Skin deep but in the psyche?

If beauty is a barometer of the social mood, the language brands use to communicate with consumers on a psychological level will provide the key to driving sales in the future, writes Bella Blissett

In 100,000 BC, women painted their bodies with red ochre to demonstrate their fertility. The Elizabethans used white lead to achieve an alabaster complexion signifying affluence and chastity. Today, according to a QVC study, the average woman spends £133,575 on her hair, face and body during her lifetime.

Centuries-worth of painting, plumping, brushing and slicking prove that beauty isn’t skin deep; it’s written all over the fragile walls of our psyche, dictating our conscious decisions and infiltrating our most subconscious of emotions.

“Beautification is a means of non-verbal communication – a form of unspoken dialogue that influences both our own sense of identity and the way that we are perceived by others,” says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford. “I call it the ‘stiletto effect’. Just like putting on a fabulous pair of heels, a pop of eye shadow or a touch of blusher makes us walk taller physically and metaphorically. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence.”

Beyond that there’s the pure pleasure factor. From the cool weight of Guerlain’s classic Rouge G lipstick as it nestles in your palm to the distinctive click of YSL’s Touche Éclat and the ritualistic spray of perfume before you leave the house, beauty brings us moments of sheer joy every single day.

With its seemingly unbreakable ties to our emotions, beauty has often been seen as a social barometer

It follows then that, if a brand is to seduce us into making a purchase, they must appeal as much to our emotions as they do to our eyes. As the recession continues and we question our every financial outlay, it may be words – not merely ingredients – that prove to be the most powerful weapon in a brand’s armoury.

“Using language that goes beyond merely describing a product’s physical benefits to create an authentic expression of its core values is the key to creating a successful consumer lifestyle brand,” says branding specialist and founder of The Kitchen Collaborative, Aniko Hill. “By establishing an emotional connection with women, cosmetic houses inspire trust and ultimately win the war of sales.”

So how have brands created a lexicon of beauty that bypasses the well-informed modern consumer’s natural cynicism and instead taps directly into her psyche?

“In the past, the beauty industry used quite pessimistic, fear-based word play to galvanise customers into buying,” says L’Oréal Paris general manager for the UK and Ireland, Gayle Tait, reflecting on the anti-ageing boom that begun in the early-Nineties. By its very definition, “anti-ageing” is an expression of negativity and one that inspires sentiments of waging war on wrinkles as we resist the inevitable march of time for fear of succumbing to the appearance of our senior years.

Yet the recession has seen brands take a more gentle, nurturing psychological tack by taking us on a sensory trip back in time to “the good old days”.

“It’s no coincidence that ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ have become buzzwords in a time of such economic uncertainty,” says Ms Beresford. “The past is always a much safer place psychologically because it’s a known entity. By reviving the scents, make-up shades and packaging design of our mother’s and grandmother’s generations, brands are satisfying our need for reassurance and surety.”

This year, Yardley London, founded in 1770, did just that by launching its first campaign for 16 years to raise brand awareness among a generation of 30-something women who may formerly have dismissed it as being passé, but now seek comfort in its manifestly nostalgic associations.

With its seemingly unbreakable ties to our emotions, beauty has often been seen as a social barometer. As reports of a double dip emerge, L’Oréal’s recent study into skin care certainly takes the current temperature of consumers.

After being deprived of their products for 24 hours, women were asked to record how they felt. Words such as “dull”, “lifeless” and “dirty” were accompanied by images of desiccated leaves and sandpaper. Within a day of having their skin care restored, it was sunlit beaches, shiny satin ribbons and iridescent pearls, plus words like “happy”, “sexy”, “fresh” and “bright”, that filled the minds of study participants.

The underlying message seems to be that when it comes to beauty today, we want to see the light – literally. And everything from Estée Lauder’s new Idealist Even Skintone Illuminator to the shine-inducing Microlight technology in Wella’s Illumina hair colour – not to mention light-rebounding capabilities of the increasingly popular blemish balm (BB) cream category – are testimony to the fact that words like “brightening”, “radiance” and “luminosity” are paramount in the new language of beauty. L’Oréal Paris is even updating its iconic Elnett hairspray with a new Satin Lumiére version that comes with the tagline: “Catch the Light with Legendary Hold”.

As a concept, luminosity is less about anti­-ageing and more about pro-youth; a mindset that very much fits with today’s cultural aesthetic, says Selfridges beauty buyer Jayne Demuro, “Instead of aspiring to appear ten years younger and erase wrinkles, women want to look the best they can, whoever they are and whatever their age. Looking radiant is attainable whether you’re 16 or 76,” she says.

Emotional language of beauty products

Psychotherapist and psychodermatologist Linda Papadopoulos decodes beauty’s best-loved advertising slogans

“Does she… or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure” (Clairol, 1957): “Hair is the most malleable part of our body – we often change it after a time of crisis. This slogan empowers a woman with the ability to alter it in a way that’s so natural it remains her little secret.”

“Because you’re worth it” (L’Oréal Paris): “This instils women with a sense of entitlement. The consumer feels she can – and deserves – to be beautiful.”

“The make-up of make-up artists” (Max Factor): “Recently, the ‘expert’ has become the cornerstone of many brands’ marketing approaches. This inspires trust in the consumer, making her believe that she’s gaining exclusive access to the secrets of professionals.”

“Pretty Powerful” (Bobbi Brown): “This turns on its head the old method of making women feel bad about their appearance to encourage them to buy a product and instead hands control to the consumer. Today’s woman makes her own beauty rules.”