What’s Next in the New Normal? – A Combined View from Five Industry Thought Leaders

As the COVID pandemic rages on across the United States marketers are left wondering how to reboot. Consumers are rethinking personal values, behaviors and making changes to move towards what matters most to them – both now and later on. The challenges being faced will undoubtedly reframe how we think about research, branding and marketing in the beauty and wellness industries. 

As we climb our way out of the pandemic, social unrest, and economic, as well as, general global uncertainty, the call for more in- depth knowledge about consumers is growing louder. We are all wondering how the consumer is going to change as we emerge from these V.U.C.A (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) times. We ask ourselves what is important to consumers and what matters less;  and why?  

What challenges lie ahead for the beauty and wellness categories and how can brands reinvent themselves? 

To better understand the foreseeable and unforeseeable tectonic shifts the five authors (from diverse industry points of view) banded together. We have called ourselves “The Women Warriors in Business” (WWB). We came together to discuss what we see as emerging trends and share strategic insights to address the evolving and confusing consumer landscape.   

The WWB panel is the brainchild of Cherie Buziak, a beauty brand specialist and industry influencer. Cherie selected five colleagues to form a “thinktank”: 

  • Roben Allong, a market research and strategy maven
  • Kathleen Carroll, a brand positioning and strategy expert
  • Janice Hart, a chemist and fragrance expert
  • Sheri Koetting, a branding and marketing expert
  • Joi Rudd, a beauty product developer and marketer  

The “thinktank” was formed with the intention to weigh in on the following key areas: consumer trends, beauty and wellness industry challenges, reinvention to face the future and the new retail environment. They began with a series of questions for discussion and this article provides a glimpse of the future to come. 

How are Consumers Changing?  

Kathleen Carroll, a founder and brand positioning expert at The Branding Clinic, believes that consumers will be forever changed by recent events. There will most likely be a stronger bifurcation economically into the “haves” and “have nots”. Social cause marketing within a brand’s platform will become increasingly important and it will be critical, for success, to choose the emotional, political and technically acceptable platforms. Luxury brands, in particular, may find themselves experiencing harder times unless they can get out in front with superior functional benefits. 

Roben Allong, founder of a New York City-based research and strategy development firm, Lightbeam Communications, believes that consumers’ needs and interests are becoming increasingly fragmented leading to a rise in “micro-culturalism”. Cultural awareness is becoming a priority as global social movements take hold and social media influence as well as usage increases. To maintain and grow a customer base during this challenging time, marketers will have to obtain a deeper understanding of micro-cultural identity markers of consumer sub-groups. Becoming more aware of cultural nuances that diverse consumers may share will enable marketers to create better user-friendly innovative products, solutions and messaging that elevates consumer loyalty and purchase motivation. 

Cherie Buziak, founder of the WWB panel and BeautyEdge LLC, a boutique beauty brand development consultancy, posits that the consumer will most likely be looking to elevate emotional experiences. Life’s milestones as we have known them have been stolen by the COVID pandemic. Birthday celebrations have transitioned to drive by hellos. Weddings have been reduced to small, intimate gatherings and graduations transformed to virtual Zoom screen images. Consumers will be looking for product engagements that align with familiar milestones that they have been deprived of in 2020.  

Janice Hart, Key Account Director at Bell Fragrances and Flavors asserted that consumers are in a self-care and comfort mindset. Transparency is important; and from a fragrance perspective, consumers are looking for clean products that contain more natural fragrances. Interestingly, many are turning to fragrances and flavors that bring back childhood memories and spark feelings of comfort. What matters less to the consumer will be sustainability. Clean before green is the new thinking modality. 

For beauty and wellness brands right now, what are the biggest challenges for brand rejuvenation coming out of COVID?

According to Ms. Carroll, of the Branding Clinic she hypothesizes that re-focusing on brand positioning in the new marketing environment is no easy feat. This is something that can start doing now by identifying and targeting the right audiences for growth. Historically “cause marketing” has been a key brand positioning differentiator with which consumers identified. This positioning pointed to what a beauty or wellness brand would do to make the world a better place. Moving to the future, post-COVID, brand differentiation will shift increasingly to pro-active social justice concerns (i.e., people will be asking “how will my brand make humanity better?”). Ms. Carroll further advises clients to insulate their brand with a strong emotional benefit that they can consistently deliver on.  

According to Ms. Buziak, brands lacking a strong online presence undoubtedly need to adapt quickly. Those that already have a strong online presence can quickly translate to new directions through social media platforms including, but not limited to: new distribution platforms such as pop ups, curb-side delivery or new in-store experiences as retail begins to opens up (if it does, indeed open up in light of recent closures of major brick and mortar icons). Since both the beauty and wellness industries are high touch and sensorially driven, in this contactless climate, marketers are asking how might brands reinvent themselves. Ms. Buziak also believes that to facilitate this 360-branding approach, consistency and nimbleness is key.   

What are the critical changes brands need to be effective? 

Ms. Hart agrees that brands that will successfully re-invent themselves will really understand how to effectively engender an emotional  response in cases when the consumer is not immediately able to experience the product fragrance. She also believes that to tell new stories, companies will look to new tech innovations in sampling and targeted communication will become increasingly important to transition the fragrance and sensorial experience to the global virtual community of potential buyers.

Ms. Allong declares brands should think more about “abdicating” some of their storytelling power. Consumers are not only becoming more overtly vocal, but also focused on telling their story through their own eyes rather  have a brand tell it back to them. Instead, they are creating true, real content that speaks for them and to them. Luxury brands such as Valentino are paying attention and already experimenting with handing the microphone, or in their case – the camera – to their core consumers in order to deliver more authentic, relevant and realistic imagery and messaging they want others to see, hear and most importantly, share.  

How brands choose to prioritize digital marketing efforts and utilize these tools must be aligned with brand value proposition and audience. Sheri Koetting, owner of MSLK, a brand development and marketing firm, stated that we are also on the cusp of a beauty tech boom and brands need to prepare themselves. They will need to be more diligent than ever in understanding their true point-of-difference. If they don’t, they may find themselves wasting money experimenting with the ever- growing assortment of options available with little return on investment. Brands will need to look at the ROI of what they have been doing previously and re-prioritize resources to where they matter most.  In fact, to meet new business challenges, cross functional groups like WWB will most likely grow in importance. Leader groups who know how to analyze data, market trends and take a holistic look at the big picture, will become more valuable than ever.

How can brands adapt to efficiently and effectively deliver beauty and wellness in a contactless environment? 

 Ms. Carroll thinks that for remaining brick and mortar establishments especially, reinvention must rethink contactless interactions beyond the senses other than touch to create a welcoming environment to mitigate fear factors. The Branding Clinic advocates that as the pandemic continues to circle the globe greater use of music, colorful decors, calming scents like lavender, and potentially AI will be used to create contactless trial experiences which are emerging as the new norm. Sampling is a critical area in need of reinvention. Ms. Carroll also believes that post COVID demand for new sampling/trial methods that are hygienic, cost effective and eco-friendly is on the rise. The blister lipstick sample pack that the Fresh beauty brand already does might well offer a timely new direction. This could also be a chance for retail brands to reinvent themselves as locations for experimentation if they can develop sterile sample dispensaries of products and AI booths that can mimic the beauty product or wellness experience. 

Ms. Koetting agrees that sampling has been the backbone of new product discovery, and there’s already been a lot of visioning around the future of sampling. Some envision a sample bar with a bartender behind glass; mixing up samples or more sensory-activated automated dispensers. Others imagine online requests submitted by Iphone or Ipad with in-store monitors showing when it is ready for pickup or you are notified by a text message. A retail version of pay-to-play cost options for brands could also be in the cards, as offered by subscription companies such as BirchBox and BoxyCharm. MSLK also sees a future in design for the queue – aka revamping the cash-wrap experience waiting for check out and waiting to get in store – as a new area of innovation and product education. 

What critical changes need to be made in order to increase brand and business sustainability? 

According to Ms. Buziak at BeautyEdge LLC, brands don’t have the leisure of waiting until the quarter is over to evaluate category numbers.  They’ll need to find a way to foresee the probable future. They will need to consciously get closer to the pulse of the consumer, reach out more, ask questions not just about the product experience, but gauge his or her emotional state. (Yes, men too will be in the new parade). Marketers must be prepared for daily adjustments to planning and determine the needs of the consumer in advance. Having a flexible rolling marketing plan for your brand is a must.  Being able to adjust quickly with plans and at the same time listen to the consumer along the way will be critical to staying “alive” during this timeframe. 

Another critical change to think about is innovation in the multicultural space, according to the WWB thinktank. The current unrest in race equality will most likely spearhead even more segmented products for different skin tones and conditions. Another example is if there is an underlying physical or chemical difference to how a product will work best or enhance the appearance of different skin colors then that could be a big basis for change. Little work has been done yet in this area and such work could lead to an even bigger revolution of new products.  

To that effort, Ms. Koetting acknowledges that this will be a time to leverage data and provide more engaging and custom-tailored user experiences. She believes messaging to niche target audiences is key. Not one size fits all, but personal and personalized. Now is the time for brands to be more human, especially indie brands as this is their competitive advantage. People believe in people and already there has been visible success with founder stories and “cause- marketing”. Now is the time to lift the corporate veil with the intention of more transparency and being even more human to fellow consumers seeking to satisfy new needs. 

How does reinvention for the retail/channel environment look?  What about retailers who have been hit hard with the challenge of forced temporary closures? 

Obviously, one of the most significant outcomes of the pandemic has been the rapid move to e-commerce. The beauty and wellness experience will need to be reimagined with more touchless technology and digital experiences to encourage retail shopping. Ms. Hart believes that not only will retailers need to adapt stores for customer and employee safety but they will need to create an environment for the consumer to escape to, and discover, an experience they cannot find in the digital world. This could be the advice of an expert, the discovery of something new and changing inventory or the ever increasing need to be part of a community. Some retailers, however, may be slow to join the e-commerce revolution, since their customers are more bargain focused and they expect that will only increase as a potential recession looms and household income falls.  

Ms. Carroll believes the need for a well-developed strategy that includes multi-channels, online or in-home delivery will be critical going forward. Multi-channel will be essential as consumers have found they like the time and hassle savings of on-line delivery and are wary of going into public spaces to receive services. So in-home channels for delivering wellness services will need single-use products and new attire to protect clients in their homes. 

In Summation 

For a well-developed strategy to be effective, having a better understanding of today’s  and tomorrow’s customer, should be, without doubt, the number one priority for marketers and researchers globally. As businesses open up and adapt to events caused by the pandemic, as well as rising social and economic movements, they must also be agile and innovative in their recovery process to maintain growth. Whether online e-commerce or through brick and mortar retail stores, the WWB “thinktank” panel believes that the beauty and wellness experience, post COVID, will need to be reimagined with more touchless technology and digital experiences. Digital tools will play a leading role which presents many opportunities for reinvention as the “new normal” takes hold. 

To provide more insights as the beauty and wellness world adapts, the WWB thinktank plans to continue coming together to explore emerging trends and will have another summit in early 2021. Stay tuned. 

– written by: Roben Allong, Cherie Buziak, Janice Hart, Sheri Koetting and Kathleen Carroll