Skip to main content

Beauty’s New Digital Craze: A Custom Approach

Advancements in technology are taking customized beauty products from novelty to mainstream services.

Digital is driving beauty brands to get more personal than ever before.

Which is ironic given that MatchCo, the beauty tech start-up acquired by Shiseido that custom blends foundation for customers via mobile device, requires no human interaction. In fact, it’s a “no-touch” experience, the complete opposite of the “high-touch,” digitally supported, informed-sales-associate-armed-with-an-iPad in-store experience that retailers and brands strive for.

Advancements in technology — including Apple’s iOS operating system, mobile devices equipped with high-quality cameras, better bandwidth and processing power and artificial intelligence — could be the vehicle that will allow hyperpersonalization in beauty to grow at scale, taking custom blending from novelty to mainstream service.

Or at least this is what Shiseido believes. The Japanese beauty giant made it clear it prioritizes digital-first customization, and on Jan. 18, revealed the acquisition of MatchCo for an undisclosed amount. Through use of an iOS app, consumers scan three areas of their face and MatchCo’s LED technology and analytical algorithm customizes foundation that matches skin with precise accuracy. In 24 to 48 hours, a $49 bottle of makeup arrives at one’s doorstep.

Related Galleries

Masahiko Uotani, chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based Shiseido, said “accelerated innovation in rapidly evolving digital tools and customized products” were a priority, and Marc Rey, ceo of Shiseido’s American subsidiary, called implications of this acquisition “humongous.”

You May Also Like

Shiseido is wasting no time. The company has already begun the process of leveraging MatchCo’s technology within its stable of brands.

“We are working on the ramp up right now. Our goal is to get this out there as quickly as possible,” said Jill Scalamandre, president of Shiseido’s Global Makeup Center of Excellence in New York. The New York space will be home to future development and integration of the start-up within the Shiseido portfolio, but MatchCo’s operations will remain split between Palo Alto and Santa Monica, Calif.

BareMinerals is expected to be the first of Shiseido’s companies to adopt a custom blending program, which is the obvious choice given that foundations and tinted moisturizers are the cornerstone of the $750 million business.

And this is just the beginning.

Dave Gross and Andy Howell, cofounders of MatchCo, were very deliberate about introducing a single product. Howell wants to nail a “single formula that we’re able to blend infinitely” before entering the color cosmetics arena and beyond. He called the current formula a combination of tinted moisturizer and light to medium coverage foundation that resonates with Millennial to mature customers.

The idea isn’t unique to MatchCo — or to color cosmetics — though. Fragrance, as well as custom blended foundation, at scale has been available for decades. Sylvie Chantecaille pioneered custom blend foundation at counters with Prescriptives in the Eighties and it became a pillar of the brand until parent company the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. shuttered the brand’s presence at counters in 2009.

What’s new here, Gross contended, is the advent and proliferation of digital. The rapid pace at which innovation in algorithms and color matching technologies is taking place could be the key to making these services more accessible. As is widespread adoption of iPhones and Android devices.

“That for us was the alpha moment that said, ‘Hey, this is scalable.’ We know we can produce customer products on the back end, but [the question became] can we share it widely enough and make it convenient enough that enough customers [have access]?” Gross said. He and Howell have been creating customized products in different industries since the early Aughts, including projects with Nike, Timberland, Levi’s and a custom sneaker program for Reebok.

“We thought solving this was a much bigger problem to solve than sneaker colors,” Gross said, adding that “94 percent of women struggle to find a precise shade.”

Some industry experts see a shift in the color sector happening already, where a demanding and more informed customer is driving this precise type of customization ­— from a product and experience standpoint. For some, existing shades of makeup sold at counters don’t cut it; this consumer is seeking an exact match to their skin tone. Then there are those who just desire a bespoke experience and place value in knowing they own a product that’s unique to them.

“As technology has moved forward, there’s renewed interest in customization and custom blending, whether it’s using tech in-store or virtually online. Also, the consumer is becoming increasingly demanding,” said Nicky Kinnaird, the “NK” and founder of Space NK.

From a consumer perspective, it’s less about “where” the makeup creation happens, Kinnaird explained. As long as the formula performs, it doesn’t matter if the service is automated or done by a human being — it comes down to how accurate the shade matching is. Where the customer chooses to have this experience is at their discretion.

Michelle Goldberg, a partner at venture capital firm Ignition Partners, agreed.

“Customization in beauty is similar to customization elsewhere in the retail chain — consumers want control. This trend is upending design schedules, supply chain and product development. Consumers want personalization because they can now demand it,” she said.

A handful of players — from the mass to prestige markets — are starting to jump on the trend. Cover Girl is partnering with ModiFace, a tech company that specializes in face analysis and augmented reality, to introduce an online, custom blend foundation option later this year. The service will cost $25, about triple the amount of existing foundation ranges.

Lancôme debuted its Le Teint Particulier at Nordstrom in 2015, and Kevyn Aucoin’s The Sensual Skin Enhancer Custom Blend option launched at Bergdorf Goodman the same year. Lancôme’s services cost $80 and Aucoin’s $105.

Both provide the same end result as MatchCo, but there’s no corresponding digital presence to replicate the process online, which puts them at a great disadvantage, according to Jane Terker, an industry consultant and founder of Beauty Innovation Firm.

She believes the high overhead associated with brick-and-mortar will make it difficult to scale customized in-store services.

“The challenge is going to be training and having people in place who know what they’re doing and execute the product to a quality level,” Terker explained.

She views this staffing as adding another layer of complexity to that issue, especially “when you presume that sales people will be able to customize and that they’ll follow procedures.”

There’s also the accessibility issue.

Lancôme’s Le Teint Particulier is convenient for those who live near any of the 11 Nordstrom doors where the service is available and out of reach to virtually everyone else. Even though Rosemarie Cirminiello, vice president of artistry and learning at Lancôme, said the brand will up the number of Nordstrom stores equipped to customize foundation this year, Lancôme will still never touch as many customers as a digital experience could.

Then there are some who are sticking to their existing formulas.

Prescriptives founder Chantecaille, who left the brand in the late Nineties to start her Chantecaille label in 1997, has no intention in introducing custom-blend foundation into her offerings. (Prescriptives still offers its custom liquid and powder formulas online for $58 and $78, respectively.)

Innovations in foundation pigment, ingredients and technology have made formulas so advanced that there’s no longer a need to custom blend, she explained.

“Originally when we did custom blend, it was at the time…in the Eighties when the pigments were very, very heavy, so the opacity created a very specific color so if it didn’t match your skin you could see….It was a disaster. This is why I created it,” Chantecaille said.

She maintained that the pigments used in her current line are so advanced that they can adapt to skin and work for a range of skin tones. She compared the expansive 120 shades she offered during her time at Prescriptives to the current 12 shades at Chantecaille.

“[Innovation] changed the situation radically. There was really no need for custom blending,” Chantecaille added. “Truly, you don’t need a lot of shades. We really don’t, unless you carry four shades.”

New York-based dermatologist, scientist and founder of 37 Actives, Dr. Macrene Alexiades, agreed with Chantecaille. Her 37 Actives Treatment Foundation is infused with the same 37 active ingredients her original moisturizer contains – and comes in just three shades. She selected types of pigments that could reflect internal light with the “explicit goal of making them adapatable to different skin tones within a band width of pigmentation.”

“By reflecting internal pigments, these reverberate the skin’s inherent colors so they adjust to different chromophores in the skin and can be worn by people with any skin tone,” Alexiades explained.

She worked to arrive at a balance of pigments that are neutral — neither pink or yellow — so skin types on either end of the spectrum within a pigment level are compatible with the foundation. Colors will be neutralized, whether someone has olive or pink undertones, and can be worn on “virtually anyone.”

Foundation is just a start.

Advancements extend to categories such as color cosmetics, skin care and hair care, too. Finding Ferdinand has a custom lipstick blending tool on its web site that lets consumers blend colors and select a finish for $30, while skin-care’s personalized experiences range from cream infused with one’s own blood to virtual doctors working to cure acne via a mobile device.

The industry is still trying to formulate creams that can be matched to the wearer’s DNA — considered the pinnacle of personalized beauty — and Dr. Barbara Sturm is paving the way. The Düsseldorf, Germany-based doctor is an ardent believer in using one’s blood to heal the body.

Specifically, her MC1 Cream, touted as the “ultimate scientific customization” by an industry veteran that has fans from Kim Kardashian to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The $950 process starts with Sturm drawing a customer’s blood with a patented syringe that tricks blood into thinking there is a wound so it starts to generate healing factors anti-Interleukin-1 and TGF-beta. After being incubated for six hours, the blood and plasma are separated and the latter is injected into the cream. Subsequent cream after the first is $450 a jar.

She’s working on skin care and treatments related to stem cells, including a method to measure one’s potency in stimulating their own stem cells.

“We are working on a real, customized, made-of-your-own-cells stem cell treatment. This is the future and what people are waiting for. We’re doing trials right now,” Sturm said. She expects to be able to start offering the treatment to her patients and customers in Europe this summer.

Sturm launched her main product range, Dr. Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics, in 2014, but she started providing patients with the bespoke MC1 service more than 13 years ago. Sure, it’s an innovative idea, the $950 price tag will likely prohibit Blood Cream from going mainstream any time soon.

A more accessible skin-care option is InsitU, an e-commerce destination that sells natural, made-to-order skin and body care.

L’Oréal and London-based digital incubator Founders Factory chose five tech start-ups to be part of a joint accelerator program on last month, including InsitU. Maria Salichou, a chemist with Ph.D. in chemistry and in nuclear medicine founded the site six years ago, and has a team of scientists who custom blend skin-care based on a detailed questionnaire filled out by customers. For example, the Antiaging Face Care formula costs about $67 with options to personalize it, based on skin sensitivity to a cream, balm, gel or serum texture. A Purifying Face Cleanser, $35, is available in a milk or foam and tweaked depending on age and if skin is normal, oily, dry or combination. Each product is created after the order is placed.

E-commerce destination Function of Beauty let consumers create their own hair care. Founded at the end of 2015, the brand’s custom shampoo and conditioner service is based on a “hair profile” customers fill out upon arriving on site. After plugging in the basics (hair type, thickness and scalp moisture), questions get more specific. Users are asked to select five hair goals, a shampoo color, a conditioner color, a fragrance, the strength of the fragrance and a formula name. The last step is picking bottle sizes and a desired frequency — one month, two months or three months — at which you wish to receive them. Prices for a shampoo and conditioner set start at $36.