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Norman de Greve on the CVS Beauty Strategy

Unaltered images are the forefront of the retailer's messaging to consumers.

“How did we get here?”

Norman de Greve, chief marketing officer of CVS Health, posed a rhetorical question to the audience last week.

“How did we get to a place where 80 percent of women feel inadequate after viewing a typical beauty ad because it is so extravagant and manipulated?” he asked, then touching upon when showing “plumage” was a means to attract a mate. But the beauty industry has taken plumage to unprecedented levels. “It became a contest of smoother skin, longer lashes and higher cheekbones,” said de Greve. “Every marketer was desperate to have their model look more perfect than the one in the next ad or page.”

The beauty business at CVS was once reliant on this “arms race — maybe we should call it the skinny arms race” of airbrushed and photoshopped ads. CVS relied on big-brand advertising to help the retailer sell its beauty products. “The big beauty brands created demand for their products, and we merchandised them at a reasonable price close to home. Trends were introduced by television commercials and fashion editors.”

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Business was “good,” but there was an emotional downside to all this perfection. “We were constantly barraged with images [of perfection],” said de Greve. “Women were held to unachievable standards.”

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Then came the influencers. “Anyone with a smartphone could be a model or fashion photographer or broadcaster or publisher,” said de Greve. “Do you realize that we humans upload more photos every two minutes to the web than ever existed 150 years ago? Here’s the thing about most of those photos and videos — they’re real. In beauty, they’re having lots of fun with it and they’re wearing their flaws on their sleeves. In that complete picture, there’s relatability, authenticity and power.”

As the power of influencers began to climb and young consumers began to view YouTubers as actual celebrities, CVS knew it had to pivot its beauty business to stay relevant.

Enter the retailer’s Beauty Mark initiative and its “Beauty Unaltered” campaign — a pledge for more transparency around digitally altered images, a beauty campaign centered on images of models that have not been digitally altered at all.

The campaign has been a success, said de Greve — with the help of its brand partners, nearly 70 percent of CVS stores are now compliant with the Beauty Mark initiative. De Greve stressed that the movement against altered images should be industry-wide. “No one brand has to go this alone, worried that their images will somehow feel inadequate,” said de Greve. “We all do this together, creating a level playing field for everyone. One brand told us it led to an entirely new way of shooting their models, another brand told us it led to a new campaign.”

In addition, the retailer is revamping its image by adding a slew of niche brands to its assortment, including Bliss, Karity and The Crème Shop. “We’ve had conversations with hundreds of brands who want to be a part of this.”

CVS is transforming its beauty-centric stores to house its “Beauty IRL” format, which includes space for trending brands.