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Now estimated to be worth a staggering $511 billion, the beauty industry is growing rapidly.  Innovative formulas, a focus on packaging and culture-first marketing means the space is constantly reinventing. For those who can keep up the potential for success is huge, as we’ve seen recently with Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty helping her achieve billionaire status.

Looking back just a decade, established beauty brands ruled. They set the pace, design conventions and behaviour for the whole category. A brand’s name was the cachet and the driver of desire – and the thing that stood them apart. Packaging however, let’s face it, was very much a game of ‘spot the difference’.

Now, the beauty landscape is almost unrecognisable. The rise of social media and a visual-first consumer has created new rules, shattering traditional codes and conventions. Now everything has to look great, with beautiful design at the heart of it.

The constant influx of challenger brands, the rise of e-commerce (further accelerated by the pandemic) and influencer culture has meant that packaging has switched from ‘protective vessel’ to jewel in the crown.  Beauty packaging is prime space for brands to connect with consumers – showcasing a point of difference, providing new news and gaining scroll-stopping standout in an ever-growing crowd.

Reprogramming Pack Post-Pandemic

Nearly two years since the pandemic hit our headlines, we’ve seen parts of our lives and culture reprogrammed completely. Market researcher NPD reported that lipstick and foundation sales fell by a colossal 70% (understandably as we had nowhere to go), whilst skincare and at-home beauty skyrocketed. We even introduced new terms – like ‘maskne’ – and new blue-light filtering products, a result of increased screen time in lockdown.

But arguably the biggest shift was in the physical space – the loss of the in-store experience. Beauty halls are playgrounds for beauty consumers. Pre-pandemic, nearly 85% of beauty shopping took place in bricks-and-mortar stores. Without these, brands had to double down on their unboxing experiences as direct-to-consumer and e-commerce took precedence. In lockdown, brands that prioritised scroll-science over shelf-science won.

With this challenge came an opportunity for brands to consider their identity when reduced right down to a delivery box. The focus here is on building up strong Key Brand Assets (KBAs) – logo, wordmark, typography – to establish a signature style that’s both easy to recognise and recall.

Create New Packaging Rituals

We know that owning a colour, form or distinct silhouette helps a brand to stand out. We recognise Chanel No. 5, for example, just by looking at the keyline. It’s very much up there with other iconic brand silhouettes such as Coca Cola. By using KBAs as a set and building tight, consistent ownership over time, brands can develop an identity that makes them instantly recognisable.

It’s not just about the way your packaging looks, it’s how it behaves. Packaging rituals help drive personality and standout. Think about the way you interact with the product – how it opens, twists, stands up or stacks together. Fenty Beauty is heavyweight and tactile – the packaging is magnetic and snaps together, with angular sides so that it doesn’t roll off the table (or tour bus).

Packaging rituals can also help to bring a brand to life and entertain, something consumers were craving in lockdown. Contemplating how to launch a new product in a global pandemic, Dr.Jart+ created special Augmented Reality packs for Cicapair. These packs held various QR codes directing consumers to a virtual world where they could learn more about the product, its ingredients, its benefits. A legacy of lockdown will see brands continue to use packaging to deliver impactful brand experiences, which help them stand apart in a fast-moving, saturated market.

Winning With Culture-First Packaging

Winning in packaging isn’t just a race to the coolest design. In a world where the ability to cut through using traditional media is an up-hill struggle, we’re increasingly making the case for using your pack as the media itself.

Whether that’s connecting with consumers through an iconic moment in culture, creating unique limited editions, or simply using the pack as a vehicle for storytelling, the opportunities are definitely there. A culture-first approach is about scanning the horizon and discovering what might turn into a trend—something brands can connect with or contribute to.

Take luxury skincare brand SK-II, for example, who worked with LOVE on its culture-first series of limited editions. Through the series, SK-II tapped into wider cultural stories resonating with their new, younger target consumer. Highly visual and empowering, the limited-edition series has become a highlight of beauty fans’ calendars.

We know that beauty consumers are some of the most vocal and dedicated of all, they crave interesting and new news, and they want to be part of it. Glossier is well documented as winning with this crowd. From content to conversations, everything Glossier does is culture-first. Spending time in the spaces its consumers are in – scanning Instagram comments, tweets, reading product reviews, engaging with readers of Into the Gloss articles– enables Glossier to incorporate feedback into product and packaging decisions. In doing so, they have created a community of co-creators, where fans feel ownership over the brand and a new type of loyalty is formed. If Glossier had relied purely on its signature pink packaging, they would have been swallowed up in the sea of other pink brands.

Think Beyond The Bottle For Sustainability

Looking to the future, it goes without saying that brands need to consider their pack’s sustainability credentials. We’ve seen lots of innovation in this space, demonstrating how sustainable packaging can still deliver on luxury, aesthetic and cultural clout. It’s no longer about being ‘worthy’. You can still deliver a high-end experience that’s kind to the environment – and it’s what consumers are asking for.

A recent IBM report revealed that 77% of consumers’ brand choice is driven by a commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Research by sustainability agency Futerra also found that 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmental and ethical. This demand is only likely to increase, especially after the condemning evidence found in the latest IPCC report and devastating wildfires continue to pervade the news.

As sustainable packaging solutions become a priority, new brand PLUS is currently garnering a lot of attention from consumers and brands, inside and outside the category. The latest venture from Julie Schott (founder of Star Face), PLUS is a zero waste, waterless body wash that comes in a sheet and is then activated with water from your shower. The packaging is non-toxic and dissolves right down your plughole. No waste, no trace.

PLUS is a perfect example of how to address sustainable packaging in a tactile and innovative way – showing that green and clean doesn’t have to be boring, or ‘the same, but less’. And whether it’s new materials like LOLI’s mushroom packaging, making use of new technology like Dr.Jart+ or investing into refills like Kjaer Weis, thinking outside the bottle is key.

Driven by passionate consumers, the beauty industry will continue to evolve with pace. Brands that utilise some of these packaging tactics will continue to cut through the noise, living proudly on a make-up counter, doorstep, or disappearing altogether…

About the Author: Kat Towers is the head of culture at branding and design agency LOVE. She is a branding strategist who works with a variety of multinat­ionals. Consumer focused, Tower’s is a culture-first communications expert with a deep understanding of the media and marketing environment, as well as client and commercial landscapes.