The Evolving Definitions of Beauty and Luxury

Almost every retail category has been transformed by technology, social media, and the mainstreaming of progressive social attitudes. But for the luxury beauty industry, the change has been more long coming than for others and it’s been revolutionary. Up until the past few years, luxury beauty focused on the narrow idea that affluent white women were their one and only target market. Models were almost always thin, white, and young. However, the shift over the last decade has been remarkable. The very idea of beauty and luxury are being redefined by younger generations who’ve never even flipped through an edition of Vogue or bought a lipstick at Saks. Today we’re talking to BXP’s Linda Casey about branding luxury beauty in this brave new world.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to “Think Retail.” Today we’re talking about luxury beauty.

Almost every retail category has been transformed by technology, social media, and the mainstreaming of progressive social attitudes. But for the luxury beauty industry, the change has been more long coming than for others and it’s been revolutionary. Up until the past few years, luxury beauty focused on the narrow idea that affluent white women were their one and only target market. Models were almost always thin, white, and young. I mean, it was considered shocking when Lancôme hired Isabella Rossellini as a model and she was in her late 20s. Supermodel Naomi Campbell in the 1990s as a black woman struggled to get magazine covers and luxury beauty campaigns. And the beauty experience used to be one that you had to go to a higher end department store to get. But the shift over the last decade has been remarkable. The very idea of beauty and luxury are being redefined by younger generations who’ve never even flipped through an edition of Vogue or bought a lipstick at Saks. Today we’re talking to BXP’s Linda Casey about branding luxury beauty in this brave new world. Linda, welcome and thank you so much for being with us. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved with luxury beauty brands?

Linda: Thank you, Melinda. Through my work as chief editor for Brand Experience Magazine, I’ve been lucky enough to have interviewed beauty brand design leaders from brands, such as Amika, like when they were up and coming, and innovation leaders such as Dr. Jacqueline Schaffer of Schique Skincare. I met a lot of these brilliant thought leaders through ST Media Group’s partnerships with some of the best trade shows in the industry, including LUXE PACK and CosmoProf. CosmoProf also has been kind enough to have me conduct educational sessions for them at the 2018 and 2019 shows. And through those classes, I’ve been able to meet with some wonderful beauty brands as well. Also LUXE PACK has me coming up in developing two educational sessions for their spring shows at LUXE PACK along with the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. So, basically, I’ve been extremely lucky in my career to have the opportunity to talk with some much more brilliant people than myself.

Melinda: It sounds like a lot of fun, too.

Linda: Definitely, definitely.

Melinda: It’s hard to know where to begin because so much has changed but let’s just go back to 2010 before Instagram existed, and let’s get a level set of what the luxury beauty world looked like right before that?

Linda: Oh, wow. First of all, it is amazing how much has changed and how long it’s been changed. When you think about the fact that Instagram has been around for a decade that is scary. It is amazing that we’ve had social media impacting our society and it’s scary in a good way. I would say the greatest gift that social media has given the beauty industry and society in general is the democratization of beauty. I remembered when I entered the professional workforce that my makeup education came directly from the perfumed ladies at the makeup counter in the department stores. And I can tell you, Melinda, I did not see myself represented. Not only was I not a middle-aged woman then with children and husband at home, I’m a multiracial, multiethnic woman, and nothing in their training prepared them for someone like me. They couldn’t refer to any images, experts, or training materials, so how to work with someone with a complexion that was too dark for the mainstream brands and too light for the ethnic brands. I was told outright once that no products exist for people of my color. That totally sucked.

Melinda: Wow.

Linda: It’s an experience you hear often. I’m a Gen Xer, and a lot of Gen Xers came up and we were told over and over again that we’re too dark, we’re too ethnic, we’re too mixed in a lot of cases because people were put into buckets, and they had to stay in those buckets and humans don’t exist in buckets. And because there was a beauty standard then, even when there were products that could sort of work with me, the gatekeepers to those luxury brands at cosmetic counters, they were trying to help their customers achieve the standard of beauty, versus the modern idea of enhancing your own personal beauty. This is such a gift. This is such a gift that social media has given us. And also, it’s such a gift that luxury beauty brands have embraced the idea of enhancing your personal beauty and be able to market that message and messaging as well as product innovation and development is so important.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a Gen Xer as well. And even though I am Caucasian, I still found I got my information about beauty through magazines where women were all 6 feet tall and weighed 120 pounds and had this perfect white skin and these barbie bodies and it’s unattainable for anybody. And like you say, there wasn’t any alternative the way social media has made it possible for anybody to become an influencer, if people like what they’re putting out there, but the fashion editors had such control back then that there was no other way for people to get that kind of influence. So, I absolutely agree with you on that. And thinking about some of the things that have happened in recent years, I’m just thinking about this year, non-binary star of Queer Eye, Jonathan Van Ness, he appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan in this like amazing frothy peach dress and his sneakers. And you know, traditional brands like Dior and Lancôme are now carrying over 40 shades of foundation. What specific pivotal moments have happened that have pushed this forward?

Linda: Yeah. I mean, looking specifically at the marketing and branding industry, I don’t think we can overestimate the influence of marketing from the very non-luxury brand of Dove. I think Unilever did a really great job there. Dove’s campaign for real beauty was a huge game-changer in challenging the idea of a beauty standard. Like you said, Melinda, we were all expected to kind of reach for this beauty standard. It was very specific. And Dove’s campaign for real beauty was a humongous game-changer as far as how marketers approach beauty, product marketing, and messaging. And it gave younger makeup consumers, many of which start their relationships with beauty brands on the mass market personal care side. Cosmetic brands like Bonne Bell were really popular when we were young and, you know, Lip Smackers continues to be, although no longer a Bonne Bell brand, but they continue to be kind of a first brand for many youngsters. So, having a mass market brand come in and say that you can be beautiful and different was so important, and many of those young beauty fans grew up to become today’s luxury brand shoppers and they expect this same level of inclusivity. It’s been studied that the more that we see images that are more inclusive, the more that we understand that beauty does come in all different kinds of shapes, heights, and colors, and genders.

Melinda: Absolutely. And I think if you want to talk about a modern brand that has really pushed the conversation that Dove started forward, I’d love to talk about Fenty, because listening to your experience and the experience of so many women who were told you’re a niche market or there is nothing for you or we don’t think women with your skin tone are going to purchase luxury products, when Rihanna launched Fenty, you’d see these images of the store shelves and they were sold out within hours, and she made $566 million in the first year. Can you tell me about the Fenty effect and how it has changed the industry?

Linda: Oh, Fenty is savage, I love talking about them. So, first of all, wasn’t that 2019 SAVAGE x FENTY show epic? I mean, I remember seeing that and my jaw just dropped. And I just could not believe that this wonderful milestone for beauty in society was happening and it was happening in such a wonderfully inclusive and vocal way. As you said, going back to my experience as a young multiracial woman, brands were not prepared, or I would say their business models and marketing messages were also not sophisticated enough to serve the wide range of women who use cosmetics. But I love Fenty. I think they’re a great brand. I think Savage x is a great brand as well. But I do want to give credit where credit is due though and note that some brands were changing that conversation before Rihanna made headlines with her 40 shades of foundations. Luxury beauty brands such as Amazing Cosmetics were sampling a wide range of women and offering just a wide range of shades and also undertones, which is extremely important.

It’s not only about being darker and lighter, it’s about understanding that if your medium and you’re Hispanic or Asian, you don’t automatically have a golden undertone. You might have golden, you might have pink, you may have different types of tones within your skin and understanding that people came in just a wide range of colors. But as the news about Rihanna and Fenty were hitting about the 40 shades, it was interesting because at the same time, we were putting out our issue with Amazing Cosmetics and I was talking with Sue Katz and Lisa Thurman, who are amazing women. Unfortunately, though, they’re not quite as famous as Rihanna.

Melinda: Right.

Linda: So the word of Lisa and Sue’s work didn’t spread as far and wide but these ladies felt that having a more inclusive makeup range was the right social statement for the brand and eventually the business would come as the brand became better known for its diversity. Now, the real Fenty effect is that Rihanna was able to use her celebrity as a marketing messaging catalyst. So, Rihanna was able to deliver unprecedented power to the marketing potential of an inclusive beauty brand. When we talk about marketing potential for an inclusive beauty brand, we have to realize that a really strong marketing message can actually create the market. It’s not always about finding your market and filling their needs. Sometimes if your marketing message is strong enough, you can actually get consumers to realize that there is a need that it just kind of gave up of that could still be met. And Rihanna was able to wake consumers long trained to accept that beauty brands don’t develop for them. And a lot of these consumers were customizing mass market products and beauty and luxury products to work around the existing beauty standards to what they wanted to achieve. And I would say that the problem with prior attempts to serve a more inclusive market has been more centered in the lack of powerful messaging to that market versus the lack of market.

Melinda: But where can they go from here? I’m thinking about gender and about men’s personal care. And where is this increase coming from, first of all, this increase in interest in men’s products? And what do you see leaders in the industry doing to embrace that as the next sort of level of inclusivity?

Linda: Yeah, you know, I’ve been kind of surprised that the men’s personal care market has been a little slower to develop than I expected. When I first spoke at CosmoProf, I really thought this market was going to explode. We’ve had some growth in their personal care market. I think we’ve seen some very targeted growth in the ideas of personal care and more traditional male beauty and fashion standards, and so things like beard care and skincare being more important. We have seen some growth in cosmetics. I think we are going to continue to see that as we have celebrities that continue to bend and challenge what the standards are for what makes a handsome man and what does being a man mean and what does expressing your gender mean. In many of the same ways that menswear was so important to women, and actually menswear helps a lot of women express their femininity, I think we’ll begin to see cosmetics being used to express masculinity.

Melinda: Well, you talked a lot about beauty and like what beauty means. But the other side of the coin is luxury. How are today’s consumers defining that?

Linda: I think luxury has changed tremendously. And a part of it was we had the economic downturn that we had to redefine luxury, you know, as global societies had to deal with the financial crisis, and we were struggling in a lot of ways to make ends meet for our lifestyles and still be able to enjoy what makes life pleasurable. We had to redefine what we consider as luxury. Little luxuries have become so much more important. So, I think that idea of luxury can be anything from high-end cosmetics, going back to cosmetics, to bath bombs. I mean, a bath bomb may have been something that is, you know, it’s a little bit more mainstream but a really nice $10 bath bomb might be a step down from a spa visit but is still the entry point for a luxurious night. So, brands really need to pay attention to this idea of little luxuries. I think today’s consumers define luxury in a very different way. And they want to define luxury not only in the sense of prestige but also something that is simply sumptuous, sensual, and pleasurable.

Melinda: And how do concerns about the environment play into the notion of luxury when more and more people are talking about simplicity and having less stuff? How much more important does that little luxury become if it’s the only thing that you’re going to splurge on in the year and how do thoughts about the environment impact your choice?

Linda: Well, this one’s a really hard one, Melinda. We have this idea, especially when we think of marketing, branding and design, we have a responsibility to the consumer to develop a luxurious experience that offers a premium experience from unboxing all the way to product use and some of that requires us to use materials and products and things of that nature. So, we have the idea of what is over-packaging. And we had, at one point, I think that luxury brands sought to, as you said, simplify design, visual design, is still very, very important, but simplify the actual packaging or minimize it. And while I think that’s still important, it is also important to remember that we’re still delivering experience and we have to remember that the impact of the environment is important but delivering the experience is also important. And we can’t deliver a subpar experience because of environmental concerns.

Now, all that said, environmental concerns are no longer separate from the consumer. Consumers consider caring for the environment as caring for them. I think as a fellow Gen Xer I’m sure that you can recall when going green was first coming up as a conversation in the marketing, branding, and product development world, and it was really considered a very good add-on, something extra, going the extra mile for your consumer, for your brand fan. It’s no longer going the extra mile, it is just the plain stakes. If you care about me, you care about the world that I exist in, so you need to develop Mr. Brand Manager, product developer, package designer, and marketer. You need to make sure that you develop a product that delivers to my needs but with the least environmental impact to successfully deliver to those needs.

Melinda: I’m wanting to talk a little bit about generational divide again. The luxury beauty experience for people of our age or people even older than us, like, say, my mom, that was an experience of where you go to a department store, a high-end department store and you go to that luxury beauty counter. How is the experience for younger generations, so, thinking about Sephora, thinking about using the internet, and subscription boxes, how has that changed and how do you see that continuing to change?

Linda: I remember going to the Estee Lauder counter at my department store for the first time and it was a rite of passage. It’s where my mom bought her good makeup. It’s where women went when they were, you know… Before we didn’t have the word adulting. But it was a sign that we were adulting. It was going to the makeup counter and buying the brands that our mothers bought and so that kind of brand loyalty passed throughout the generations no longer exists. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You bring up some wonderful friend of yours who also happened to tend to do really well with social. We have YouTube stars like Jeffree Star who have become not only aspirational for today’s consumer, but they almost feel like a friend so they’re able to have a relationship, today’s consumer is able to have a relationship. It’s not only aspirational but also close. You see people like Kat Von D come up through the reality TV world and they also feel this closeness to them. They’re relatable.

So, these newer brands are doing a really great job in understanding that there’s only one bucket that today’s consumer wants to be in now. And that bucket is unique, is understanding that I am an individual, I am unique. And I think this is what the newer brands do very, very well with the younger market, they understand that the only bucket that a consumer wants to be in today is unique, as a unique individual.

Melinda: I think that’s a really great way of expressing it. I hadn’t heard somebody say it quite like that before but that’s absolutely on point.

Okay, if you were going to give luxury beauty brands a couple of to-do’s, if say they’re coming to you and they’re saying, you know, “we want to launch a new product or we want to launch a new brand or something like that, aside from understanding that the consumer wants to be unique, are there any other tips that you would put up there right at the top of your list?

Linda: Well, the first two, just again, giving credit where credit’s due. So, the first two come from a conversation I had with author Seth Godin. So, again, lucky enough to have talked to people and worked with people who are more brilliant than myself. So, Seth really opened up my mind to the ideas that marketing isn’t just about message. So, my first tip is, remember marketing isn’t just about the message, that product innovation is also a responsibility of every marketing and brand leader. You can’t have that siloed product development group and then have them come up with the products and then you just market them. You, in order to be a successful marketer, in order to be a successful brand leader, have to be involved in that product innovation. Seth also reminded me that companies have been doing a really great job of creating a small range of products and marketing the small range of products with a tight range of messages for a large group of people, like brands have figured that out. And Seth had really kind of pointed out to me and as I was pushing him for like more tips on how we can market for the masses, and he was like, “Stop marketing for the masses. Brands already know how to do this well,” so your focus shouldn’t be there because for the most part most brands have figured that out. So focus on the edges of a market because that’s where the growth will come from.

Third tip, Lisa and Sue, again, from Amazing Cosmetics, they did a really good job of defining what success means to their brand. So, my third tip would be: define what success means to your brand. Of course, you know, success is going to have a strong financial component to it. But know what other brand goals you have besides financial success and be realistic and truly accept how those goals might have short-term negative impacts for your brand. Lisa and Sue did that really well when they talked about their diverse range of foundations. They didn’t have the marketing power of Rihanna so their diverse range of foundations for them is a lot. It represents a loss to the business, but they knew what Amazing Cosmetics needed to be and part of it was inclusive. So, they continue to have a wide range of shades even though those shades don’t contribute to the bottom line as much as a small portion of those cosmetic shades, those foundation shades. So, be realistic about what success means to your brand.

Fourth tip, define what luxury means to you and your target market. So, the trend towards little luxuries such as bath bombs, and using amazing personal care products at home versus paying for like a spa day aren’t going away anytime soon. So, if you understand what luxury means to your brand, and your target market, you’re better able to serve them. And re-examine those target markets. Well, that’s number five. So well, that’s not part of four but my fifth one would be re-examine your target markets. So, not only are there opportunities to be more inclusive with regards to seeing color and gender but also income levels. We as a society have an increasing awareness of the importance of self-care. We’re taking better care of ourselves, recognizing the importance of luxury to our health. So, we combine this trend with a little luxuries trend and you can see the appeal of a luxury beauty product to a younger shopper. As a Gen Xer a “me night” would have been maybe going out with the girls to the bars. I would say today maybe someone who’s in that same income bracket maybe a “me night” is staying at home with the girls trying on the latest face masks or staying home with your fellow boys and trying on the latest facemasks. So, those are my five tips.

Melinda: Thank you. Those are great tips. I think that that’s a great place to end it. I really love the idea that everybody just wants to be unique. And that sure does present some challenges for marketers, but on the other hand it’s a perfect time to be marketing to each individual because we do have so many more tools at our fingertips. So, thank you so much. That was wonderful and it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Linda: Same here, Melinda.

Melinda: One thing that really stood out to me when I was talking to Linda is that product innovation needs to be a more inclusive process. At SLD, we often come into organizations as consultants and it’s really clear that we’re coming into a siloed company compared to when we come into one that has cross-functional capabilities and that innovation process has been really inclusive.

The idea that the marketing team be really involved in product innovation because they’re closer to the consumer in a really different way. It makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re competing with brands like Jeffree Star where the brand is just fundamentally in contact with the people who are buying their products, all the time. And the other thing that she was talking about, redefining luxury and then taking income into consideration. This is a big one. Younger generations are facing a really different financial outlook than their parents and thinking about how to create something that delivers a luxury experience and builds that brand loyalty with a younger consumer, it’s going to have to consider this financial shift. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Linda as much as I did and thank you for listening.


Linda Casey is the Editor-in-Chief at BXP Magazine, a publication dedicated to elevating the value of innovative and collaborative brand design as a strategic business competence across the omni-channel path to purchase

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email