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Power to the People

Pete Born looks at how some forward-thinking beauty players are welcoming customers into their world.

If not yet in the driver’s seat, the consumer is being given a spin in the shiny new hot rod of digital beauty.

Thanks to the popular obsession with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, social networking has revolutionized the digital world from a one-way exercise in corporate broadcasting to an intimate two-way conversation with a consumer who has a lot to say. And she doesn’t waste time saying it.

So the question for cosmetics companies is what to do with all these blogs, Facebook entries, YouTube videos and Twitter zingers?

In the past few months, executives have been reaching into the digital community not only to educate consumers about their brands, but to sample opinions of their actual customers and even invite them into the product creation process.

“The customer is demanding to be involved in the design of her product,” says one marketer, who takes consumer feedback to heart for everything from what fragrance notes should go into the bottle to how the finished product can be merchandised at counter. Marketing executives even go into stores with half-finished products to see what pointers shoppers can add. “It’s two-way marketing, not top-down marketing,” the executive adds. “I do think that is what is holding back prestige.”

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One creative leader who has been mining the dot- com possibilities is James Gager, creative director of MAC Cosmetics worldwide at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. He laid the groundwork last fall by hatching a MAC Me Over contest for makeup fans, who submitted videos and reasons for wanting a makeover. Based largely on personality, six winners will be flown to New York and given the chance “to live out their fantasies for the collection” in a star photo session with Michael Thompson. Their portraits will appear on counter as part of MAC’s color story at the end of August. “It’s another way to constantly reach out to consumers,” says Gager. “I want input from them to keep it fresh.” It apparently worked. MAC got thousands of entries. Gager observes, “People want transformation.”

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This led to the next step—right through the laboratory door—that occurred to Gager as he thought about the p.r. sessions he started having separately with bloggers. “They truly are addicts of makeup,” he says of the Internet scribes, who usually are in their 20s and often have full-time jobs, in addition to writing about beauty. “They wear it and get excited.”

It occurred to Gager to channel all this nonstop enthusiasm. So he solicited product ideas from the top 80 bloggers and winnowed that list down to 10 winners who he is turning loose for two days in the MAC labs in Markham, Ontario, outside of Toronto. Five are charged with picking shades, textures, finishes and names for eye shadows and the other five will be doing the same for Lipglass lip glosses. Their work will be marketed as a limited edition under a brand name that’s not yet finalized. The collection will be offered as an online exclusive on MAC’s Web site and each guest creator will be given a page to talk about their inspirations, with pictures showing them at work in the lab.

In explaining how the winners were picked, Gager explains that first his colleague, Jennifer Balbier, senior vice president for global product development for the artistry brands at Estée Lauder Cos., “looked at the submissions from the shade perspective and made sure we had a range of colors that would appeal to our MAC customers. For me, creativity played a huge role. Did the bloggers really think through their inspiration and how it would translate to product?”

As Gager sees it, “This is the wave of the future. We keep revitalizing ourselves by taking the feedback and giving it a twist.” Of course, not all collaborations involve product, in the view of Lynne Greene, global brand president of Clinique, Origins and Ojon at Estée Lauder Cos. But the consumer connection Inviting—and then incorporating— customer feedback into product development is the wave of the future. will be just as intense, nonetheless. In a recent interview with Beauty Inc editor Jenny B. Fine, Greene observes, “More and more, beauty companies will become editors for the consumer.”

Greene reads the blogs after every product introduction because the digital reaction can be a verdict of sorts, like a Broadway review on opening night. “Within 36 hours in store, you will know what you have,” she says. Flaws can be spotted and hopefully corrected. Or better yet, Champagne can be uncorked. If a company decides to post these reviews for promotional purposes, it’s important to refrain from cherry-picking only the good news, though. Greene advises candor: “You can say 1,000 people reviewed this product and 900 liked it. If a company uses reviews, it has to put credibility behind it.”

A company can pick bloggers’ product picks and post them as choice of the week or month. Such a recommendation can have as much authority as the staff at Barnes & Noble listing its favorite books. “The position every company should be making to the consumer is, ‘I care what you think,’” Greene says, adding that it’s important to show “you are trustworthy. If not, the relationship begins to break down.”

Concern for the feeling of the customer is one of the reasons Clinique developed a smartphone app called “The Next Best Thing,” which tells makeup users what else they can try when their favorite shade is discontinued. Another of its apps tells customers what skin care to pack when preparing for a trip to a destination of dramatically different climate conditions. It’s all about listening, Greene maintains. When it comes to consumer concerns, she says, “The worst thing you can do is ignore them.”

In today’s plugged-in world, don’t even think about it.