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What do men want when it comes to grooming products? What everyone else wants — products that speak to them and their needs in an authentic, reputable way. “Most guys, really what I found is that they’re looking for a brand that speaks to them,” said Patrick Boateng II, founder of Ceylon, a skincare brand created for men of color. “They’re looking for themselves in the brand.”
The secret is there is no secret: men and women are largely drawn to beauty products for the same reasons. A recent survey conducted by HYPEBEAST found that 58 percent of men count self-care as a motivation to purchase grooming products, with 56 percent of men surveyed counting improving their appearance. Similarly, 57 percent of women respondents marked self-care and 56 percent improving their appearance as motivations to purchase grooming products. And yet, taboos for men to participate in rituals of beauty or skincare remain pervasive.
“Most guys, really what I found is that they’re looking for a brand that speaks to them. They’re looking for themselves in the brand.”
The quarantine measures implemented as a result of the global coronavirus crisis haven’t upended those taboos, even while they may have irrevocably altered many other aspects of daily life. But what this new way of life has offered are more chances for brands to speak to their consumers — or potential consumers — than ever before. More consumers are online (where else are they going these days?) than ever, giving brands more chances to get their products under the eyes of the elusive male beauty consumer. They should be cautious in how they approach those chances though — the more online consumers are, the more savvy they are as well.
As such, brands that dive into marketing their grooming products to the male consumer without further interrogation of who that consumer is aren’t likely to find a willing audience. Men, as a group, are not a monolith after all. And treating them as such often leads to a bland product targeted to a default, heteronormative, white male consumer devoid of discerning taste.
Looking into the black mirror day in and day out hasn’t altered how men see themselves (not yet anyway). But it has opened up a rare opportunity for beauty brands to talk to them, provided they can do so authentically.
Let me be your motivation
As our survey found, self-care is the overwhelming motivator for all respondents to purchase product, with 53 percent of respondents indicating it as a motivating factor in purchasing grooming products — just slightly ekking out improving one’s appearance (51 percent), and far outweighing brand loyalty (11 percent) and influencer endorsements (6 percent).
But those first two motivations aren’t entirely separate. According to Umar ElBably and Fenton Jagdeo, they can work in tandem, particularly for male consumers first entering into the beauty sphere. The two launched the men’s beauty brand Faculty this month with a nail polish, inspired by ElBably’s own journey with using manicures to curb his nail-biting addiction. “It kind of started with self care, as I was saying, and turned into more of like, an element of expression for me and aesthetic,” he explained. Men who experiment with beauty might find that they not only like how it makes them feel but how it looks too, or even experiment with wider practices of self-care.
“It’s this entry point to wellness. I think this idea of like this practice, right?” Boateng said. “I think for skincare, once you’ve gotten it down, it becomes this thing where you’re like, ‘Okay this is just me, this is what I do.’”
But while men and women are largely motivated by similar factors, there is one point where they differ: brand loyalty. When broken down by gender, 17 percent of women respondents marked brand loyalty as a motivator to buy grooming products, compared to just 11 percent of men.
There is room then for beauty brands to bridge that gap to speak to men, but strategies on how to do so vary. EVENPRIME founder Koh Kim pivoted her own brand from speaking to men specifically to a gaming community more broadly after seeing that her consumers under 25 didn’t particularly respond to gendered products. “I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of gender association involved. Like they weren’t actually looking for products that were for men, just looking for good products,” she said. “Strategically, it was better to focus in on this group, because they’re talking about ingredients and how they’re evaluating products, just like any other sophisticated consumer in the skincare space was doing. But no one was recognizing that.”
By speaking to a gaming or otaku audience directly — the kind who appreciates a Fortnite or Cowboy Bebop reference with their skincare — EVENPRIME can talk about beauty in a way that finds commonalities with gaming culture. “There’s actually a culture of what I call multiple personalities. I mean synonymous identity, so people creating a gamer tag or an ID, they create a persona right?” she said. “A core gaming consumer, someone who’s really engaged, it’s not surprising that they’re willing to explore different ways to express themselves, because they’re already doing that online to begin with.”
EVENPRIME started with a two-part skincare set as a base and has since added on new products, the way a gaming title might offer in-game purchases as players level up in the game. “It’s kind of like a game too, like you have that base experience and then you leave it up to the player, and in our case our community member customer, to customize the experience that they want,” Koh explained. Merging gaming strategies with beauty speaks to the changing demographics of the contemporary gaming community, which as Koh notes is about evenly split between men and women and made up of players who are on average in their early thirties.
“It’s not surprising that they’re willing to explore different ways to express themselves, because they’re already doing that online to begin with.”
Faculty takes a different approach — their products can be used by anyone of any gender of course, but they want to address masculinity more directly in order to speak to that (likely straight, cisgendered) consumer who still needs permission to experiment. Doing so does not mean flattening the differences between men and their different modes of gender expression but in fact embracing and acknowledging them. “That’s where we actually enter a world where masculinity is authentic,” ElBably said.
“They take these very like conservative looks and brand identities, and if we think about it, there’s like a hypothesis that okay, maybe that’s going to help us get the most number of customers,” ElBably said of certain previous brand attempts to launch a men’s makeup line. “But the problem there, it’s actually the same issue that they run into if you were to launch like a gender agnostic line. It’s basically when you do that, you actually make the problem even worse because you’re providing guys this product, but it doesn’t really get them outside of their comfort zone.”
Ceylon built their brand on the intersection of two demographics often ignored in the beauty industry: men and people of color. “I remember shopping being like, okay, I have to look out for the words, ‘whitening,’ you know, or ‘lightning,’ and make sure I don’t buy that,” Boateng said of his own shopping experience with many skincare brands. “There’s so many guys who could become customers — who literally have been like, ‘Oh, I didn’t use anything because I was convinced that everything was going to bleach my skin.’”
Whatever strategy a brand takes, they need to be specific in reaching their consumer base, lest they fall into the pitfall Faculty mentions. In doing so, one may as well create the male beauty equivalent of Bic pens for her — an unnecessary product filling a void no one was inhabiting to begin with.
How men are logging on
Since the onset of stay-at-home measures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing has been clear: people are on their screens, for better or for worse.
According to our survey, 45 percent of respondents are spending their video time on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, a far greater percentage than those spending time on virtual work meetings (27 percent) or virtual social hangouts (27 percent) or gaming platforms like Twitch (14 percent). Social media usage is largely similar for both men and women, but the gap widens for work meetings (with 31 percent of male respondents, compared to 24 percent of female respondents) and gaming (14 percent for men, and just 10 percent of women).
And those who are online are also potentially more engaged than ever. “In terms of engagement, what’s interesting is that there was a lot more content consumption. This is just for Pinterest specifically, but we’ve seen similar numbers across the board, the amount of content the EP consumer engaged with increased like 10X the week that the U.S. shutdown is in March,” Koh Kim said. “And then what was interesting is we haven’t really seen it leveled off or go back to pre-COVID. It’s just more people came online, right? There’s a whole new set of people who were online shopping that have never shopped online before,” Kim said.
“Quarantine and COVID actually was a boon for us in some weird way,” she said. “Because, we’re just so rooted in that kind of gaming culture itself, because we use that for a lot of our marketing, visual branding.”
But even while more consumers are potentially online, Boateng is hesitant to expand to platforms his brand isn’t on already. “There’s a desire for every company out there to go and try to be on every new social media, new place, new audience, new channel, that pops up,” he said. “We have to learn what is the way to for us to present ourselves authentically that gives people something meaningful to this platform,” he said.
“There’s a whole new set of people who were online shopping that have never shopped online before.”
Faculty also recognizes that now is a sensitive time to launch a brand and connect with a new consumer base. “Personally, I don’t want to be known as the company that basically capitalized on a pandemic. Like I want my first 10,000 customers to be the people who buy our products because they love Faculty,” ElBably said.
And brands’ online presence may be more scrutinized than ever, as a result of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. If they weren’t already ahead of the game on progressive issues, or are pretending to have been, customers will notice. “I think, especially with a lot of the social and political issues going on behind Black Lives Matters and Pride Month, because they have the time, they get to see if a brand who says that they’re inclusive, is actually showing the actions to begin with.”
Brands who weren’t engaging with customers online prior to the pandemic might be at a disadvantage in trying to reach new customers now — but that doesn’t mean they can’t attempt to engage, rather that they need to come armed with reliable information.
Talk is cheap
Spread across a wide array of demographics and platforms, the online beauty community is both highly profitable and highly contentious. But above all, it’s knowledgeable. Perhaps no platform better encapsulates the breadth and depth of the online beauty knowledge base better than r/SkincareAddiction, the subreddit forum dedicated to all things skincare.
“We were noticing a lot of men were going to Reddit for skincare advice, and I think the biggest thing is like, Reddit already kind of attached itself as a culture of no BS,” says Kim.
A quick perusal through the platform will reveal users discussing new launches like Fenty Skincare, in-depth discussions on ingredients like Vitamin C and retinol and personal chats on skincare as a source of personal transformation amid worldwide chaos. And those users are well ahead of the curve in terms of gender inclusivity in beauty, with threads dedicated to welcoming male users and acknowledging the diversity in gender across the platform.
“Expert-driven formulation or more reviews are definitely becoming I think much more higher converting than the usual, look at this cool influencer clout, right? I think people are definitely seeking more expert-driven advice,” Kim says.
Looking at products from a scientific perspective also reveals holes in the market. “The medical field, like the science of dermatology, is built on white men,” says Boateng. “People of color are overdiagnosed with eczema, hyperpigmentation. They are more often represented in the sort of patients who have scarring.”
Boateng wanted formula to be at the forefront at his brand, and consequently developed Ceylon with Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, president of the Skin of Color Society and professor of dermatology at Howard. “I think that there’s this idea that ingredients are the most important. And ingredients are super important, but if I tell you that something has this particular ingredient that doesn’t actually tell me whether or not it’s going to be effective, but we’ve somehow been convinced that it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s about formulation structure. It’s about molecule sizes. It’s about the way in which different ingredients are actually put together to help work with one another to achieve certain things.”
With such an emphasis on scientific expertise, it’s not surprising that influencer endorsements rank so low in terms of motivation to purchase product, with just 3 percent of male respondents selecting it as a potential motivation (women slightly preferred it, with 5 percent of female respondents, but the percentage goes up to 36 percent for non-binary and gendequeer respondents). “The best brands out there, they don’t need influencers,” Boateng said.
“The best brands out there, they don’t need influencers.”
Kim notes that the gaming-centric community her brand caters to approaches buying many products in the same way they buy their game — with ample research. “They’re already savvy online shoppers to begin with, because that’s how they grew up.”
Quarantine measures can offer a chance for men to experiment, but also, thanks to such a bevy of resources, educate themselves. As such, brands must be equally knowledgeable.
What’s left on the table
Increased time alone may have given many more chances to experiment with new hobbies or activities. But has it pushed men outside of their comfort zone? Not particularly. According to our survey, only 4 percent of men purchased cosmetic products like concealer or eyebrow pencil for the first time since quarantine measures began, and 53 percent said they haven’t experimented with products in the skincare, fragrance, nail polish or cosmetics categories for the first time in the past few months. That said, 37 percent did indicate they had experimented with skincare products for the first time.
And men aren’t applying makeup to appear on video, even if they may be spending more time on screen. Only 2 percent of male respondents said they applied makeup to improve their appearance for a video interaction, compared to 40 percent of women and 54 percent of non-binary or genderqueer respondents. And it’s not as though men don’t do anything to improve their appearance to appear on screen; 54 percent of men reported that they change their clothing, 37 percent style their hair and 30 percent adjust their background.
Koh, whose EVENPRIME brand relies on a community-driven beta testing program to develop new products, notes as well that her audience isn’t asking for other products associated with the coronavirus crisis. “Surprisingly, we haven’t seen as high of an interest I think in the personal hygiene categories, I would say, like hand sanitizer, or hand cream. Most of the focus has definitely been on just more advanced products.”
The Faculty co-founders did initially want to launch their brand with a concealer, which may have appealed to that narrow slice of male consumers who are dabbling in makeup for their Zoom chats. “Our first product was supposed to be a concealer, which would have made a lot of sense for like Zoom. What we keep continually hearing is guys are actually buying concealer now because they’re looking at their faces all day,” ElBably said.
But concealer is a capital-heavy product to develop they say, as it requires formulating a wide variety of shades to launch. The financial impact of the coronavirus crisis meant they had to switch gears and decided instead to debut their brand with a nail polish.
“We’re looking at the people who we believe pushed menswear online. Whether it’s Luka Sabbat, or Virgil Abloh, or even figures like Post Malone, A$AP Rocky, all these individuals are all wearing nail polish,” ElBably said. “And we were sitting there thinking, you know if anyone’s going to learn how to know how to use nail polish, now is probably a better time than ever, because you have so much time to sit at home.”
To appeal to their target audience the duo are following the streetwear playbook: the limited-edition, shorty supply drop model, starting with Drop: 01, Moss, which will be followed by further exclusive nail varnish colors released in small quantities in coming months. “Like, who has ever thought of dropping an exclusive nail polish?” ElBably asked. “It would just wouldn’t be as cool if we just had like a bunch of different colors, and you could get as many as you want.”
Their use of such a model isn’t totally unheard of in makeup, however. When Pat McGrath launched her brand in 2015, she did so with a single product: Gold 001, which sold out in mere minutes. MAC, which has long since released limited-edition, quick selling collections, is also wading into the drop model to a select loyalty group.
“If anyone’s going to learn how to know how to use nail polish, now is probably a better time than ever, because you have so much time to sit at home.”
Going with a nail polish first is something of a risk; only 4 percent of respondents to our survey reported they had experimented with nail polish for the first time in recent months.
But perhaps that’s what makes it the perfect category to experiment with. Whether men aren’t dipping their toenail into the word of nail polish because they just aren’t interested, or because there isn’t a product that speaks to them remains to be seen. Gold pigment wasn’t exactly the most needed product when Pat McGrath launched her line either, but it set the groundwork for a $1 billion USD brand.