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The first time I ever briefed creatives for a major beauty brand, I was standing with the team in the middle of Selfridges beauty hall, pointing out the nuances between the customers, the different vibes of the counters, all in an effort to bring our strategy to life. 

Since then, the store has changed a lot. 

For starters, the Selfridges London beauty hall was recently reimagined as a “beauty destination of the future.” It now includes many new brands, experts, and residencies. But most importantly, as an overall experience, the Selfridges beauty hall is now equipped to compete with, and complement, the online beauty world. 

What does this mean?  

This reimagination reflects a notable difference in how value is exchanged between beauty customers and brands, how brands are discovered, how product effectiveness is perceived, how trust in expertise is earned, and how those fun, joyful “just-for-the-hell-of-it” purchases are contextualized. 

Some argue that beauty is one of the most digitally disrupted categories. For a while, it seemed D2C, celeb start-ups, the creator economy, multiple marketplaces, and viral micro trends left the category, scrambling to focus on short-term digital wins, forgetting the long-term opportunity to build their brand. However, recently, beauty leaders have brought their understanding of digital into the whole brand experience, helping brands build relevance and cultural excitement. The beauty industry’s adaptation should inspire everyone working in categories considered “digitally disrupted.” 

Rethinking Aspiration 

When Rhianna won the 2023 Super Bowl, with her halftime swipe of The MVP Icon Velvet Lipstick, she put all the brands who paid for ad privilege in the shade. It cemented Rhianna’s appeal beyond celebrity, but as a successful digitally savvy entrepreneur. Her make-up artist, Ono, posted the lists of products that made up Rhianna’s look during her performance, while other members of team Fenty made sure this story would be about more than looks, but also the intelligence behind her content-marketing moves. 

Gen Z beauty buyers don’t just consume content—they produce it, too. As the most creative generation to date, many of them have multiple social-first side hustles. They understand the commercialization of content and respect those who do it well. 

This energy has also been used by non-founder-led brands to cut through in new and surprising places, proving the beauty industry is more than skin deep. My favourite LinkedIn moment of 2024 so far was when Asmita Dubey, Chief Digital & Marketing Officer at L’Oréal, posted her “Get ready with me” video in advance of Vivatech 2024. It demonstrated how the best in the beauty industry are balancing authenticity, inclusivity, and reframing aspiration for the ambitions of real tech-forward modern women.  

E.L.F. has taken this idea even further, raising awareness of their successful diverse Board in the “So Many Dicks” campaign. With the usual “E.L.F.ing good” tone, it activates the brand’s purpose to “disrupt industry norms, shape culture, and connect communities through positivity, inclusivity, and accessibility” beyond product stories. 

Rethinking Relationships 

Once upon a time, brands used to describe their social following as a community and their email program as loyalty initiatives. (That was naive.) We have seen that loyalty programs not rooted in discounting can help brands increase customer retention and boost sales without hurting margins. Those who start with a promise, not a platform, cut through by creating media-agnostic programs that deliver long-term brand value and short-term sales. From Iconic London’s “Babes with Benefits” points program to Superdrug’s Obby in Roblox, the beauty industry is getting creative by merging multiple channels into connected reward schemes that go beyond spending.  

Cross-channel schemes also create useful data which, when combined with AI, offer a level of personalization that fuels more meaningful responsive connection and informs innovation. L’Oréal is leading the pack here with its strategic shift from being a beauty company to a beauty-tech company. Their roadmap of AI devices and tools collects data to build ongoing relationships through personalization, perfect product application, and delivering on sustainability goals. 

Beyond the technology, what I found most inspiring about the historic L’Oréal CES presentation was that it started with the brand. All the gadgets, tools, and programs were linked to the brand purpose “Create the beauty that moves the world.” 

Rethinking Retail 

People have written a lot about the disruption of social shopping and online marketplaces amongst the breadth of ever-evolving retail opportunities online. Beauty e-commerce has been seen as leading the way, with many brands using AI for at least a decade to personalize and retarget. Gen AI has taken this to the next level by offering more fluid, nuanced, and predictive experiences and recommendations. Virtual Try-Ons (VTOs) and community shopping experiences mean brands are, to some degree, bringing the spirit of the old beauty hall to life online. 

These experiences are paying off—especially as the technology gets better—with consumers spending more time per individual session in these spaces. This allows brands to enrich the user journey and tell more than just a product story. One watch out is that, even if a company has fantastic products, the VTO can leave a poor overall brand impression if it doesn’t meet expected quality. 

Charlotte Tilbury’s VTO may have been lauded by the industry, but left a sour taste with many users who have grown accustomed to better digital experiences on social through games and apps. 

What about the IRL spaces? 

The best of them are adapting in ways that don’t involve investing in cutting-edge in-store technology. Khiel’s first 1851 store is still sitting on 3rd Ave in New York City. But after delving into how the current buyer journey has changed, they redefined the role of their stores. They recognized that, in a world of digital-first discovery, most people entering their stores were already customers. So, they repurposed the store for deepening relationships—rather than forming them—while also working in synergy with other interactions. 

This pivot meant dialing up brand heritage in decor, hosting regular “happy hour” events for fans and influencers, and introducing bespoke photobooths linked to social—with the best photos on the wall serving as a reflection of the local community. At the same time, Khiel’s linked up data across the stores, and online, to ensure personalized in-person and digital relationship building. 

Other brands are leading the way with innovative technology in-store and advertising it to drive footfall. Boots Pro Derm device promises expert personalized recommendations in-store using AI across many of the No.7 products. This helps Boots No.7 compete with the vast amount of advice online and bring people in-store, whilst reinforcing No.7’s brand story of science-based efficacy helping “women feel unstoppable”.

Digital is more than a channel 

It has changed society and the mindset of our beauty buyers. Brands that do not think holistically, seeing every touchpoint together in the context of a multi-channel brand-building opportunity, are missing out. Each moment complements each other, so brands need to think about how this works and how the mindset—not just the action—of the beauty buyer has been changed by digital. Every beauty buyer from Gen Z to Gen X engages with the category at some level online, and it affects what they think and feel about your brand. Yes, push your “TikTok-made-me-buy-it” product. 

Just don’t get caught in the weeds.