Colour of our skin

Is the beauty industry embracing global skin tones or does the colour palette for foundations still lack multi-ethnic perspective? Caroline Brien reports


Britain is changing colour. Based on latest forecasts from think-tank Policy Exchange, nearly a third of the population will be made up of people from ethnic minorities by 2050.

Yet cosmetics companies have been woefully slow to grasp this opportunity to offer the wide palette of shades required to satisfy diverse customers.

For decades, Fashion Fair and Iman, plus MAC with their “all races” ethos, were the only options for women of colour. Even today, for some foundation shoppers there’s unacceptable segregation.

In June, actress Thandie Newton took chemists Boots to task of the “ghettoization” of make-up by quickly taking darker shades of new ranges off the shelves in order to focus on better sellers. “The right shade is there for everybody, but you can only get it at specialised shops,” she says.

So just how far are research and innovation in colour pushing integration for foundation customers?

Premium brands are rethinking their colour spectrum, investing in the more-complex colour blending required for darker and Asian complexions. When YSL launched Le Teint Touche Eclat Foundation in 2012, the company started by identifying 7,000 skin tones, chose 700 shades that gave the widest cross-section and condensed the range to 22 final choices, in some instances almost tripling the options available elsewhere. Other forward-thinkers include Bobbi Brown, whose updated Skin Foundation Sticks now boast 24 shades.

This is certainly progress, although not altogether altruist. To be successful, cosmetics companies have to look beyond the traditional geography of skin tone and take heed of the changing economic global environment.

According to Euromonitor research, cases in point include Brazil, which is the third biggest beauty economy in the world, while the so-called MINT countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey are tipped as the next powerhouse economies, with beauty spending in Indonesia alone already soaring by 146 per cent between 2008 and 2013. For savvy retailers and cosmetics companies, the colour palette is key.

“Today there is more movement of people around the globe, making the demographics of markets much more diverse and multi-ethnic,” says Vic Casale, co-founder of Cover FX, who held “skin clinics” to match real tones when developing their vast array of foundation shades and undertones. “Offering products to match that diversity is no longer an option – it is a necessity.”

Department stores are making strides too. Harrods shopping app is available in Chinese, while Harvey Nichols has a strong presence in the Middle East and Turkey. Estée Lauder has 77 languages represented at UK counters with technology including iPads to cater for languages not spoken by their sales staff. Furthermore, they employ a cultural relevancy team to examine key trends within the beauty population by location and nationality, aiming to better serve regional shoppers’ needs.

As customers become not only more ethnically diverse, but also demanding, it’s time for beauty companies to galvanise and play catch-up if they want to see true beauty democracy – and sales – at the counter.