3 Ways Beauty Brands Can Stay Ahead In The Race For Virtual Engagement

Amanda Glasgow, creative director EMEA at digital consultancy Appnovation, explores the digital tactics that beauty brands need to stand out in a cutthroat sphere.

The pandemic has dramatically re-set our shopping habits – and no more so than in that aspirational playground known as the $500 billion beauty empire.

Once upon a time, this was a sector that thrived on tangible glamour: an Aesop fragrance tester or a Bobbi Brown tutorial was the kind of signature experience that fuelled the industry’s 85 percent reliance on in-store purchases.

Coronavirus has turned this mainstay on its head, with intriguing results. While no brand would have welcomed the chaotic events of the past year, beauty players have found themselves riding the crest of some unexpected growth trends.

Luxury names including La Mer and Dior have started doing brisk business on Amazon under lockdown, for example, and our collective need for home comforts has led to a 300% YoY increase in pampering products such as aromatherapy and haircare.

Meanwhile, the recent boom in at-home beauty tech has amplified a move towards personalized skincare and makeup solutions.

This new virtual model has long-term consequences; the kind of convenience we’ve internalized under lockdown is unlikely to go away, even as in-store shopping returns.

The upshot? Beauty brands that are willing to learn further into virtual evolution will gain a headwind on the rest. Here’s why and how this growth curve will take shape:

New innovation in touchless interfaces

With store testers and beauty counter services out of the picture, coronavirus has driven forward touchless try-ons at the cutting edge of smartphone AR. This technology was gaining pace even before the pandemic, but the wave of global lockdowns has given fresh urgency to the cause.

The result is a series of high-profile collaborations at the nexus of beauty and tech. Google and Snapchat, for example, recently turned to AR companies Perfect Corp, and L’Oréal Group-owned ModiFace, to develop in-app makeup try-on services, complete with sophisticated facial mapping technologies.

The AI used to craft these models is nothing short of ambitious. Oriflame’s award-winning app tracks 99 facial landmarks in real-time, allowing users to build a full makeup look and try before they buy online. Ulta Beauty’s new skin analysis tool, which launched last year amid a surge in demand for the brand’s GLAMlab virtual try-on feature, draws on similar technology to recommend products matched to your complexion.

Touchless tech isn’t just a band-aid for times of Corona, either: it has a visceral impact on engagement. Estée Lauder’s YouCam-powered Lip Virtual Try-On has driven 2.5 times higher conversion rate since it launched, while brands that integrate a virtual try-on experience with their websites increase time spent on-site by 101 percent, with a 20% increase in “Add to Carts”.

Even perfume houses – which have understandably struggled to deliver scent in a virtual sphere – are moving forward with AI personalization. For example, the new Ninu smart perfume dispenser uses its app to customize scent at the click of a button, delivering a choice of nine different fragrances depending on your mood.

Brands as experiential curators 

This shift towards customized tech overlaps with another powerful force in the virtual consumer space: experience. Customer experience is now a leading driver of purchase intent according to a 2020 study by consulting firm Walker; overtaking price and even product itself in influencing consumer decisions.

With marketers rating personalized experiences as a top engagement tactic at events/activations, beauty labels need to think big with next-level virtual immersions to surprise and delight their customers.

Charlotte Tilbury’s Holiday 2020 concept is a good example of this strategy in action, comprising a free-to-roam, fully shoppable virtual dome featuring an avatar of Tilbury talking through each of her products. Bleach London was also on the money when it launched its “Hair Party” digital salon last year, featuring live conversations with the brand’s creative director and other guest speakers sharing lockdown hair care tips.

A money-can’t-buy experience commanding huge consumer value may also come in the form of an unusual limited edition partnership: think the hugely popular Kit Kat x Etude House eyeshadow launch in 2019.

This emphasis on experience may contain a physical element, too: for example, Skin + Me’s personalised subscription box delivers dermatologist-recommended products to customers based on skincare photos submitted online. The subscription box model has increased 72 percent since 2017, in part because of its crossover as a unique and decadent experience.

Connection with online communities 

Consumers are now six times more likely to buy from and relate to purpose-driven companies – and online communities have a huge role to play in galvanizing this sense of shared connection and identity.

This is particularly true in a pandemic, with the intimate world of beauty positioned to offer a salve amid record levels of loneliness and anxiety.

In some ways, this is about escapism: lockdown was a coming-of-age moment for brands such as Ashley Adams Beauty and Blushington, which run online makeup masterclasses, while on-demand beauty service Glamsquad adapted its model to encompass virtual home tutorials on nails, hair and makeup trends.

This community focus may also extend to an ambassadorial role. For example, The Body Shop At Home and Neal’s Yard Remedies both run schemes that allow customers to become product consultants, throwing the door open to a wider community of friends and families – and cementing a vital sense of brand belonging during uncertain times.

Since 78% of consumers want brands to use their social channels as a community tool, platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat have a central part to play, too. Competitions, live Q&As and user-generated content are all keys to encouraging community interaction, along with authentic storytelling such as that seen in Glossier’s evocative Body Hero campaign.

A new dawn of virtual agility

With the global beauty devices market forecast to surpass $34 billion by 2024, and VR transforming skincare and makeup as we know it, Covid has been a catalyst to rupture lines already evident across the industry.

Even as the Covid vaccine effort gains pace, we can expect to see more innovations such as E.l.f Cosmetics’ Tik Tok remix coming fast on the horizon.

Touchless tech, curated experiences and online communities are all here to stay, along with physical-virtual hybrids such as sampling platform Abeo, which uses precision targeting that allows social media customers on Twitter, Instagram and more to direct-order product samples that catch their eye.

Beauty brands that gain the edge, therefore, cannot sit on the fence of this digital sandstorm but instead must throw themselves gleefully into the fray. Agility and innovation are critical in a domain where change is fast and the winners take all.

Appnovation is a global, full-service digital consultancy. We deliver people-inspired business solutions to our clients. How? By embracing the powerful combination of technology and agility, we seamlessly integrate strategy, experience, design, development and analytics.