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Harvard Scholar Writes Beauty History Book

Harvard Business School professor and historian Geoffrey Jones saw a need for a more in-depth look at global beauty businesses.

Most ardent observers of the beauty industry are familiar with anecdotes about the business’ colorful entrepreneurs: Mrs. Estée Lauder, as the story goes, spilling Youth Dew bath oil on the floor of Galeries Lafayette in Paris to attract the cosmetics buyer’s attention and Revlon founder Charles Revson’s habit of allegedly eavesdropping on employee phone calls — to name a few. But Harvard Business School professor and historian Geoffrey Jones saw a need for a more in-depth look at the businesses these entrepreneurs built, and how the industry transformed from homemade concoctions and pharmacy antidotes into global megabrands.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I’ve got shelves of books on the brands and the characters,” said Jones. Their pages are important and revealing, he acknowledged, but Jones’ aim was to put the stories in the context of the business. His latest tome, “Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry” (Oxford University Press), studies the beauty industry from its emergence in the 19th century to the present. Its title nods to the idea that beauty is socially constructed, as different societies create products based on cultural ideals.

In the book, Jones observes that fragrance — delivered through oils, creams and powders — as well as soap, now considered a commodity, served as the gateways to a booming industry. Today, consumers around the world spend $330 billion a year on fragrances, cosmetics and toiletries.

Jones writes, “A new interest in describing and classifying smells, and making efforts to eradicate bad smells rather than masking them with perfume, emerged during the 18th century.” Ballooning city populations — and the contagious diseases that spread as a result — also helped to make the case for washing with soap and warm water.

The beauty market truly began to roar during the Twenties, as the use of makeup began to shed taboos.

“The societal importance of smelling good and looking ‘clean’ was by now firmly established in the American cultural psyche,” reinforced by the need to promote hygiene habits during World War I to stave off disease. Hygiene would continue to be linked to beauty care. For instance, Jones writes, in 1926, Procter & Gamble introduced Camay bar soap with the advertising tag line, “The Soap of the Beautiful Woman.”

After researching a number of brands — including Unilever for an earlier book, “Renewing Unilever” (Oxford University Press, 2005) — Jones said he was awestruck by the size of the industry and its pace of growth. “It’s near recession proof,” he told WWD. Jones looks at the industry through a global lens and writes about how a number of companies, Avon and P&G included, struggled to globalize. Jones quotes one P&G executive who said, during the Fifties, it was difficult to persuade employees to work overseas as they “were afraid they would lose their place in the U.S. organization.”

Jones said, “[Companies] couldn’t force their wishes on the global market,” adding they had to adjust their marketing approaches and product formulas appropriately to gain traction. As Jones writes, “‘Beauty is only skin deep,’ as the saying goes, but the implications are much deeper than that. Even though human beings are biologically the same inside, our skin-deep differences of skin tone and hair texture mean that many products need to be reformulated for different markets.”

He writes, “The global spread of such megabrands provides compelling evidence about how fast brands, fashions and trends cross borders in the 21st century. A mere three decades ago, there were virtually no cosmetics in China. The Communist regime of Mao Zedong regarded their use as abhorrent symbols of ‘bourgeois decadence.’ Today, China is the world’s fourth largest market for beauty products.”

Jones said, “I emphasize how important ‘place’ is [in the book],” suggesting that one has to walk major cities, namely New York or Paris, to get a feel for where the industry is headed. “You need to have a sensitivity to the moment even before people can articulate what they want.”

Jones recently returned from a trip to Brazil, where he said he spotted exercise bars on the beach and book stores stocked full of plastic surgery titles. “It’s absolutely obsessive!” he said.

Although the book is not written as a how-to guide, there are plenty of lessons for entrepreneurs and industry executives. “It’s a very tough and very difficult industry,” said Jones. “It’s not difficult to launch a brand, but it’s incredibly difficult to build a successful business. It’s quite impossible. But, the leaders of one generation can really lose their position in the next generation. You can always find the next opportunity.”

The book also serves as a reminder of past hurdles. For instance, Jones writes that after the stock market crash in October 1929, “the beauty industry went into shock. American production of cosmetics and toiletries fell from $193 million in 1929 to $97 million in 1933,” and the number of American beauty companies dropped to 490 from 815 in only four years. In later decades, particularly in the Sixties and Seventies, consumer activists, feminists and environmentalists, as well as consumers concerned with the safety of ingredients and the industry’s narrow parameters for beauty, also challenged the business’ practices. Jones writes, “Beauty has always been attacked by the forces of tradition; now it was being attacked by the forces of social revolution, as well.”

Jones, who teaches a course on entrepreneurship and global capitalism, said he is now interested in developing a course on the beauty and fashion industry for Harvard M.B.A. students. Referring to his interest in entrepreneurs and the consequences of globalization, Jones said: “Beauty turns out to be quite a good setting to explore these issues.”

Did You Know:
Upon arrival to the U.S. in 1904, the Polish-born makeup artist Max Faktorowicz took the name given to him at Ellis Island: Max Factor.

In 1916, only one-fifth of Americans likely used any kind of toiletry or cosmetics product.

In 1932, the world’s first branded hair conditioner was introduced.

Old Spice originally launched in 1937 as a personal care line for women. The following year, men’s products were introduced.

Oil of Olay was originally sold door-to-door.

By 1948, 90 percent of American women used lipstick and two-thirds used rouge.