The Breakthrough of Beauty Technology

How the digital transformation is disrupting an already highly controversial industry.

By: Emily Huang, Co-Executive Director (McGill)

The impacts of the digital reality are boundless, and the beauty industry is certainly no exception. Despite the growing trend of embracing your natural self, beauty products satisfy our hedonic and self-esteem needs in such an extraordinary manner that a $532 billion industry was born. As more brands and influencers enter the saturated market, it is clear that beauty is here to stay, which means it must learn to thrive in our increasingly digital society.

As an avid fan of luxury beauty and a proud (and shameless) Sephora Rouge member, I have been fascinated by this lucrative industry since my middle school days. I remember watching Michelle Phan’s mesmerizing makeup tutorials every day after finishing my homework and experimenting with 5-dollar Maybelline eyeshadow palettes on weekends.

Fast-forward seven years and I am about to enter my senior year of university studying information systems and marketing. Thanks to years of active consumption and my business education, I have gained a fresh perspective on this alluring industry.

I believe that 2020 is the year in which beauty tech will revolutionize the way all of us experience and define beauty — and I am thrilled to be along for the ride.

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Sephora Beauty Studio (Credit: windowswear)

In 2018, L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, announced that it no longer wanted to be the number one beauty firm in the world, but rather “the number one beauty tech company”. For an industry already undergoing a massive digital transformation, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the need to transform quickly.

I will discuss two of the most popular current tech trends in beauty: personalization using artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual try-on applications using augmented reality (AR).

1. Personalization using AI

According to market research firm Mintel, the demand for personalized cosmetics is skyrocketing. Nearly half of consumers like the idea that a beauty product is personalized, and a third think such products give better results. Given this, companies have capitalized on the recent spike in consumer demand for personalization. An example is NYC-based hair brand Function of Beauty, a product that I fell for given the enticing function of emily printed on the bottle containing pink, peach-scented shampoo (my favourite colour and fruit scent). After paying over 60 CAD, I found that the products worked just as well as the drugstore shampoo that my dad bought me before I arrived home from Europe in March.

Guive Balooch, Global Vice President of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, states:

“Women have had the same beauty concerns for 30 to 40 years, but technology has created a more demanding consumer. They want more personalized and precise products, and we have to respond.”

For an industry built upon satisfying individuals’ self-esteem and status needs, it is unsurprising that its loyal customers are demanding more personalized products curated just for them. Technology is the key to answering age-old consumer needs such as: “What is the right colour for me? What is the right skincare routine for my skin?”.

French luxury powerhouse Lancôme is leading the trend in hot pursuit of the mission set by their parent company, L’Oréal. In 2015, Lancôme launched Le Teint Particulier, a custom-made foundation that uses AI algorithms to find a consumer’s match in mere minutes. To begin, an expert uses a digital scanner to discover the consumer’s exact skin tone and match it to a selection of 20,000 shades through a proprietary algorithm. Then, the consumer selects their desired skin type and coverage before the foundation is mixed before their eyes.

The product is even packaged with their name and unique complexion ID, and is only available at select locations to add to the narrative of exclusivity. Le Teint Particulier claims to revolutionize the industry by changing the way consumers experience foundation, calling itself a “breakthrough technology” that impressively leverages AI, distributed cloud services and an integrated network of connected devices (IOTs).

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Using AI to find a foundation match (Credit: BBC News)

2. Virtual try-on apps using AR

With the Coronavirus pandemic in full swing, beauty consumers have been reliant on e-commerce channels to satisfy their consumption cravings for months on end. Given that beauty retailers such as Sephora operate in high-risk environments with close physical interactions and testers, companies have been forced to develop digital solutions.

While consumers agree that nothing can replace the in-store shopping experience when it comes to cosmetics, the constraints of physical distancing have made virtual try-on apps the next best alternative.

In 2016, Sephora launched the Virtual Artist, an app that allows consumers to virtually try on thousands of shades of lipstick and eyeshadow through their smartphones.

Employing augmented reality, the app measures an individual’s lip and eye location and then applies the makeup at those specific facial feature points.

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Sephora’s Virtual Artist App (Credits: The Verge)

Similarly, Maybelline New York offers a virtual try-on feature on their website, which allows individuals to see the brand’s products on their on-screen image. After giving it a try, I can conclude that the technology still has room for vast improvement, but is an innovative way to use AR to mitigate the challenges that COVID-19 has imposed on the industry.

On Maybelline’s try-on website, users must check a consent box with the condition that “Maybelline New York Canada may process [their] image”. Users are then directed to the company’s Privacy Policy & Terms of Use for additional information. The brevity and vagueness of the statement is concerning, as companies are often unclear as to what they will be doing with the private data they are collecting. They only spill the details in lengthy and dry documents that they know no one reads.

With these corporate giants amassing data on individuals’ skin tones, skin types, facial features, cosmetic preferences, etc., they are gaining immense power in manipulating the future of the industry. Personally, I do not feel comfortable with the fact that Maybelline, a profit-driven corporation, now has my face saved in their system for data analysis purposes.

The increasing intersection between beauty and technology is extremely exciting, as the two industries previously existed in separate worlds. Their junction is a reflection of the remarkable advancements made by the human race in a few short decades. However, there are a plethora of ethical implications hidden behind the shroud of “innovative, cutting-edge technology”.

It is important for consumers to remain educated and aware of the dangers of over-sharing as well as set boundaries for themselves based on their cybersecurity comfort levels.

As society continues its digital transformation, consumers must remain one step ahead to safely indulge in the hedonic pleasure that luxury beauty brings to what can be a dull and lackluster world.

So why take action?

“Because you’re worth it”.

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