Mirrors, mirrors, on the wall have been the most important devices in the beauty industry for hundreds of years. For a woman, simply owning kohl, rouge, or hair oil was not enough. To have someone else apply these beautifiers and tell her that they looked good was not entirely satisfying. She not only wanted to look beautiful; she wanted to see how beautiful she looked. That required a mirror.
Mirrors are essential to the beauty process because they reflect both fantasy and reality. We see exactly how we look. At the same time we fantasize about how we could look better, and for an instant our imagination replaces the image we see in the mirror. These powerful fantasies, deeply rooted in our psyches, drive us to buy beauty products. We put them on and we return to the mirror to see our hair, eyes, lips, or skin transformed from fantasy to reality.
While the drive to look good will never change, we have less and less need to fantasize about how we could look better. Beauty apps let us see exactly how we would look with new hair or new eye makeup. Popular apps like L’Oreal Makeup Genius turn the smartphone into a mirror – a more versatile mirror than anything hanging on a wall. Customers take a selfie on their smartphone camera, and the L’Oreal app models L’Oreal cosmetics and hair products on the customer’s face. Instantly they know what they would look like wearing L’Oreal Paris mascara, Lancome lipstick, or a Redken hair dye. The consumer, seeing their improved self, clicks BUY. It’s “Genius,” the name declares.
L’Oreal Makeup Genius is one of many beauty apps beginning to revolutionize the way consumers buy beauty products. These apps are benefiting – not threatening – the traditional beauty industry. Rather than replacing cosmetics with a digitally superior alternative in the way e-books are replacing books, beauty apps add a lucrative new sales channel to the beauty business. They help consumers discover both global beauty brands and young startup beauty brands. They boost sales, because clicking “buy” on an app is easier than visiting a shop.
Most importantly, beauty apps give consumers another outlet for age-old fantasies about their appearance. We still use mirrors and browse the department store beauty counters. Now, however, there are smarter mirrors to look at, and digital aisles are packed with far more products than any department store.
FUSE met with executives at three of the most popular beauty apps today.
“Popular apps like L’Oreal Makeup Genius turns the smartphone into a mirror – a more versatile mirror than anything hanging on a wall.”
“Beauty apps started out as a nice-to-have – something that gave you that extra bit of entertainment,” says Jennifer Tidy, an executive at Toronto-based Modiface. “They have become more and more a need-to-have for beauty brands. Consumers are so digitally focused, and the brands have to be where their customers are. Almost every brand has a version of an app where customers can picture their products; and companies that don’t are getting them.”
Modiface owns facial recognition technology that allows beauty brands to simulate what an individual’s face would look like with their skincare, haircare, or makeup products. It is the technological engine behind apps like L’Oreal Makeup Genius. Cosmetics brands like Lakme or media brands like Marie Claire license Modiface software and integrate it with their iPhone or iPad apps. Presto chango: customers are looking at themselves with Lakme eye makeup or seeing the magazine’s “hot new look of the season” on their lips. By scanning skin types and colorings, Modiface software allows beauty brands to personalize product recommendations.
“Beauty apps started as a nice-to-have, something that gave you that extra bit of entertainment. They have become more and more a need-to-have for beauty brands.”
It is primarily a B2B business, but Modiface also has own-brand apps. Its free, wildly popular makeup app simulates what a range of Modiface clients’ makeup products would look like on an individual’s face. As of June 2015, Modiface-branded and -powered apps had been downloaded 53 million times.
The company’s new “Magic Mirror” extends the technology to three dimensions. Users take a video selfie of their heads moving side to side and up and down. Magic Mirror instantaneously applies the beauty product to the face, showing the customer what he or she would look like from all angles. It turns the smartphone into a mirror that projects a perfect, lifelike fantasy.
How important are smartphones in driving sales of beauty products?
“They’re absolutely critical,” says Jennifer. “The amount of traffic that is being pulled in from the mobile experience is so big. The millennial generation is glued to their handheld devices. They’re doing their shopping, their research, all on that phone. And whether you’re a millennial or not, having that mirror on your phone takes you one step further in the shopping experience. You have that extra comfort that the look is good for you, and you can either buy it right then or buy it later. The traction that beauty apps have gotten has a lot to do with instant gratification.”
“There are some amazing technological developments happening in beauty right now, but most of them are sponsored by brands,” says Veronica Gledhill, cofounder of New York-based Stash. “The L’Oreal makeup app is really powerful, but all it is selling are L’Oreal products, and I don’t know anyone who uses only L’Oreal products. Very few apps are inclusive of multiple brands, and that is where Stash comes in.”
Stash, which Gledhill cofounded after working as a beauty editor for New York magazine, aggregates over 100,000 beauty products on its digital shop shelves. Consumers shop Stash’s universe of products. They collect items they like in a digital “stash” – but may or may not actually buy them. Stash analyzes consumers’ choices and makes personalized product recommendations. For tried and tested products that users buy repeatedly, Stash monitors usage. It reminds users when they are running low on their favorite 10ml Clinique Anti-Blemish concealer, for example, and gives them the option to repurchase. The app is like a virtual beauty concierge that replaces empty cosmetics bottles while at the same time quietly suggesting new ones.
“We recognize that women shop high and low,” Veronica says. “They use Chanel lipstick but Neutrogena sunscreen. They need cotton balls to get off their makeup and they’re happy to buy those from a drugstore. This is an egalitarian approach to beauty supported by beauty blogs like Instagloss and beauty influencers like Michelle Phan. Women only care about products that work, and those span all price points.”
“The L’Oreal makeup app is really powerful, but all it is selling is L’Oreal products, and I don’t know anyone who uses only L’Oreal products. Very few apps are inclusive of multiple brands, and that is where Stash comes in.”
The Stash app is a new sales channel for beauty products that allows users to shop a huge beauty store any time they have their phone on them – including on the New York subway. Its founders want to scale it into something even bigger.
Stash is moving into the intersection of social media and e-commerce, helping beauty consumers buy products they see on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter. “You see these conversations happening all over social media about beauty: someone posts a new look and it gets 5,000 likes on Facebook, so people obviously want to buy this look. But the Instagram or YouTube interface does not allow it. Will people remember the products at the beauty counter next time?”
Stash has developed technology that tracks beauty products that bloggers, editors, celebrities, and other “influencers” are mentioning across social media. It wants to take this data to big beauty brands, integrate the data with sales and payments technology, and allow beauty followers on social media to buy the looks they like that moment (instead of just looking at images of them while sitting in a cafe). That blogger’s Instagram post of the best beach bronzer for the summer? One click and you are at Estee Lauder’s e-commerce site. Like the new digital mirrors, Stash wants to convert aspirational imagery to purchases.
“If you’re Maybelline or Revlon, you’re trying to tell your story concisely and consistently in all media,” Veronica says. “On social media, people are doing that for you. They like it. But there’s no way for them to buy the product through the images. We think we can use this tool to help sales conversion from their social followers.”
Cosmetics are a means to an end: looking better, and seeing how good you look. What if that could be achieved without buying any beauty products? Facetune is an airbrushing app for photos posted on social media. It automatically smoothes away wrinkles, tightens skin and makes it glow, slims the figure, and adds luster to hair. More than $299 worth of high-end cosmetics would be needed to produce such a flattering look. Facetune costs $2.99 to download. It has been downloaded over 3.5 million times mostly by consumers – including Kim Kardashian, reportedly – who value their online appearance as much as they value their actual appearance.
“People’s presence is moving online: they date online, they communicate online,” says Itai Tsiddon, co-founder of Jerusalem-based Facetune. “One of the main ways they communicate is via photos – especially of themselves. If you care about your online presence, you want tools that enable you to beautify. Because most of the photos we take now are on smartphones, it made sense for Facetune to design a solution that’s digital and mobile first.”
Itai’s cofounders are computer scientists who set themselves the challenge of building an app whose image-modification capabilities rivaled Photoshop, the preferred tool for airbrushing photos of actors on the cover of Vanity Fair With the millions they made through Facetune’s paying customers, they have launched a new app that uses the same proprietary technology.
Over the next decade, apps like Facetune may become the most serious threats to the traditional cosmetics industry. With women living their lives in the digital world and controlling their images there, will they feel the need to wear lipstick all day? It is much easier for them to look in a mirror, press a button, and show the world an enhanced image that looks better than anything lipstick can do.