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  • Writer's pictureNiya Doyle

Are Beauty Brands Losing Their Edge?

How dupes — and quests for virality — overloaded the beauty industry.

 


At the height of full-glam 2016 makeup, Milk Studios, a creative full-service agency, launched Milk Makeup Cosmetics — staffed by founders Mazdack Russi, co-founder of Milk Studios; his wife Laura Russi, an entertainment and fashion journalist; Dianna Ruth, COO; and Creative Director Gregorie Greville. Milk Makeup offered something different at the time; inspired by the authentic and unrelenting amour propre of New York City, it started as a progressive, LGBTQ-friendly, clean beauty brand, launching products like Lip Markers, tubed Eye Pigments, and click-pen glossy Eye Vinyls that were definitely ahead of its time. “High Concept, Low Maintenance,” it once boasted on its website. 


Milk Makeup was once somewhat analogous to Glossier. If Glossier was the mid-to-late 2010s It Girl, then Milk Makeup was her effortlessly cool and edgy BFF. I remember being 16 and watching makeup tutorials on the Milk Makeup YouTube channel, dreaming of someday being a Milk girl. 


In the beauty world, there has never been a better time to discover new ideas or curate your personal style — so why does it feel like every new “viral” product is just a copy of the previous one? Have beauty brands lost their edge in innovating unique products? 



Despite the COVID-19 pandemic halting the world in 2020, the industry has bounced back to pre-pandemic numbers. In 2022, the market generated about $430 billion in sales and is expected to grow by 6% each year — reaching nearly $600 billion by 2027 according to McKinsey. With the recent proliferation of independent beauty and skincare brands, there’s clearly tons of money to be made in this space.


Let’s take lip oils, for example. First gaining virality at the beginning of 2022 with the Dior Addict Lip Glow Oil — essentially a lip gloss with skincare benefits — the product spurred countless other brands to quickly release their own lip oils, all to gain a slice of the market share and compete for the attention of beauty blogs and influencers. Similarly, with the hit of Rare Beauty’s Soft Pinch Liquid Blush, brands have released their own line of liquid blush products — some following marketing rollouts and packaging likely to Soft Pinch (i.e Juvia’s Place Blushed Liquid Blush) and some reminiscent of Glossier’s liquid blush offering Cloud Paint (see Quo Beauty’s Featherweight Cream Blush).


At Sephora and Ulta displays, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything different or experimental outside of a brand’s core product line — and, instead, you may find the latest dupe of an already-viral product. While a viral product itself may be a marker of popularity and innovation, it also breeds copies upon copies. Of course, none of this means that makeup dupes are inherently bad for the industry or a terrible purchase in and of itself. Dupes are a great option to get a similar product for less money as well as to buy a cruelty-free or vegan option if the original wasn’t. What’s problematic — as the beauty market is, again, already oversaturated — big-name brands aren’t as cutting-edge as they could be.


This sentiment especially extends to packaging design, with many brands using the same brand direction, font styling, and kerning. We all know that branding is imperative to the beauty industry, from campaigns to display shelves to even a brand’s core philosophy. In 2022, Jennifer Carlsson, a Sweden-based beauty brand strategy consultant, found that 1,127 brands use a similar sans serif font, and that 1,055 brands use all-uppercase letters for their branding. How can consumers differentiate one brand from another in an already-saturated market — let alone build loyalty?



“It’s important for brands to be able to grow and reshape themselves… though of course still hold onto the core,” said one anonymous marketer working in the industry. “Viral brands are easy to identify — it's sort of like fast fashion. If they're rolling out a new product every other week or they have something new dropping imitating a trend that just went viral... that's a little bit of a warning sign.”


They mention that rebranding isn’t always a brand decision, and may actually be a stipulation from a retailer, like Target or Sephora — packaging has to be standardized so a product can fit the shelves. At other times, packaging rebrands are done to stay on top of trends. In a controversial move last year, Milk Makeup reduced the size of their highly popular 1.0 fl oz. bronzer, blush, and highlight cream sticks to 0.2 fl oz for the same price of $24. It’s hard to pinpoint why Milk Makeup reduced the size, but it’s possible that the new packaging from the brand was due to merchandising requirements.


Household names in the industry, like MAC Cosmetics — a long-time ally and activist for LGBTQ+ rights, since its inception in 1984 — and Urban Decay, a company that launched against the pink-red ‘80s and instead mirrored a more ‘90s grunge sensibility, have matched pace to meet changing cultural moments and answered to their communities. In the 2020s, there are plenty of subcultures — people can find communities in aesthetics online, from coquette to goblincore (really). In comparison to the ‘80s and ‘90s, there has never been a time with so many options to choose from when it comes to beauty. But there’s a missing link: beauty brands today often do not reflect the individuality and authenticity that comes from trendsetters themselves and thus become trendsetting brands in the process. Brands now only mirror what’s already popular and mainstream.  


As Linda Wells, founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Allure puts it in WWD: “This is a really powerful time where we’re not resting on a singular type of beauty. We’re in this time of the triumph of the individual, fueled in much part by social media.” Without risk-taking, there is stagnation — and the cycle of virality continues to build upon itself.



As if a call back to the early days of the brand, Milk Makeup released something cool again this year. The new Cooling Water Jelly Tints are fun and jiggly, like Smucker's jam. It’s so edible-looking that the brand had to announce a PSA that it’s not meant for consumption. To me, this product represents the eclectic, carefree playfulness that first drew me towards the brand as a 16-year-old. While my personal style and tastes have evolved since then, my want for originality in a sea of limitations hasn’t.


 “We set out to reinvent the beauty industry, not reinvent the customer,” says Gregorie Greville for Centennial — which is an ethos every brand should follow. 🌀


 

Niya Doyle is a forever East Coast-based writer, beauty buff, and cat lover. She is a freelance journalist for HALOSCOPE covering beauty. You can follow her makeup and skincare journey on TikTok.

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