The Era of Skepticism in Beauty & Skincare


9 months ago

By Adithi Kasturirangan, Strategy Director

If marketing is to be believed, there has never been a better time to be a beauty and skincare shopper. Independent and megabrands alike are in relentless pursuit of customer acquisition. They engage powerful ambassadors and run campaigns promising everything from molecular-level regeneration to runway-style transformation. Merging with this is a tidal wave of crowd-sourced information and taste-making. In this climate of hyperinformation, what has the power to not just influence, but actually persuade?

Beauty and skincare customers have always relied on recommendations. In the pre-digital era, these came from trusted entities such as friends, estheticians, sales associates, and the iconic in-home consultant. Magazine features tended (as they do now) towards the hyperbolic. More credible information was needed to differentiate between brands, understand ingredients and attributes, and ultimately determine which products best suited our personal needs and aspirations.

As it turns out, we haven’t changed very much since the advent of the internet. In fact, ecommerce today has cleverly replicated that offline recommendation ecosystem and translated it into the digital environment. Take the esthetician, now reincarnated as a style or skin diagnostics quiz. Peer input is represented in a “Bestseller” carousel or “Customers Also Bought This” module. And where is the store associate, eager to guide and curate? They’ve been replaced by handy navigation and filtering tools.


If anything, we have by now superseded human intervention, using apps that provide the kind of skin matching results difficult to access beyond a clinical environment.1 In today’s market, information is not just accessible; it’s richer and more pervasive. This context begs the question: why hasn’t ecommerce overtaken in-store sales? With the digital recommendations engine at full throttle, why do customers still lack the conviction to buy all their beauty and skincare products online?

The answer is unexpected: that despite, or perhaps due to, the rich body of information that besieges them online, customers are increasingly suspicious of what brands tell them. A Racked article called out this phenomenon in millennials, citing their “distrusting, must-see-to-believe stance” as well as “a sense that very few opinions can be trusted.”2

Part of this can be attributed to the rise in volume of specialist blogs and social media content, which have en masse altered how we learn about new products and trends. With so many sources to choose from, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish who the arbiters of quality and efficacy really are.Nor is this experience singular to millennials. According to TABS Analytics, “households with kids are the greatest driver of sales in the majority of CPG categories.” Furthermore, they posit that the majority of women “want to touch, feel and use” beauty and skincare products before making a purchase.3

This, then, is a central lesson: that across key demographics, testing is an essential driver of purchase.4

For those of us in ecommerce, there is a silver lining. Although in-person testing is crucial, recommendations—particularly personal ones—play a considerable role in getting people to trial. In fact, 55% of millennials cite recommendations from friends as one of the strongest influencers in new brand discovery and trial.5

Moreover, while the final purchase trigger may take place at Sephora or Ulta, customers still aggressively seek information online. NPD Group appraises that the beauty buyer “goes in [store] knowing what she wants at least 70 percent of the time.” Digital tools are what help customers develop the curiosity and product shortlist that they take into the store.

Knowing this, my challenge to every beauty and skincare brand is: what are you doing to earn your place in those 7 out of 10 occasions when customers know what they want? Have you marshaled your omnichannel resources to maximize these occurrences?


It is tempting to rely on external forces like blog / magazine coverage and social media as the drivers of product discovery and recommendation. But brands also have a variety of resources that can be prudently exercised. Consider the following opportunities:

  • Micro-influence. Why partner with celebrities when customers are in a heightened age of skepticism? Activate your most authentic influencers i.e. loyal customers, preferably those who shop cross-category (which suggests fidelity to the brand). Don’t expect them to achieve scale in terms of network reach. Rather, prioritize the strength of their relationship to your brand, and encourage them to evangelize within their innermost circles.
  • Review how best to integrate your user community across the digital ecosystem. According to a report on brand loyalty, “38% of Millennials said brands need to become more about the consumer and less about the brand.”6 To clarify, this isn’t as simple as appending a UGC module to the homepage. What this refers to is bringing peer influence, advice, and validation directly into the sales experience, at a product-specific as well as brand-wide level.
  • Meaningful content. Today, a brand’s site content has to accomplish several things at once: to educate, showcase, inspire, and reward. In beauty and skincare, the successful online merger of content and commerce is a competitive advantage.
  • Reallocate ad spend to mobile and social, where the bulk of browsing occurs. A word of caution: this only works to your advantage if you have a responsive and mobile-optimized site.
  • Work from the user – not brand – perspective. Clearly telegraph those elements of your customer service that will drive potential buyers towards trial. Lenient sampling, trial and cross-channel return policies increase the likelihood that your products will be amongst those that customers look for either in-store or online.
  • Look at brand perception, not just sales. Millennials indicate that other than price, bad business policies are the number one reason they will switch brands.7 Social listening and on-site surveys will clarify if customers have the right understanding of your brand’s mission and business practices.

Besieged as we are by information and opinions, the question of influence has never been more critical. Beauty and skincare brands today must aim to be persuasive in an environment in which consumers are overcome by choice and skeptical of branded messaging.

That said, if testing is vital to today’s buyers, recommendations are arguably just as vital to arrive at testing. Additionally, all signs indicate that the advice of a friend is still the gold standard. Brands that wish to succeed in the beauty and skincare market need to facilitate this recommendation engine, using both online and offline means.

One final thought. In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger discusses how a canny publisher sent him not one, but two free copies of a forthcoming book. In the accompanying note, they said they hoped he would share the extra copy with a friend or colleague. They implicitly trusted him to give it to someone relevant, someone whom he felt would be interested. Essentially, they got him to sell their book.

This is how virality begins. Beauty and skincare brands, take note.



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