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Too-Big-To-Fail Beauty Brands

February 15, 2017


Where do we begin the conversation? The foundation category, the part every beauty nerd obsesses over, should have a proper paradise. A dedicated platform where every product is neatly filed… and searchable.

Now that they’re all filed in this database, it’s remarkably clear that three brands rise to the top of the heap. Beneath them, more than 100 brands also contend for our dollars.

Considering three factors:

1. Number of formulas
2. Variety among those formulas
3. Color range offered

Pigment File’s Big Three players are MAC, Clinique, and Covergirl.

Each offers a comprehensive and inclusive inventory, putting them under the too-big-to-fail umbrella. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re the most innovative, most loved, or even the “best selling.”

I hesitate to put Covergirl on the same too-tall pedestal as MAC and Clinique. It’s almost irresponsible considering the transitions happening at the brand. Following P&G’s announcement that Covergirl would be sold to Coty, a 15-month transaction commenced. (Who can even keep up?) It may be years before outsiders can measure what Coty’s ownership really means. But right now, by the standards above, Covergirl is still Big Three worthy.

As for MAC and Clinique, they’re nestled snuggly inside Estee Lauder Companies’ cocoon. I suppose that means Estee Lauder wins the skin category and looking at the data, it’s rightfully earned the leading spot.

Then, data aside, marketing also puts MAC and Clinique in the powerhouse category. Beauty execs insist that a brand’s success is dependent upon steering along one of two marketing routes. In Playing to Win, A.G. Lafley describes them concisely:

1. Perfectly in tune with current fashion culture, or
2. Clearly defined cosmetic benefits

MAC and Clinique are leading the pack down their respective paths.

Both paths are hard, and a brand may step into the other path from time to time. Fashion’s ideas and trends are dependent upon the changing worldview of a few humans. They rise and fall quickly. If a beauty company seems to ignore fashion trends, that effort is intentional, as their strategy doesn’t depend upon it. Other visual cues can be used to signal that a thing is current, contemporary and “fresh.” Science! Studies! Rooted in promises, the cosmetic benefits angle is just as capricious as customers become accustomed to examining crowdsourced product reviews.

MAC responds to every fashion and beauty trend within a calendar year. Launching products into the permanent inventory or satisfying fans with their well-known strategy of limited edition collections. So, analyzing MAC’s global inventory is exhausting. It’s so extensive that U.S. critics tend to scoff at MAC’s launches and parrot “quantity over quality,” while overlooking the voids that the frequent releases fill. It’s sold in over 105 countries. I’ve been walking through retail districts in countries where MAC is the only standalone cosmetic store. In those settings, MAC’s offering doesn’t feel excessive. US customers simply have access to everything and the brand’s marketing reaches every crevice of our internet.

Above, a visualization from Pigment File’s release calendar. 

It’s harder to see at first glance that Clinique also has a giant inventory. Instead of showcasing the abundance that’s available, Clinique ads present a tight edit of uncomplicated formulas. In the brand’s cheerful tone, a relevant recommendation is given to each demographic, “Hey, look at this one, simple thing. So easy.” Sold in over 100 countries, Clinique may be giving the master class in market segmentation.

The holiday ’16 collaboration between Lollicam, Clinique, and Gfriend, is one small example of targeting to a T. If you’re over 18 and haven’t heard of some of the words in that sentence, that may indicate Generation Z success.

Bottom line? When diving into the foundation market, these three brands are central to the conversation. They’re the foundation. (I know, couldn’t resist.)

–Keena Newell