Beauty & The Virtual Beast: How can beauty brands create immersive experiences outside of the store?

After having spent months on end confined to our own homes, it’s no wonder that our attention to how we look declined during the Covid-19 pandemic. The health and beauty industry accordingly took a sizeable hit, with a 5% decrease in beauty spend observed in 2020. However, since pandemic fears have somewhat subsided in the public consciousness, health and beauty is now back on the rise. But, it’s not as simple as just returning to how it was before. Things have changed.

Over the pandemic, people were experiencing and engaging with brands online much more frequently when they were unable to visit stores. This led to a shift in purchases – since March 2020, the share of in-store purchases in health and beauty fell from 62% to 54%, while online purchases rose from 21% to 29%.

This shows that commercial trends can grow and shrink unpredictably, meaning that brands need to have an adaptable, malleable approach when crafting their strategy. However, a multi-channel future isn’t something to be dreaded – the world of digital opens up a whole new realm of opportunity for these sectors. As beauty brands become more accustomed to the digital environment, whole new demographics, geographies and media campaign methods will be at our fingertips. But before we get to that point, there’s going to be some serious adaptation required in both culture and technology.


Recreating personalised beauty experiences in a digital space

Beauty products, unlike the majority of on-the-shelf products, require a certain level of personalised engagement in order to make an informed decision. Consumers are immersed in a combination of expertise, guidance, physical sensation, and social interaction when they enter a store, with the environment and experience contributing significantly to purchase decisions.

As global eCommerce steadily rises, and as channels begin to span across physical, digital and even virtual means, brands need to know how to navigate this increasingly diverse commercial environment. In order to do this, beauty brands need to understand the two core elements of the buyer experience that need to be adapted.


The human experience

Consumers often rely upon trusted sources to help make their decision, and it’s that human, face-to-face element of in-store purchases that create this. With this in mind, it’s important for beauty brands to review how human their online buying experience feels. People greatly value the expertise of store staff in the buying process, so brands need to work towards being able to maintain this level of service and support even in online environments. However, rather than faceless chatbots churning out non-personalised prompts, a new, more human approach is necessary if online experiences are to contend with in-store.

One example of this in practice was the launch of “Let’s Get Ready”, an NLP customer assistant by Coty. Developed for use with Amazon’s Echo Show devices, ‘Let’s Get Ready’ provides a virtual assistant that can respond vocally using Natural Language Processing. People like to deal with people, not robots. So incorporating more advanced communications and assistance into the online buying process will help to bring the familiarity of the in-store experience online, whilst simultaneously allowing site visitors to have instant access to a source of knowledge and expertise even at home.

However, whilst this kind of technology exists and can in some way tick the boxes, it’s notable that applications like Let’s Get Ready never quite took off. This indicates that access to information in the form of a chatbot isn’t enough in itself to keep customers engaged. It’s just as important to consider how this expertise is relayed to buyers.


‘Take it from me’

Trust is more difficult to instil in online environments. People are often used to being advised and guided through the buying process, after having actually tried the product out for themselves. To expect consumers to buy these products online, is to expect them to take a leap of faith. The only reason to trust in a product you haven’t tried is to take it from someone who has.


Over 1,000 beauty influencers operate across Instagram and Youtube, and while there are fewer on TikTok, they tend to have a higher average following. This community of influencers helps bridge the trust gap between product and buyer that emerges online, and often helps to fill in for the lack of personal interaction with a product.

The human touch of influencers creates a further level of confirmation amongst customers than purely brand strength alone. That’s why it’s important for brands to work out how to excite and engage with influencers in order to access these online communities that influencers are creating.


The sensory experience

Brands also need to consider engagement at a sensory level. Beauty product buyers want to touch, see and smell before they buy. This is one of the biggest challenges for brands looking to prepare for the future – how do you go about providing sensory experiences remotely?

Well, part of the answer could lie in something millions of people already use every day. What began as a light-hearted social media gimmick is now having a powerful impact upon global marketing – Augmented Reality filters.

The use of social media filters, whether to make yourself look like a dog, or to see yourself as a different gender, have been enjoyed by social media users for years now. But it’s only more recently that marketers have discovered that it is in fact an incredibly powerful marketing tool. AR filters allow customers to try on clothes, makeup, and other accessories from the comfort of their own home using their mobile device. A recent study by Snapchat saw 92% of Gen-Z consumers express an active interest in using AR in their buying process, and as a result, many brands are already offering product showcases and ‘make-up try ons’ using this exact method. So much so that, according to Parham Aarabi, CEO of ModiFace, 75 of the top 100 beauty brands are now using AR and VR in their marketing.

However, do these technologies truly fill the void right now? AR filters offer a fun and easy way of interacting with brands and, at some basic level, seeing how a product might look. But this technology is limited – it’s hard to operate, fairly unrealistic, and are currently unable to accurately adapt to different lightings. But regardless of the underdeveloped technology, AR will not be able to provide a genuine sensorial substitute to real, personalised experiences any time in the near future, because they simply don’t reflect reality – that sensory experiences cannot yet replaced, and brands putting all of their eggs into one VR basket may suffer down the line.


Finding the right balance between physical with digital

When it comes to discussing technology and where things are headed, it’s easy to oversimplify the nature of change. Whilst it may appear that the world of beauty is moving in a linear trajectory from in-store to digital, the truth is far more complex.

Take online retailer Cult Beauty, for example. They offer a fully online buying experience which, if we view things through this linear ‘digital shift’ model of change, should be ‘better’ and ‘more advanced’ than the physical stores that are seemingly lagging behind. However, this isn’t the case. Cult Beauty, despite their purely online functionality, are still using in-store experiences as a way of connecting with their customers. Just this month, they announced the opening of a pop-up store in Soho, where people can come and try out products in person. Molton Brown are also incorporating AR technology into their stores which, if AR replaces sensory experiences, would be completely redundant. So if in-store is on its way out and digital is the future, why are we seeing digitally established brands still returning to in-store experiences as a way of further engaging with their customers?

What we are seeing here, and across the beauty industry, are several movements happening simultaneously. Movements both away from physical, and towards physical. Movements from physical to virtual, movements from digital to physical. There is a widespread experimentation process underway across the beauty industry in which different brands are learning which forms and methods are best suited to them. People now expect an omnichannel experience which can allow them to engage with products and brands in different ways. Whilst some of the aspects of in-store experiences can be replicated online or virtually, beauty brands need to accept, at least for now, that in-store experiences have unique value. So when it comes to seeking success, the key takeaway for brands is to understand that it’s important to really know your audience, and know what is genuinely best for you. Then, you can create a strategic balance between digital, physical and virtual that best serves your customers.

If you want to learn more about the ways in which the beauty industry is beginning to change, and how you can ensure your brand is in the strongest possible position to engage with consumers, then get in touch with Trinity McQueen today.