniqueness of the billions of faces in the world. And any beauty brand image is just as likely to provoke a “I could never, ever look like that” feeling in response, as it is to provoke a feeling like “Ooh, I need to buy that”—if not more so. 

And so the question I find myself asking more and more in a world of increasing inclusion and product personalization is: do beauty brands really need to show faces at all, except when they are actually necessary?

This thought really started to build when I was working on a recent gender-neutral beauty brand design project. For the most successful in that space—The Ordinary, Kiehl’s, Aesop—faces are pretty much non-existent in their brand imagery. In fact, it’s all about the pack, the store, and the proposition. No one is excluded from that, regardless of race, age, gender, weight, ability, or anything else. Everyone has skin, and they have products to help it! It’s interesting to note how two very gender-neutral brands in retail settings, Dr. Dennis Gross and Paula’s Choice, still default to female faces quite unnecessarily on their brand websites. 

It’s easy to assume that you need beautiful faces to create desire for products, but in practice that’s not true. Research from the University of Southern California’s Applied Psychology program finds 31% of ads with an emotional pull succeed versus 16% of ads focused on rational content. But the research found that the emotional pull could be achieved in two different ways. One was an empathetic response achieved through showing images of humans (or cute animals for that matter), but the other and equally effective was a creative response, achieved through the setting, the background music, abstract imagery, storytelling. In short, you can create that feeling with no faces at all. 

Imagine an eyeshadow palette ad that literally painted a picture, or a perfume ad conjuring up the smell of a jasmine garden. And this is not simply a case of throwing images of the pack around everywhere—it needs a creative idea to bring it come to life. The men’s wellness brand hims rather wittily uses a droopy cactus as the “face” of its erectile dysfunction products rather than default to the “miserable before / happy after” model.

And if faces can’t be avoided, with the wonders of modern technology why not make them as diverse as possible, using cookies to see who’s using a device and serving images to suit? In a world of billions of beautifully unique and ever-more demanding consumers, why risk people saying that brand’s not for me? Something to face up to.

This article was first published in SPC, volume 92, number 5. SPC is a product of HPCi Media Limited. For more information visit HPCi Media (May 2019)

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