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Beauty in the Age of Multiplicity

As traditional racial boundaries blur, Pete Born ponders the implications for beauty marketers.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 03/11/2011

According to U.S. Census data from 2005 to 2006, 5 percent of American children under age four are identified as multiracial, compared with 2 percent of people ages 25 to 29, and more people are expected to have checked the box for more than one race when data begins to surface in April for the 2010 census. This widening trend is an open door to a new world.

This story first appeared in the March 11, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Vasso Petrou, the trends director of P&G Beauty & Grooming, says we are entering an era of a breakdown in tribal boundaries and barriers through the intermarriage of different races, nationalities and ethnic groups. She calls it “the end of ethnicity.” But as provocative as that sounds, Petrou prefers a rosier spin, namely “the rebirth of humanity.”

“We are no longer defined by where we are coming from but where we are going,” she says. “It is the journey that’s important.

“We’re all connected and rooted in affinities and associations more than genetic similarities. That’s why we’re talking about the rebirth of humanity. The blurring of borders, the blurring of nations, the blurring of cultures—this is happening because the world is becoming borderless. Digital is contributing to that, but also the migration of population and the fact that they are marrying with each other.”

There’s a flip side to the phenomenon. More and more, people are interested in exploring their origins, and groups are circling the cultural wagons to preserve their heritages and traditions. “As many aspects of our culture are becoming globalized, there is a lot of support and passion for preserving one’s heritage and identity,” Petrou adds.

Susan Akkad, senior vice president of corporate diversity marketing at the Estée Lauder Cos., calls it “retro-acculturation,” as in when third-generation Hispanic-Americans, for instance, are learning Spanish because their parents didn’t speak the language, listening to the music, mastering ethnic cooking and having Skype conversations with relatives in places like Ecuador. Thanks to the advances in technology, people can reach back to their roots to reshape their identities as well as influence their futures. “It’s more about making a choice, rather than having a choice thrust upon you,” Akkad says, adding that bilingual women will speak in English about financial issues, but Spanish for topics related to womanhood. “Ads in Spanish and ads in English have proved effective,” she notes.

Both movements—global integration and the counterreaction—are fertile ground for marketers. As for the urge to rediscover roots, Petrou points to popular TV shows with celebrities plumbing their ancestry, genealogy Web site services and a National Geographic DNA mapping project involving 100,000 people. Major beauty companies are already on board on a number of different levels. L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Shiseido and P&G have been building overseas product development centers, principally in the key BRIC countries, or Brazil, Russia, India, and China, to tap local expertise and gauge native preferences. In the case of L’Oréal, already three locally conceived products—such as the Total Repair 5 hair product in Brazil—have been marketed around the world.

Many brands are expanding foundation and color cosmetics shade ranges to take advantage of the multiplicity of skin colors and hair textures popping up as a result of racial mixing. Then there are early pioneers such as MAC Cosmetics, with its “All Ages, All Races, All Sexes” credo.

Some cultural preferences have migrated. L’Oréal undertook an exhaustive investigation that shows the effects of centuries of what scientists call interbreeding as it pertains to hair and skin color varieties around the world. The results were published in 2006. The company discovered that there are eight basic categories of hair texture— category one, for purely straight, and number eight, for extremely curly and kinky—and 64 shades of skin tone in the world, according to Patricia Pineau, L’Oréal’s scientific communications director. While studying hair types, L’Oréal looked at three primary regions—Rio de Janeiro; Chicago, with its 70 ethnic groups, and the West Indies—and the effects of intermarriage through the centuries. One effect is a broadening of the spectrum of [hair] classes. In islands such as the Seychelles, where, historically, sailors often stopped, there are dark-skinned people with curly blonde hair and blue eyes. Considering that it is difficult to add new product categories in mature markets like shampoo, Pineau says these unique physiological characteristics present special needs that can be satisfied with new products.

The realm of skin tones is vast, too, due to differences in undertone, unevenness of color, factors like transparency, consumer desires and the pressure of social standing. In Sweden, there are 21 of the 64 tonal classes in the fair end of the spectrum, Pineau says, while India, which, like Brazil, has had many ethnic migrations, has 40 of the 64 shades.

Those numbers are a boon for beauty. After all, the more combinations, the greater the opportunity.