In Brands, Exclusives, Insight, Marketing

There are some beauty products that are so familiar, so iconic, that you simply can’t imagine them not existing. Benefit’s Benetint. Clarins’ Beauty Flash Balm. To name but two. Hero SKUs indeed. Superhero SKUs, even. 

But in recent years such standalone products are becoming vanishingly rare and it was hard to actually name some. The recent launch of line extensions to Weleda’s iconic Skin Food crystallised this in my mind. Until now, the multipurpose treatment cream remained unchanged since its launch in 1927. Now the one has become four: a light version, lip butter and body butter. But what are the new lines adding to the superhero SKU’s power? Are they actually diluting it?

Competition in the beauty industry has heated and sped up exponentially in the last five years. Social media’s thirst for new content has driven the launch of more new brands, new products, new formats, more everything. But for legacy brands that organisationally move more slowly than entrepreneurial ones, it’s meant more brand extension. 

As an agency, we’ve given a great deal of thought to brand extension. In our design monograph Stretch, we dissected it into three key types: Migration (shifting across and into alternative categories such as Christian Louboutin’s Louboutin Beauté), Marriage (multi-brand collaboration like Sephora with PANTONE), and Metamorphosis (when a brand transcends category into a persona, think Virgin or Disney).

Beauty brands have for the most part, understandably focused on the first two. Yet looking more deeply, most of their Migration efforts have actually been “me-too” line extensions, rather than meaningfully stretching their brands. And in fact, Weleda has actually been pretty restrained in comparison to some other superhero SKU stretches…

Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hourcream is now lipsticks, body oils and facial mists. NARS Orgasm blusher, lip products and nail varnish. Boots Protect & Perfect serum, a vast array of skincare including suntan lotion. Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair, cleansers, moisturisers and face masks. Guerlain’s Méteorites, primers, perfumes and gel blushers. Nuxe’s Huile Prodigieuse, a shower gel, body lotion, perfume and bronzer. I get positively confused over which version of Dior Homme is which on my shelf, and Chanel No.5, possibly the ultimate beauty icon, has five different varieties. Most of it happening in the past few heady years.

For marketers, it’s been an easy win—for now. The consumers know, trust and love the superhero SKU and may well buy some of the extensions, being delighted by trying new things that also are familiar. But how can the original maintain its integrity if newer versions appear to add benefits to it? Doesn’t that imply that something was lacking in the first place..?

Take the example of Huile Prodigieuse. NUXE describes it as “the ultimate skincare product…a unique sensory experience, a dry oil texture and an inimitable fragrance for an unrivalled effect on both the skin and the hair.” If that’s the case, what’s the shower gel, body lotion, perfume or bronzer bringing to the party? Why do you need a lotion if the original oil has an unrivalled effect? The questions start to multiply as the new SKUS do.

And so we have to ask: is all this extension to superhero SKUs actually adding new consumers to the brand and growing sales for the long term, or is it just cannibalising and watering down the superhero equity and causing confusion in pursuit of ever more, ever faster, newness? I’d heavily tilt towards the latter. 

With all the noise and speed, there’s something pleasing about the calm confidence of a superhero SKU that knows its value and place in the world and creates newness through creative activations and brand engagement, rather than somewhat empty line bolt-ons. 

It takes a lot of creative commitment to believe that such beauty products can endure in our frenetic times. And it also takes a great deal of courage—and great creative partners—to go fishing in other waters for ideas for a new range or category, rather than sticking to the safer waters you already know. But if brands want to widen their audience, rather than play to a captive one with ever diminishing returns, they have to get sailing.

This article was first published in SPC, volume 92, number 7. SPC is a product of HPCi Media Limited. For more information visit: https://www.hpcimedia.com/SPC/ (Jul 2019)

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