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MAC’s Liptensity, Influencers Help Build Billion-Dollar Lip Business

MAC's Liptensity contains high-intensity chromatic pigment that yields more pigment than any of the brand's other lipsticks.

NEW YORK — MAC Cosmetics is unveiling the latest innovation in its nearly $1 billion lipstick business.

Today will mark the launch of Liptensity, the newest addition to the brand’s now 14 lipstick textures and over 250 colors — and its most pigmented. The range, which comes in 24 shades, contains high-intensity chromatic pigment that yields more pigment than any of MAC’s existing lipsticks. It’s being billed as the most technologically advanced lip product to date from the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.-owned brand, and it retails for $21 per tube, about 25 percent more than the main lipstick range.

At MAC, the lip category — comprised of lipsticks, lip pencils, lip glasses, lip care + primers, lip palettes and kits — drives well over $1 billion in sales per year, according to a financial source, who noted that lipsticks alone as a subcategory are primed to do $900 million in sales during fiscal 2017. This is larger than most beauty brands’ overall businesses, with lips currently the fastest-growing and second best-selling category behind face, driven by Studio Fix Powder Plus and Studio Fix Fluid foundations. In the U.S., MAC sells about one million units of lipstick per month.

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“It’s a tech story; it’s not a fun, frivolous collection were doing. It is super, super saturated, undeniable color load in this lipstick,” said James Gager, senior vice president and group creative director of MAC Cosmetics, during an interview in his office at the brand’s headquarters in SoHo here. He’s held the top creative spot at the company for almost two decades, and swore he has no favorite color. (“I don’t wear color. I don’t live with color. But I love color,” he maintained.)

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For him, the biggest draw with these lipsticks is a formula that’s so “color true,” that “Doe,” a nude from the range, could look almost identical on wearers from the palest to deepest skin tones. Additionally, the color fidelity — meaning that what you put on in the morning is what it looks like eight hours later — remains in tact. The bright pigment load doesn’t equal bright, garish colors, he said, as the range is filled with sophisticated reds, berries, browns and nudes.

The packaging is different for the brand too. It’s the first time a lipstick in the permanent collection will deviate from the black, bullet lipstick tube the brand has become synonymous with. A taller, thinner and more elegant tube has a cap that mirrors the color of the formula. Gager maintained that MAC has played around with the the design of its lipstick packaging, but “never on a product we’ve kept in the line.”

MAC’s lips category hit the billion-dollar mark during fiscal 2015, according to an individual close to the company. The Liptensity range could do $60 million to $65 million in its first year, which could rank it as the third or fourth best-selling lipstick texture of the brand’s 14 different textures.

The Liptensity range will be available to MAC Select loyalty program customers on Sept. 14 via select MAC doors and goes on sale at Sept. 21. Sept. 21 will also mark a Nordstrom prelaunch and a full rollout to all of MAC’s 600 freestanding stores, with partners debuting the range on their e-commerce sites and in-store on Oct. 3 and Oct. 6, respectively. Liptensity will be sold in 110 countries worldwide at all of the brand’s 2,500 points of distribution, with a global marketing push that spans in-store, social media, advertising, customer relationship management and digital.

“We are entry-level prestige. We have $17 lipstick because we want to be the brand for the masses and be democratic, [but] we also want to add innovation. We push up some price points for that. We will [always] have basics and that’s great, but if we want to capture consumers and their attention, innovation is key,” said Karen Buglisi Weiler, global brand president at MAC Cosmetics.

She expects the new collection to become a significant part of an already significant lipstick business (lipstick is the the biggest subcategory within MAC). Buglisi Weiler called it the way people come into and discover the brand.

“When you take one item around the world, it’s the fastest growing category,” she added. “We’re the lipstick authority.”

Buglisi Weiler and Gager are acutely aware of the affect pop culture has had on lipstick, as both discussed the topic at length during their respective interviews.

For instance, Buglisi Weiler pointed out that Velvet Teddy didn’t become the brand’s number two best-selling lipstick until Kylie Jenner put it on the map (the shade was the brand’s 37th most popular lipstick two years ago). In fall 2014, Jenner used Soar lip liner and Velvet Teddy lipstick to create her now famous nude lip look, with Soar going from the sixth to the number-one selling liner in fall 2015. A year later, it still retains the top spot. Jenner created such a demand for neutral colored lip pencils that shades such as a Soar, Spice and Boldly Bare were out of stock for several weeks in the U.S. and the U.K. at the time.

The executive called the influencer effect global. A recent example of this is Bae Suzy, a South Korean singer, who wore Chile (a red) in fall 2015. “All of a sudden, Chile is selling out everywhere,” Buglisi Weiler added, noting that Chile went from the 44th to the ninth best-selling lipstick from fall 2015 to fall 2016.

MAC was said to have sold more than $1 million in lipsticks on in a single day — the biggest online sales day ever for a Lauder-owned company — when it released Rihanna’s RiRi Woo in 2013. Three years earlier, Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday Lipstick sold almost 500,000 tubes during a four-day period.

Gager was in unison with Buglisi Weiler.

Gager commended Kylie Jenner for doing a “phenomenal job” at creating color, calling her impact on lipstick trends and driving sales for specific MAC colors no different than what Madonna did in the Nineties.

“We haven’t really moved that far off the market, it’s just being done in a bigger way by virtue of the quantity people can have as followers. The medium is different, but the concept is no different than it ever was,” he said, clarifying that he in no way sees Jenner and her namesake cosmetics company as competition. Somehow, if she garners publicity for a color she’s wearing from her own Kylie Lip Kits, there is a spillover of sales from brand loyalists who turn to MAC for a similar color. “I don’t see it as negative [competition] but healthy. They are our fan base and will come find it from us.”

But one cannot talk about lipstick, MAC and influencers without mentioning Viva Glam, the 22-year-old program that sees the launch of a new Viva Glam shade and spokesperson each year — with 100 percent of proceeds that go to the MAC Aids Fund. The brand has raised $425 million to date with collaborators that include Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ariana Grande.

“One of the issues with makeup artists is true color intensity and color that doesn’t shift on you. We are looking for pure color,” said Jennifer Balbier, senior vice president, global product development at MAC Cosmetics, during a preview of the new lipsticks. She explained that the development of the formula more than two years ago, which started out with the code name “saturated lip color,” is unlike anything put forth by MAC ever before.

Liptensity contains pre-saturated pigment combined with a clear base — unlike most lipstick bases that are more opaque or “muddier” — to give a “true” color.

“When people say that the ‘color stays true,’ it’s not always true because it acts with your own chemistry,” Balbier said.

She developed the range in partnership with Maureen Seaberg, a tetrachromat, who possesses a gene that allows her to see up to 100 million colors. The normal eye can see just over one million.

“I’ve been immersed in this involuntary Technicolor all my life,” Seaberg said. And because MAC had recently identified a formula that picks up color with twice the intensity of any existing product, it was good timing for her to align with the brand.

She was asked to “tweak” the suggested shades in fresher directions, using her expertise to purify and pull out extraneous undertones or anything that looked “muddy.”

“I see things that apparently other people can’t see…and where I think I see the tones that aren’t showing up in normal peoples’ vision is actually in nature. I’ll notice things in a sunset or in brightly lit trees that I don’t notice in manufactured human goods,” she said, explaining that it was important not to skew the Liptensity colors in “invisible directions.”

She patch tested each color in sunlight and interior lighting before sending it back to chemists with instructions. The process went on for several days until Seaberg was satisfied with the clarity and intensity of all 24 shades. (The black Stallion was the most difficult shade to achieve.)