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In a Covid-19-Ravaged World, Beauty Brands Offering 'Humanity' and Authenticity Will Thrive

"Our world has permanently changed, and our habits as a society have been impacted, so if you're waiting for things to be 'normal' again, you'll be waiting for a very long time."

Virtually no industry has remained unscathed by the global health and economic crisis that continues to unfold across the globe as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It's become clear that a return to pre-pandemic normalcy may not be a realistic goal — at least not any time soon — and so businesses are being forced to reexamine every aspect of their operations, finding ways to pivot, adapt and cope with a new reality in hopes of survival. 

For the beauty industry, which has spent the better part of the last decade flourishing, this new uncertainty serves as a jarring wake-up call. For years, the major beauty conglomerates engaged in an acquisitions arms race to buy up indie companies for millions upon millions of dollars, while new direct-to-consumer and influencer-driven brands sprung up on social media at a breakneck pace. While that explosive growth may never have been truly sustainable in the long term, the Covid-19 pandemic has snapped that fact into acute focus, creating major issues for manufacturers, retailers, suppliers and distributors — not to mention the consumer. What will determine which brands not only make it through this difficult chapter, but perhaps even find new success? 

For answers to those questions and insights about the tidal shifts already underway in the cosmetics industry, we turned to the minds behind SOS Beauty, a company that serves as an incubator and resource for prestige and luxury beauty brands: Dustin Cash (founder of SOS) and Charlene Valledor (president). Current and past clients of SOS Beauty include Patrick Ta Beauty, Summer Fridays, Shani Darden Skincare and NatureLab Tokyo. Ahead, highlights from our discussion about how the beauty industry can face this pivotal moment.

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The color cosmetics category has been declining over the past few years, even before the pandemic hit. How do you think it's been impacted since? 

CV: We saw insane growth in color cosmetics starting around 2015. It seemed like there were five new brands popping up every day — it was completely unsustainable. We got inquiries on a daily basis from investors, celebrity agents and managers and tech startups looking to get into the cosmetic business, and all they wanted was speed to market. Inevitably, color specifically started to plateau about two years ago. Honestly, we didn't see it as a bad thing — it had to happen. There was just too much noise. Too many 'brands' were just being launched for no other reason than to make a quick buck, and it was crowding the space, making it difficult for the good brands with real points of view and meaning to break through.

Covid definitely forced us all to take the foot off of the gas pedal a bit and reassess priorities, but we also saw that, after the first few weeks of lockdown, many people [were] looking to connect and engage with the brands that they know and love over social. They might not have been able to shop in the store for product, but they were excited to find out about new trends on TikTok, engage with brand founders on Instagram Live, and those who might have been hesitant to shop online before were more willing than ever to experiment. We had a few clients launch product in March and April, and they outperformed all the initial forecasts and sold out immediately. It was encouraging to see that people were still treating themselves and looking for ways to feel good, despite being locked down at home.

How do you think cosmetics brands should be pivoting their businesses right now? 

DC: We have to be sensitive to the fact that we're all facing a new financial reality, and we're all going to feel every dollar spent. Brands need to make sure that every launch is meaningful, and that every communication demonstrates humanity, authenticity and EQ. And this is not going to change any time soon. We're all going to be feeling the effects of this for a while, so make sure that your products are filling a true need, and prioritize connecting with your customers on a more intimate level over big elaborate marketing campaigns for the foreseeable future.

What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes beauty brands can make right now, when it comes to marketing, product launches, retail practices, partnerships and so on? 

CV: Number one, brands need to stop waiting for 'this to be over' — there is no going backwards. Our world has permanently changed, and our habits as a society have been impacted, so if you're waiting for things to be 'normal' again, you'll be waiting for a very long time. Evolve and adapt, or die. Secondly, right now, excess is a turn-off — people just want something relatable and real. Sure, we all want to mentally escape and fantasize about fashion shows, luxury hotels and tropical holidays, but the reality is that some of us are struggling to get through the day — people aren't just suffering financially, there is real emotional devastation happening as a result of this pandemic, and we need to be sensitive and aware of that. 

Right now, makeup can't be about looking good for an event or for impressing others. Makeup has to be about feeling good about yourself. This should always be the case, but even more so now. If your brand can't find a way to speak to that basic need, then you need to reassess.

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Who do you think is approaching the current situation particularly well? Does anyone stand out to you for handling this moment in a smart, authentic way?

DC: We love what Angel [Merino], founder of Artist Couture, is doing with his Friday night Instagram club nights. They're not sales gimmicks; he does it to bring joy to his audience, and it works. They're so fun to watch, and so we find ourselves tuning in every Friday night. He has such love for life and for his audience, and it really comes through. I'm sure he's getting some sort of a boost in sales, but it really doesn't seem like that's the point — it's just about connecting and making people happy. 

CV: His Homechella event was brilliant, too. It gave his audience something to look forward to. He made special product bundles for the event, but it wasn't an in-your-face sale, it felt very natural and didn't detract from the experience at all.

As we move into a new normal of wearing masks in public, how do you see consumers' beauty habits changing? Do you think consumers will lean into eye products more? Do you think brands will push this?

CV: We're definitely going to see an evolution of consumer habits and taste — it's inevitable. If you think about it, face masks and face coverings have been ubiquitous in certain cultures long before Covid, so this is not 'new' in a global sense by any means. People will still wear what makes them feel good and attractive. That might be a more intense eye, a bright cheek or flawless, glowing skin. I also think hair and fragrances are going to be more important than ever. 

How can brands be tactful about pivoting their strategies during the pandemic to safeguard their businesses without risking consumer backlash or seeming like they are capitalizing on a moment in poor taste?

DC: Take this time to diversify your supply chain — it's not always about sales, it's also about protecting yourself and making sure you don't have all your eggs in one basket. As far as anything consumer-facing goes, it's simple: Be honest, and be true. If you don't feel comfortable having an Instagram Live, then don't force it. If you need to boost sales, don't just haphazardly come up with an empty gimmick, like donating a minuscule percentage of proceeds to a charity. Just don't do it at all if your intentions are not in the right place. It has to be meaningful, and you have to be committed to making a real impact; otherwise, doing something empty and haphazard is basically the equivalent of brand suicide.

What types of eye products do you think will be most in-demand in the coming months and why?

CV: Lashes and mascara are the fastest way to add impact and romance, so I think we're going to see renewed interest in that category. I also think that a good brightening undereye concealer is going to be a girl or boy's best friend. I have a feeling that many of us will be coming out of this quarantine haze with dark circles and eye bags, and these face masks bring extra attention to that area, so everyone is going to be looking for a new and innovative solution.

Do you think we'll continue to see a decline in sales for other color cosmetics, like lipstick or nail polish? Is there anything brands can do to bolster their sales in these categories?

CV: There's going to be a natural recalibration in consumer sentiments in color. I do think that everyone is going to want to look healthy once we're able to leave the house again after being trapped indoors, so that might mean more natural looking color on the face and the lips, and a lighter hand when it comes to applying foundation to the entire face. Application is going to be much more precise and targeted to the areas that are exposed, so brands could benefit from providing education on how to make the most of the areas of the face that are exposed. Lipstick isn't going anywhere, but comfort is going to be more important than color, so I'd recommend focusing on creating formulas that double as treatments.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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