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Why the Clinique NFT Matters for the Beauty Biz

The Estée Lauder company's MetaOptimist campaign is about more than just NFTs. It may be beauty's step toward the metaverse.

NFTs, the trendy piece of technology that can uniquely authenticate digital goods, are clearly having a moment across high fashion and art, with transactions for digital works pulling in millions across high-profile sales this year.

While the uniqueness and rarity of these digital products work for sectors already steeped in exclusivity, the applicability and opportunity in the beauty sector has been somewhat hard to pin down. 

Is it an extension of branding? Product marketing? A bid for customer loyalty? 

Perhaps all of the above — and more — judging by Clinique’s latest digital project, a trio of NFTs unveiled earlier this month. The digital assets symbolize the brand’s marquee products, Moisture Surge 100H and Almost Lipstick Black Honey, and the company’s own identity and heritage. 

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Clinique MetaOptimist NFT
The NFTs represent (from left) Almost Lipstick Black Honey, Moisture Surge 100H and the Clinique brand itself. Courtesy image

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For the Estée Lauder company, its “MetaOptimist” NFTs are more than just a stab at hopping on a hot blockchain trend. It’s a stepping-stone toward yet another buzzworthy tech. 

“We’ve been looking at what are the next rising platforms to create true experiences and what’s the role of these platforms,” Carolyn Dawkins, senior vice president of Clinique Global online, consumer engagement and product marketing, told WWD.

“So, just as much as we’re all obsessed with hearing what’s about to land on October 28, with Facebook and the metaverse, and where the metaverse is going — the interim is NFTs. What we wanted to make sure we were really clear on was the role of this rising digital platform,” she said.

The metaverse is a vague term that has generally come to mean shared virtual environments that can be accessed in various ways — through connected eyeglasses, phones, computers and more — with immersive features that offer a greater sense of presence than a mere video chat or social feed.

Silicon Valley has been mulling it over for years, but in recent months, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg has been waxing especially enthusiastic, even making it a crucial part of his company’s latest earnings report. The social media giant aims to transform itself into a metaverse company, and that has implications for a new breed of social media, e-commerce and consumer experience.

Dawkins’ view of NFTs as a gateway to the metaverse speaks to a broader notion that such digital assets will fuel commerce in the virtual world — an idea Zuckerberg touched on in Monday’s earnings call. According to the tech CEO, the company is building an ecosystem that includes AR and VR devices, a new operating system “and digital commerce platform,” among other facets. More details may be revealed or at least hinted at on Thursday, at Facebook’s next AR/VR conference.

In a metaverse situation, NFTs — whether for a digital sneaker, 3D designer dress or some other virtual item that’s verifiable, and therefore ownable and sellable — are primed for commerce.

Clinique apparently sees major opportunity in that, though it still remains largely uncharted territory for beauty. In May, Look Labs cast its fragrance Cyber Eau De Parfum as a digital asset, and nail art has already begun dipping its perfectly manicured fingers into the tech. But apart from individual works, there aren’t yet examples of any sustained efforts by a major beauty brand. 

Without concrete examples to follow, the company had to carve its own path forward. Dawkins said it knew it wanted to create something that was true to its brand, prioritizing a “high tech meets high touch” experience, so it used that as a north star. 

“[We thought,] ‘How do we craft something that’s of value and that’s desirable in the market today, but turn it into something that has meaning for this consumer?’” she said. “So what we thought was most interesting is, there’s a lot of currency and story out there at the moment. And consumers want to feel like they have a more active part of the brand.” 

The MetaOptimist NFTs aren’t for sale, but will be awarded through a social media campaign asking consumers to share their stories of optimism and hopes for the future. The three winners will be announced on Nov. 2 by global ambassadors Emilia Clarke and Melissa Barrera on the company’s social accounts. They will receive the NFT, the physical Black Honey product and, in a twist designed to deepen loyalty, a decade’s worth of product, meted out once per year over 10 years.

The details matter, because they are the company’s way of translating rarity — the hallmark of NFTs — for the beauty business.  

“One of the things that I’m convinced of is that the digital world ultimately mirrors the physical world,” said Michael Smith, chief information officer at Estée Lauder Companies, which owns Clinique. “That idea of being able to have something unique, where you have digital ownership, and you have rarity, and all the things that you want to do for a consumer from a loyalty standpoint, this [NFT] enables that in the digital world, and is able to create that sense of ownership in something that is truly a unique part of the brand heritage.

“That was why we zoned in on a loyalty use case specifically.” 

As a whole, Estée Lauder has ramped up its interests in technology in recent years, from establishing its own IT-focused innovation lab to working with partners like Perfect Corp. on artificial intelligence-powered augmented reality makeup try-ons. 

Now that Clinique has broken ground as the parent company’s first brand to take up NFTs, it likely won’t be the last. 

“One of the things that has happened with COVID-19 is our consumers are much more likely to adopt new technologies. They’re much more open [and] the expectation of what technology can enable has changed,” he added. “And so we’re hyper-focused on making sure that we leverage the latest technologies to create new experiences, maybe things that weren’t happening before, and so we are working with our brand partners to identify where there might be value.”

As a major company with a portfolio that includes some of the world’s most recognizable names in beauty — including Aramis, Origins, MAC, La Mer, Bobbi Brown, Aveda, Jo Malone London, Bumble and bumble and many more, including its own namesake brand — its efforts could light the way forward for the whole industry’s pursuit of NFTs. Whether that path eventually leads to the metaverse remains to be seen. But it’s a step pointed in that direction.