Beauty & Fragrance

In Western societies, the meaning of the large category of personal care, of which beauty and fragrance is a part, is structurally divided. On the one hand, there are things which are ‘less than’, things which principally serve to remove. Cleansers remove dirt, wrinkle creams eradicate wrinkles. On the other hand, there are things which are ‘more than’, things which do not change the underlying raw materials but which add or adorn. These include colour cosmetics and fragrance. This latter set has things in common with fashion, interior design and technology, insofar as knowledgeable consumers recognise products and brands as semiotic signs and include them in the building blocks of their identity. A consumer who knows beauty may expertly deploy Korean cosmetics and matching application techniques and select a fragrance that cues nature, urbanity, the exotic, cleanliness and so on according to her lifestyle and local culture. Things get interesting when cultures vary (so that a French woman’s idea of a sexy fragrance is materially different from an American woman’s idea) and when brands aim to bring on board consumers who are not yet expert in the category and do not know how to find their way around. We’ve advised P&G, Coty, Benefit Cosmetics and many more.

Did you know?

  • There’s a demographic of young, Millennial, Anglo-American women who are currently very sensitive to issues of gender (in)equality. They embrace and own feminism. They are quick to call out sexism. Despite this, they are capable of code-switching when they want to talk about the latest Korean make-up techniques. Influencers may say of eye make-up looks: ‘it makes you look more like a little girl’ and ‘it makes you look as though you have been crying and need to be protected’. This interesting linguistic behaviour shows how stretchy the politics of consumers can be when there’s something they want to achieve.
  • When a consumer tells you that their taste in beauty, grooming and fragrance is ‘sporty’, this is often code for simply not knowing their way around the category. Nervous consumers who feel they don’t know ‘enough’ about a category to fully participate in it recognise that sporty is a safe choice. A similar phenomenon is found in fashion, where less-involved consumers retreat to ‘sporty’ as safe territory.
  • Beauty and fragrance ads show strong cultural variation and this is true for men’s products as well as women’s. American men are invited by ads to place themselves in scenes from Hollywood action movies; British men are invited to envisage themselves standing louchely outside an underground club in Camden, perhaps next to a 1960s car; French men are invited to imagine themselves as objects of desire, while they are disengaged and inattentive to attempts to impress them.

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