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Published February 22, 2021
Published February 22, 2021
This Is Engineerine RAEng via Unsplash

Is technology driving innovation in beauty, or is it the other way around? Really, both. The inherently creative billion-dollar industry has a history of leveraging technology in unexpected ways to completely reinvent itself. And giants aren’t the only brands driving innovation; a whole new wave of smaller, direct-to-consumer, and digital-only powerhouses are proving themselves to be just as tech-advanced. L’Oréal’s Chief Digital Officer Lubomira Rochet is well-known for transforming the cosmetics company into a digitally savvy beauty tech leader, but technology is also enabling companies like Olaplex, which provides haircare products to salon professionals and consumers, to expand sales and deliver product innovation.

Though the pandemic has had unexpected impacts on the beauty industry, pre-pandemic growth projections had the industry exceeding $700 billion by 2025 (from over $400 in 2019), with Asia Pacific and North America leading the growth at 46% and 24% market share respectively in 2019, according to Reuters. This growth, however, is dependent on being able to serve a much more diverse customer base across geographies, with different needs. In addition, while 81% of the US market was still based on offline sales at the beginning of 2020 according to Statista, companies are having to pivot quickly to compensate for the inability to conduct in-person product sampling, makeovers, and purchases. Digital-only and direct-to-consumer start-ups are perfectly poised to see their business grow in light of these global conditions and can adapt and move quickly to take advantage of this forced change in consumer behavior.

Here are just a few ways beauty companies are using technology in innovative ways to succeed and grow, even in the face of unprecedented market conditions.

Distributed, Virtual Sampling

The beauty industry has long been dependent on the concept of in-person “trying on” and sampling of products at department store counters and other retailers like drugstore chains. In light of the health and safety concerns around coronavirus making this impossible, the trend of using native technology and augmented reality on smartphones to virtually try on products is exploding. L’Oréalhas seen as much as seven times more spend on their brand websites where this technology has been used. On average, they report that people will try on more than 40 looks. In the specialty retail world, Ulta recently rolled out GLAMlab, a virtual try-on tool supported by Google Cloud. The timing of the tool’s launch and the accuracy it provides has led to monumental increases in product views, supporting the key “discovery” element beauty buying has lacked as a result of the pandemic. But augmented reality isn’t just for the end consumer. OLAPLEX allows professional stylists to use their in-phone cameras to test their clients’ current hair color shade or “level,” select a target tint, and provide tips for which products and steps can help them safely achieve the desired look.

Trends and Tutorials

Again, with consumers unable to visit the experts behind the beauty counter for makeup tutorials and techniques, they are increasingly turning to distributed online content that provides them the tips they’re looking for in digestible segments, any time they need it. TikTok’s bite-size, highly engaging format has become an extremely successful tool for beauty brands such as The Ordinary to drive awareness and sales.

Product Innovation and Personalization

With companies like Rihanna’s Fenty exposing the lack of diversity in cosmetic and skincare offerings, the beauty industry is finally waking up to the fact that their customers have widely varying needs. Clinique iD’s skincare range now allows consumers to build personalized skincare combinations via the brand’s digital platform. Relatedly, a mix of machine learning and access to customer data has enabled Foreo to launch the Luna fofo, a facial cleansing brush that provides real-time, evolving recommendations for how to use it.

Reaching a Broader Audience

Social media isn’t just a push marketing tool, it’s also a pull marketing lever. Few brands can boast as strong of a social listening and data collection strategy as Glossier. Glossier is aesthetically designed to be shared via visual platforms, but the brand is also notorious for their investments in social listening. The brand analyzes consumers’ beauty cabinets on social media to determine what products they should develop next. Glossier’s rampant success is proof that social media is a two-way street. Despite being digital-only, ColourPop Cosmetics has also relied upon a stellar social media strategy to rapidly and frequently deliver some of the industry’s trendiest, most beloved products.

While most companies may not have massive technology budgets, there is still room for incremental, technology-based innovation. With a relatively small investment, beauty brands can realize the benefits of tech to deliver a more tailored experience for their customers, grow their sales, and reach a larger audience.


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