“We are exiting the era of marketing-based skincare and entering the era of performance-based skincare,” reads a quote splashed across the Dr. Barbara Sturm website. While Dr. Barbara Sturm is an extreme example of this – the German brand was founded by a doctor best known for her cutting-edge treatments to conditions like osteoarthritis – it doesn’t take a marketing expert to notice that today’s beauty products are being sold to us in a different way. Around the world, the beauty and healthcare sectors are moving closer together, as clinical insight becomes a central part of brands’ propositions.
This phenomenon is part of a broader trend. In the past few years, the lines between beauty, skincare, health and wellness have blurred, in part thanks to an increased – and overdue – focus on women’s healthcare. Another look at Dr. Barbara Sturm’s website shows a ‘Doctors Notes’ section, in which qualified medical advice sits comfortably next to recipes for chocolate chip cookies and home workout guides. Today, spending on high-performance skincare is for many a health and wellness-conscious choice – and more and more brands are adapting their strategies to reflect this.
“This phenomenon is part of a broader trend. In the past few years, the lines between beauty, skincare, health and wellness have blurred, in part thanks to an increased – and overdue – focus on women’s healthcare.”
This manifests itself in many ways. Firstly, doctor-founded and fronted brands have never been more popular. Augustinus Bader is named after its founder, a German-born professor who is currently the director of Cell Techniques and Applied Stem Cell Biology at The University of Leipzig. The brand has recently grown from a turnover of $7m in 2018 to $70m in 2020, fueled by customer demand for trusted clinical expertise.
Retail and marketing strategies are also being impacted. Notably, high-performing brands are vying for a presence in pharmacies rather than beauty halls. On the shelves, brightly-coloured flashy packaging has been swapped out for science lab-style bottles and an ingredients-first approach to merchandising. Deciem’s The Ordinary is the best example of this – the brand’s best-selling product is named ‘Retinol 0.5% in Squalane’ and comes in an amber glass medicine bottle. Celebrity endorsements are also less common, with even mid-market, cosmetic-focused brands opting to ground their marketing efforts in product performance, with a focus on scientific formulation.
On top of this, the supplements market is booming. When once only taken for specific medical deficiencies, today brands such as Lumity, Advanced Nutrition and Absolute Collagen provide daily supplements designed to promote healthy skin and hair, to target signs of aging and to boost immunity.
The pandemic has certainly fast-tracked this shift, giving rise to a skincare-first approach to beauty. Stuck inside with nowhere to go, customers were more likely to buy skincare products than makeup, and many had more disposable income to spend on high-end, performance-based brands. Lockdowns also shuttered dermatologist clinics, forcing existing skincare enthusiasts to seek out active ingredients within their consumer products.
“The pandemic has certainly fast-tracked this shift, giving rise to a skincare-first approach to beauty.”
More broadly, Covid-19 gave us a greater appreciation of our own health – across beauty, but also food and drink, we saw consumers making pro-active and informed decisions around ingredients that would support immunity and wellbeing. According to data provider Nielsen, sales of dietary supplements in the US increased 16.7% in 2020.
On social media, a new cohort of influencers has emerged. Known as ‘cosmetic chemists’, skincare and beauty enthusiasts with specific clinical expertise are debunking myths, reviewing products and providing explainers for different types of formulations. When once ingredients were hidden in the small print, now brands are working directly with ‘skinfluencers’ to educate consumers around the exact purpose of retinol or lactic acid. Indeed, just this week, No 7 announced the launch of a skincare education programme in partnership with the British Beauty Council, to help educate social creators on skincare.
The conflation of medicine and beauty has historically been most keenly felt in small and medium-sized brands: while businesses owned by large corporates have been tweaking their marketing strategies, the brands with true medical insight at their core have up to this point been at the smaller and independent end of the market.
What sets these brands apart is the presence of leaders with long-standing clinical careers and medical expertise. Alongside Dr. Barbara Sturm and Augustinus Bader, Murad provides an apt example: its founder, Dr. Murad, founded his brand aged 50 after training as a dermatologist and operating his own ‘medi-spa’. These sorts of organisations are founded on the principal that those who use their products are not just customers, but patients.
This is an important distinction, and one that major players are now trying to replicate. Across the beauty sector, we’re seeing blue-chip businesses bringing in medical expertise and patient-centricity though acquisitions. Earlier this month, Beiersdorf – the group behind Nivea – announced the acquisition of Dermanostic, a digital health startup that provides customers with access to experienced dermatologists. Last year, Estee Lauder increased its stake in The Ordinary parent company Deciem to 76%, bringing the business’ valuation to $2.2bn. Perhaps most clearly, Unilever’s £50bn play for GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer healthcare division is indicative of a future where the healthcare and beauty sectors sit side-by-side, sharing insight.
“Across the beauty sector, we’re seeing blue-chip businesses bringing in medical expertise and patient-centricity though acquisitions.”
Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see what long-term impact this trend has. Across the sector, R&D teams have historically been made up of clinical scientists, rather than medical doctors. As the beauty industry evolves, will the internal R&D function adapt to become more patient-centric, and be occupied by those with careers in medicine and pharma? Moreover, a quick look at the leadership teams of the beauty sector’s biggest companies shows that it is still a rarity to find a chief medical officer on the executive committee. Assuming demand for a medical grounding in beauty continues, we may well see more cross-pollination of talent between the healthcare and beauty sectors. The presence of a leader who can advise internally, as well as act as a symbol of medical credibility to consumers and the professional community, could provide the competitive edge which means the difference between success or failure.