Cosmetic counter sales staff: a counter view

A dear friend of mine recently spoke of how, while making an impulse purchase for a lipstick at an airport, she ended up having a fascinating conversation with a male counter sales guy, who seemed to be a lipstick connoisseur with a massive collection of his own. She noted how he had great insight into how lipstick should be bought, ideally for personality not just skin tone. Was it her gender bias, she wondered, that she was so delighted by this surprising encounter? She travels globally and had never experienced such a knowledgeable and passionate counter sales guy.

The story made me wonder about gender biases in talent hiring for specific roles especially in industries seen as gendered.

Across the world, cosmetics counter sales staff is rarely male (the exception: perfume counter sales staff is rarely female). The field sales force, however, is rarely female, as I note both from occasionally bumping into field sales staff of brands in SpaceNK and Liberty in London, and from my earlier experience in my first and extremely short-lived first job in a well-regarded Indian cosmetics company.

The brand managers in the company were almost all women whereas, barring a couple of stellar exceptions, the field sales force was all men. These men, otherwise traditional, old-fashioned, sometimes married, were the definitive experts on both our products and our consumers. In my short stint, it became quite clear that their job brought them in contact with wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, and whenever a new product was launched, they also gave trial products to their family and got unfiltered feedback from them. This gave them a wealth of knowledge and insight. Whether the company was harnessing it in a structured way, I couldn’t say.

In contrast, the counter sales staff only ever encounters a consumer primed for some purchase, even if not in the exact category she ends up buying. This means the encounters are more narrow in scope, and only if a consumer ends up at the counter in a slow time of day, can she expect a fulsome and deep conversation about the products and the anthropology and psychology of purchasing one colour over another.

In all this, the consumer is, of course, key. Not only does she, peripatetic as she is, encounter the brand in many more locations, she also gets to see the non-uniformities, the vagaries of the brand’s operations in many ways. These can be revealing about the brand’s values and prejudices.

What is stopping the cosmetic industry hiring more men as counter sales staff? Do men not seek out these roles? Or are they actively rejected in an act of gender bias, unless, as my friend noted in the case of the sales guy she met, they are “flamboyant” in their presentation?

And since everything needs to have a business case, by not having male sales staff, could brands be missing a trick in capturing the growing male interest in cosmetics and skin care? The male grooming and beauty market is estimated to be $50Bn and growing.

One could cynically note that keeping men and women segregated helps companies as they persist in charging women, in cosmetics and skin care, a whopping 37% more than they charge men. This is frankly not sustainable as the web is transparent, and women can read labels and buy substitute products and brands.

Change however is coming, slow but steady, it appears. Even if it is in the form of YouTube influencers.

Men could, of course, watch YouTube videos privately but coming to the cosmetics counter in a city centre store is still uncommon. Andrew Snavely, who runs a magazine focused on men’s grooming, thinks this is unwise and notes: “… young professional men find trial and error with products to be an expensive and time-consuming process…”. Could this be because men feel unwelcome at beauty counters to discuss their needs with the mainly female staff? Airport stores, such as the one my friend was visiting, are probably more welcoming because a man could always pretend he is buying for a woman and engage in a conversation about lipstick.

On a philosophical note, everything that frees women frees men too. And vice versa. That includes the freedom to discuss, try, buy and use cosmetics.

Cosmetic brands would do well to watch watch their gender biases and actively hire male counter sales staff, thus welcoming male customers more.

May be over time, both men and women will get better at speaking openly across gender lines about gendered topics.

Because we are worth it .

Of diamonds and responsible eternities

Millennials, often described in media as hapless, poor and unfocused, reportedly dropped a cool $25 Billion on diamond jewellery in 2015. This indicator of current and future demand for sparklers notwithstanding, we are nearing the peak of natural diamond mining.

It raises the question as to why synthetic diamonds have not taken off.

After all, millennials as consumers are also focused on environmental consciousness and reportedly willing to pay a premium too. Further, laboratory-grown synthetic diamonds — not to be confused with diamond simulants, such as the non-precious cubic zirconia and the semi-precious white sapphire — are virtually indistinguishable from natural diamonds mined from the womb of the Earth in an energy intensive and ecologically intrusive process. The Gemological Institute of America now even certifies that the synthetic diamond you have just bought is real, authentic synthetic. Synthetic diamonds also come from a transparent supply chain with no human exploitation, which is an excellent reason to choose them.

Why then isn’t the world switching en masse to the more environmentally sensible option?

The answer lies in the deeper probing of what shapes our preferences. We don’t buy diamonds, diamonds are sold to us. There is hard nosed business behind shaping our desires even though the traditional reasoning behind engagement rings no longer holds water, and plenty of women can and do buy their own diamond rings.

The economics is simple enough. Synthetic diamonds sell at a considerable discount to real diamonds. Trade makes more money selling a real diamond than it does selling a synthetic one, even with a certificate. In turn, this means a consumer is likely to see many, many more real diamonds on offer than she will see synthetic ones. This shapes the consumer’s consideration set and undoubtedly influences what gets bought.

The value chain reason is more interesting. Making synthetic diamonds is a capital intensive business. The barriers to entry of a new player are significant. So unless the demand for synthetic diamonds is proven to exist, investment may not come pouring into the space. In a delicious but understandable irony and a strategic masterstroke, a De Beers group company owns a vast majority of patents in the manufacturing of synthetic diamonds. So while it is possible to manufacture synthetic diamonds, it may be darned hard to do so without committing patent violations. This is not trivial. From a consumer’s point of view, this changes nothing and everything at once. De Beers has invested in distribution as well as, since Frances Gerety’s virtually immortal “A diamond is forever” line in 1948, branding for diamonds. It would have been foolhardy and self-destructive, if De Beers did not try to hold on to those advantages.

The branding reason is, of course, the strongest.

Most diamond purchases are not rational purchases but rationalised, emotionally led buys. Feelings are notoriously difficult to dislodge and remarkably easy to hurt. For years, the intrinsically “forever” and “real” character of diamonds has been used as some kind of proof of eternal love and commitment. Would a synthetic diamond ring mean fewer flaws, more perfection but also fake, performative love on the cheap?

Here lies the opportunity.

The brand story for the category itself is ripe for change.

Millennials say they are willing to pay a premium for environmentally friendly products (though not always willing to make good on those intentions). If the positioning is right, synthetic diamonds need not be sold on the cheap. They could be positioned as the environmentally friendly, technologically advanced, ecologically savvy, energy conserving version of the gemstone for the new, tech-savvy generation, while their sparkle still remains celebratory.

Thanks to digital platforms, the engagement with millennials can be kept quite targeted and kept away from the prying eyes of the boomers or even Generation X, who may be confused by the messaging about synthetic diamonds or feel cheated.

Moves are afoot in the space already.

Until a few years ago, when I heard the word “diamonds”,  Dame Shirley Bassey’s booming “Diamonds are forever” rang in my ears. Mental concerts are a real thing, look them up.  The song is wall-to-wall marketing of the De Beers catchphrase of enviable longevity.

However nothing lasts forever, as the rock prophet Axl Rose reminds us.  Why then should sparklers bear this unfair burden of eternity and permanence?

Why not move the discourse from eternity and permanence to a more achievable and realistic exhortation to just “shine like a diamond”?

Move over Dame Shirley, Rihanna, the millennial maestra, is here.

 

Brand leadership has to change

A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 crash, American Express in the United States paid many of its less profitable customers to close their accounts and go away. The move garnered much attention and analysis then. It was seen as a de-leveraging move. Whatever hubbub surrounded the brand then has since died down and in an unscientific survey of my business-savvy friends, few remember that this happened at all.

It was a story of a brand choosing its customers, rather than the dominant narrative that conventionally goes the other way round. The latter powers the nascent GrabYourWallet movement.  Another campaign, Sleeping Giants, is similarly holding brands and companies to account if they continue to advertise on extremist websites.

These are interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

As consumers, we profess to love brands that are “authentic“, never mind that in many cases, contrived authenticity, not rooted in values embedded into the business’s value chain, is all we are getting excited about.

What happens when “authentic brands” meet programmatic advertising? Unfortunate, inadvertent outcomes, that is what. Brands are left scrambling to do damage control.

What happens when “authentic brands” take a stand that is vastly unpopular? What happens when the brand’s CEO tells a customer she is free to leave if she does not like their philosophy? Isn’t that just the brand being authentic?

What when all signs point to the emergent challenges being bigger than the more popular political bugbear of the time?

Is authenticity malleable? Should it be?

What if a brand never had cause to reveal some of its stances before and is now choosing to do it in a way that consumers find abhorrent?

And when that comes to pass, should consumers force the brand to comply with their idea of authenticity, or choose to walk away with their wallets?* After all, wisdom says, when facts change, changing our minds is no bad thing.

These growing disagreements and schisms are why, more than ever before, brands need values at their foundation, in their DNA, embedded in their value chain.

Real, defensible, explicit values that the brand is willing to stand up for.

Not convenient values that change with the times or fads du jour.

It is then that brand managers will truly be able to use programmatic advertising as a tool to help them rather be helplessly enslaved by it, while they operate in a haze, whether it be about their brand values or technology.

It is then that “customer choice” will come to mean both that the customer chooses, or rejects, the brand and that the brand chooses, or rejects, the customer.

[* Switching costs for small businesses on a shopping cart platform are not negligible but then that is an economic argument, not one about values.]

 

Helmsmanship of a modern luxury organisation

Change is afoot in the luxury industry. Fewer than 5 weeks into 2017 and several luxury firms’ CEOs have left or are leaving. It is just days since we heard that Chloe Creative Director Clare Wright Keller in Richemont was to quit and while I was writing this piece, Riccardo Tisci’s departure from Givenchy was announced.

While LVMH issued a warning, Ralph Lauren maintains its earnings guidance, even though the share price dropped on the news that Stefan Larsson is leaving.

These creative and corporate developments are taking place against the backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty and also markets behaving exuberantly as if the stock market is somehow decoupled from the economic and political sentiment.

This may well be the year of reckoning for the luxury sector.

Luxury brands have too long dithered between their exclusive image and the effect of the democratic nature of the web. The digital consumer expects luxury brands to navigate the fine line between customising the experience for the consumer, because she is known to them but without becoming too familiar and intrusive. As various privacy related issues rear their head, and cultural expectations diverge, the problem becomes more challenging for luxury brands.

As “things” became more accessible, the pendulum swung towards exclusive “experiences” although this year is seeing the rise of the tangible, as Rebecca Robins, author of Meta-Luxury, says highlighting the resurgence of print books as well as millennials choosing Smythson and Moleskine notebooks to start their 2017.

The intangible and the physical however must both make money, retaining the interest and loyalty of customers across the demographic especially as millennials aren’t as broke as previously assumed.

When Larsson joined Ralph Lauren, its eponymous founder became chief creative officer stepping away from his CEO role, signalling the separation of creative from corporate, as it were. Differences over strategy is the given reason for Larsson’s departure.

Frankly this really isn’t the time for corporate and creative to cleave.

This is the time for corporate and creative to coalesce and pore collaboratively over the information contained both in the yottabytes of “big data” coming in from the many social media channels and consumer created content, as well as the “small data” that the brand’s heritage has yielded over the years.

This is the time for finding meaning in both of those and layering it with the essence of the luxury brand, to remain relevant in these times of change.

This is the time for the luxury sector — corporate and creative — to finally reckon with technology and find a new narrative of relevance that brings the sector in step with the times.

This is the time for creative and corporate leadership to reject Draytonesque kissing and parting, and choose Donne-like commitment to rejuvenate luxury’s relevance.

 

Brexit and the luxury brands of Britain

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on November the 17th, 2016.)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to India and trade talks with her Indian counterpart take me back to the midsummer’s day in 2016. We in Britain woke up to find that the Leave campaign, colloquially called Brexit, had won the referendum. The pound plummeted and for a while, the stock markets were in chaos. Markets stabilised but the pound continued a downward trend, beating historic lows.

Britain luxury brands are known for their heritage, design, craftsmanship, and quirky individuality which together shape a luxury narrative matched by no other country’s. London too is a choice destination for the experience of buying both British and non-British luxury brands.

The weakened pound was good news for tourists visiting the UK. The month of Ramazan, which traditionally brings wealthy visitors from the Middle East to London, followed. Flight bookings from Europe as well as Asia reportedly rose after the referendum. Premium and luxury hotels benefited from a rise in reservations and stays by overseas guests too. All this made London the hottest and cheapest luxury shopping destination this summer. Much shopping took place as is evident from UBS’s analysis of tax refund receipts. Tax refunds, which are typically sought on big ticket goods, rose by 36% in August.

So far the Brexit vote looks good for luxury shoppers from outside the UK. The picture for luxury brands is more complicated.

The iconic British brand Burberry has seen a 30% rise in sales in its British stores in the last six months. Facing headwinds otherwise, Burberry has also cut prices in its Hong Kong stores, taking advantage of the weaker pound as the brand notably incurs 40% of its costs in Britain.

It is a mixed picture for luxury watches, which are often presented as investment pieces, hence seen as considered purchases not impulse buys affected by currency fluctuations. Many coveted luxury watch brands are imported into the UK and the weaker pound has made the imported goods more expensive. Prices for brands such as Cartier and Mont Blanc, owned by the Richemont Group, have been increased while Hublot, Omega and Tag Heuer, owned by LVMH and Swatch Group, are holding on. The latter category of brands is taking the impact on its margins. For now.

The British luxury watch maker Bremont however is quids-in despite 30% of its costs being imports of Swiss watch parts, which are now more expensive. A weaker pound has helped the firm deal with falling sales in Asia and come out stronger.

To complete the picture and London being a hub for creative entrepreneurs, I spoke with proprietors of several upcoming luxury brands. My conversations revealed a mixed picture. Many small luxury brands source parts, finished products or packaging abroad while serving mainly local British customers. After the referendum, the bill of materials is decidedly more expensive by 10-30% depending on where they import from. As small businesses and nascent brands, however, they cannot always pass on the costs as price increases to the customer. Some however are slowly edging up prices of some products while keeping other prices steady. Overall this does not bode well for smaller, upcoming British luxury brands. Tighter margins will hamper their growth, and in many cases, their ability to survive.

It is also important to remember that despite the outcome of the referendum, Britain is, at the time of writing, still operating in the single European market with free movement of people. This makes it easier for people from Euro countries to travel to and shop in the UK. Any change in the ease of travel will affect Europeans travelling to and shopping in the UK just based on a weaker pound.

Luxury marques already under pressure, such as British car maker Aston Martin, expect a short term lift from the weakened pound but that may only last till Britain quits the single market. The automotive supply chain is global, and that will continue to affect the brand’s margins and profitability especially if Britain loses single market privileges and is not able to strike similarly attractive deals with the many countries where Aston Martin sells.

Some luxury brands are already thinking long term. For instance, Bremont is collaborating with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield to reduce its reliance on imported parts. Aston Martin too has made recent investments in product development and a new plant in the UK although its reliance on imported parts will continue for a while. But absent any clarity on the nature of trade deals Britain may be able to make, the return on these investments remains uncertain.

The pound recorded a brief recovery on November the 3rd, 2016 after the High Court ruled that the government will need parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50 which is essential for the official start of negotiations with the European Union. The judgment has temporarily buoyed the Remain voters. The uncertainty is further compounded by the government choosing to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Luxury brands, like many others, will just have to sit tight and watch. After all, what is a couple of years in the grand schema of luxury brands that have lasted or intend to last for centuries?