Emily Davidson discusses the moment when subscription models disrupted beauty care

Beauty brands occupy a special and intimate place in our hearts. The products we use on our bodies need to look, smell and feel just right. In the days before online shopping, experimentation took place in a store or at curated events, opinion was garnered from friends, and the retail environment and fragrances were crucial to the sales process.

Successful heritage companies could rely on loyal customers who swore by their cosmetic lines whilst new products had to work hard to be in the right shop at the right time.

Then shopping moved online… and everything changed.

A favourite skin cream can now be ordered via a smartphone whilst watching Netflix. A new eyeshadow can be picked during the morning commute. We have become more exposed to global beauty trends – and more concerned with makeup techniques for the selfie rather than the first date.

Decisions that would once have been dictated by availability, friendly advice and alluring perfumes are now made by means of online reviews and videos. Spotting the opportunity presented by the rise of ‘self gifting,’ savvy beauty brands and retailers launched subscription services.

And they exploded!

According to Business Insider (2014), nearly 40 percent of US online shoppers are signed up to at least one such service. As our lives became busier, services that protected our ‘me time’ won the day. Subscription models bypassed the need to make frequent trips to the store and created an indulgent unboxing moment when a package arrives.

The best new beauty brands are rethinking the moments they share with their customers… entirely for the digital age.

What are the keys to their success?

UNBOXING JOY From birthdays to Christmas to an unexpected Valentine’s gift, a present in the post is exciting to receive.

The anticipation and excitement of opening a beautiful gift creates a powerful moment between the giver and receiver; it replaces the traditional ‘smell and experiment’ moments experienced in stores.

Products that are beautifully packaged or lend themselves to online experimentation can create intrigue and drive sales. These products also make for great social media content. A Snapchat video capturing the moment an influencer opens a box full of self gifted goodies can reach millions. The rising trend of visually arresting and sometimes bizarre face masks are perfect for showcasing on social media, and they satisfy customers’ addiction to Instagram. Already popular on the market are ‘charcoal masks’ and ‘cloud masks.’

To satisfy the desire for indulgence, Birchbox has built its brand experience around the unboxing moment. Exquisitely crafted beauty boxes are curated by influencers and beauty brands, and contain five surprise premium products a month. It’s a winning brand experience that customers depend on… and want to share.

Beauty Pie adopts a different approach. It offers luxury skincare and makeup at ‘straight off the production line prices’ in stripped back packaging.

Just as effective and visually arresting, Beauty Pie caters to an audience that doesn’t buy into fancy packaging but values what’s inside.

The brand focus is still effectively on how the product looks (or doesn’t look) and creates the feel-good moment of unboxing luxury quality personal care. Beauty Pie aptly attracts Instagrammers too with very strong visuals on their feed and clever prompts to collect customer feedback.

TARGET A NICHE In a world where even the most obscure products are but a smartphone click away, beauty brands no longer need to secure in-store distribution to survive. The online era has paved the way for niche products to thrive and influence the mainstream.

In fact, niche demographics and cult beauty groups tend to stick together (especially online), and are more likely to champion their favourite luxury, novelty, cruelty free or vegan products. Companies that successfully engage a niche market will soon see influential customers becoming enthusiastic brand ambassadors.

Stowaway’s ‘right sized’ cosmetics are designed to fit in a woman’s handbag so that she’ll always have everything she needs to complete her look. A niche may not only mean targeting a special interest group; identifying moments when mainstream consumers need a specific product or service can also reap dividends.

The shift to online beauty sales provides access to key customer data – so direct marketing just got a lot more exciting. Birthdays, seasons, weather changes and marriages are life moments that affect day-to-day behaviour, and could help build great customer relationships if brands targeted them directly.

One-to-one marketing such as sending tanning lotion in a hot week or a favourite shade of eyeshadow on a birthday can create special moments and reinforce loyalty – if this is done expertly.

Subscription boxes from brands like Pink Parcel and Betty Box arrive at the start of a woman’s monthly cycle, helping to counteract a moment that often signals malaise. Boxes are filled with sanitary products, and treats such as tea, biscuits, chocolates and cosmetics appearing when comfort is needed the most.

CREATE MOMENTS Social media managers have long known the value of nurturing an engaged community, and there’s much to learn from their model of special offers, sneak peeks and exclusive access to new products and services.

Essentially, a subscription community is a valuable market research asset that enables bigger brands and retailers to test new ideas while enabling moments that create new brand advocates.

Major retailers such as Walmart and Sephora include customers their brand testing and promotions, by offering low-cost samples and hosting in-store experiences with experts to test new products. Sephora’s subscription service catalyses personal moments by enticing people to participate in real life tutorials, which helps drive traffic in-store.

Online forums and informal focus groups with incentives are popular ways for brands to leverage and amplify their customers’ love for products – both new and old. With the right platform to provide feedback and share their thoughts online, people can become powerful brand ambassadors for products they love. This amplifies the brand message organically and provides valuable no-nonsense reviews that stimulate interest in the products.

DIVERSIFY MOMENTS In a world of online shopping, makeup selfies and subscription models, brands need to diversify enticing moments for customers. People now opt for photogenic eye candy in place of their favourite fragrances.

Subscription models present an opportunity to cement relationships with customers over time; they’re a tool for encouraging greater experimentation. The data they provide opens up powerful opportunities that new and more established brands can capitalise on.

However, the more competitive the market, the more important it will be to target customers directly and personally. By understanding the moments facilitated by different beauty products for different people, you can create a brand experience that’s tailor-made for your customer’s unique beauty needs.

Emily Davidson is Director of Kantar TNS Global