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Coronavirus and the Cosmetic Business: Resilient From Recession

Imagine just a few short weeks ago, the UK’s biggest upcoming fear within our industry was Brexit. Now overnight, retailers have closed their doors, once full clinics are empty, and buoyant brands and businesses have been left reeling over the global repercussions of self-isolation and lockdowns.

The confidence among my industry colleagues has suddenly fallen off a cliff edge, and the panic is palpable.

But remember, this too shall pass, though we may well come out the other side looking a bit different. A perennial optimist, I’d like to take a moment to inject some positivity into our profession.

It is often said we are ‘recession proof’. Why?

Perhaps it’s coincidence the last two dresses I purchased happened to fall well below the knee, or perhaps unconsciously I rooted my purchase decision in that old-timey adage of hemlines rising and falling in line with the stock market. Harking from the Great Depression of the 1930s, the ‘lipstick effect’ is the notion that as consumers economise on spending, we turn to entry-price products to cheer ourselves up. In the four years from 1929 to 1933, industrial production in the US halved, but sales of cosmetics rose [1]. Pure proof of retail therapy, in each of the three past recessions of the early 1980s, early 1990s and early 2000s, the European personal products sector continued to outperform the broader market by an average of 100% [2].

Quickly, we have seen a renewed focus on hygiene. You may already have heard of LVMH diverting their manufacturing facilitates to hand sanitiser due to a global shortage of hand sanitising gel and donating these free of charge to the French public health authorities [3], but this herculean effort and pace has been replicated from large to small enterprises with aplomb.

The inimitable Sarah Brown of PAI Skincare has already got to work, releasing a hand sanitiser, appropriately named Acton Spirit, in just two weeks! Even better, they’re already distributing to local businesses and charities, schools, nurseries and the surrounding community as of the 19th March [4]. Kudos for taking the community approach first and foremost.

When this is over, what’s next?

I predict we’ll see much more of a community and social purpose approach to business – we’ve been talking about ‘conscious consumerism’ for more than a decade, but I predict the coronavirus pandemic will finally turn the tables for a more integrative conscious capitalism. One of the big ‘faults’ of climate change is that the average man-on-the-street seems unable to imagine or fully comprehend the impact of this macro concept on their personal life. Coronavirus, I think, is a precursor to raising this understanding; a sign of things to come and how future resource wars can entirely disrupt our day-to-day lives.

Sustainability and biodegradability have already been incorporated, to an extent, into new brand and product development. We will now see more social purpose brands. This is the ultimate realisation of the sustainable development business model: people, planet, profit.

Consumer behaviour

Naturally, we will see an ongoing and sustained focus on hygiene, the much maligned soap bar will see a renaissance – see the new ritualisation and ceremonialisation of washing one’s hands for a minimum of 20 seconds – as will hand sanitisers which will become, once more, widely used for some significant time to come. Predictably also, a commensurate rise in the sale of hand creams, as we all become more acutely aware just how drying and skin-damaging bleach and other household cleaners are.

Plant-based health

I do not believe it’s anywhere near game over for the naturals sector either. In the long term, I predict we will see a continued and greater emphasis on holistic ‘health care’ rather than allopathic ‘sick care’. The idea being a ‘healthy’ body with a well-nourished immune system is less prone to disease, averting causes of illness long before they manifest, and strengthening our resilience when they do. Don’t believe me? Lest we forget estimates put somewhere in the region of 50-75% of the world’s pharmaceutical drugs as derived from plant-based herbal remedies! [5]. Nature is science.

Our new normal

Alongside community-centric and natural health businesses, we will see emerging trends like ‘DTC’ and ‘genderless’ become more entrenched and universal. The personal care industry will be seen as more essential to health and hygiene and less flippant and superficial; future comparisons of the beauty industry will be made less as an accoutrement to the fashion industry, and more as the friendlier, and more accessible, face of the pharmaceutical sector.

There has been a rising trend for some time towards genderless brands and products, and less specific targeting to women (which is oh so often stereotypical and clichéd). This defeminisation will continue in everything from product design and development to brand marketing.

We are all going to be online even more than usual for a bit. Mercifully, we have the internet; can you imagine if the self-isolation directive had hit us in the 90s? When this is over, employment and business will be changed for ever. While high street stores close, they will place ever greater emphasis on their ecommerce channels, and going forward, this will become our predominant sales platform.

Things won’t go back to the way they were, so effective free sampling programmes and rapid no-hassle returns (including home collections) will become essential pillars of the online shopping environment. Online shopping is also tied to transparency; you cannot satisfactorily make a sensory purchase online if the profile is not adequately explained or full list of ingredients withheld.

This pandemic is unprecedented, but to my many friends who run their own businesses and fear for their future livelihoods, I want to say this: stay confident. Our industry serves a vital and valuable role in protecting the public’s health and hygiene, and it will survive even this pandemonium.

So, keep it clean, and keep up the good work.

See you on the other side.

Wren Holmes has worked for The Red Tree, the UK’s number one beauty brand consultancy spear-heading major projects and then joined a  FTSE 100 company to develop the European holistic natural strategy for a new brand. She has since founded Brands Botanic Ltd, specialising in natural product and brand development. Her decade-long leadership of new projects have several hundred award wins. 


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The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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