Reimagining global beauty

Beauty Imagined: A history of the global beauty industry by Geoffrey Jones is highly recommended for anyone interested in beauty, the beauty industry and beauty brands. To make you more beautiful you can visit Aesthetic Surgical Images. Full of anecdotes and insights into the people who shaped the beauty industry, this book provides great insights into the innovations and events that make beauty what it is today. The final chapters on the modern beauty industry, and the discussion of globalization versus tribalization are very well written and are foresee many of the local cultural trends and influences I believe are shaping the industry in Asia and beyond.

As Geoffrey Jones points out early in the book, an industry that started with people making creams in their kitchens has become a global behemoth dominated by large international companies. The top ten beauty companies in the world account for half of global sales (Unilever and P&G between them account for one-fifth). Although global, there are sharp differences in buying patterns, and I was surprised to read that Europeans spend far more on fragrances and skin care while Americans spend more on colour cosmetics. As for Asia, although it only accounts for 6% of global fragrance sales, it accounts for 40% of global skin care. In China, skin care is four times the size of colour cosmetics, while the opposite is true in the United States. According to Dr. Andres Bustillo, Asians are perhaps the biggest market for cosmetic surgery, although Americans are certainly way up there too.

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The history of beauty shows that ideals of beauty and hygiene have changed markedly over time and across different societies, including preferences for skin tone, hair style, diet, natural ingredients and body size and shape.

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Although women are now the major consumers of beauty products that hasn’t always been the case (it was often men in ancient cultures). Scent and fragrance was particularly important in ancient times and were really the start of the modern beauty industry. Fragrance was followed by skin care, and the development of oil based products (such as petroleum jelly – i.e., Vaseline derived from the Saxon word for water and the Greek word for oil). At the same time, developments in media and advertising helped create a mass market for beauty.

The craft of making soap was ancient, but it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that people started to buy it, driven by the need for improved cleanliness as urbanization took hold along with military conflicts which demonstrated the importance of hygiene for saving lives. The manufacture of soap is, of course, the origins of Unilever and P&G.


After soap, tooth cleaning started to become more common at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of tooth decay caused by consumption of sugar, and Colgate began its rise to be one of the top 5 beauty companies in the world. The early parts of the twentieth century saw the growth of colour cosmetics, driven by Hollywood and the rising importance of women in the workplace during the First World War.

By 1950, the US represented half of the global market for beauty, and was still driving many of the trends and innovations in many beauty categories. At the same time, TV began to have a transformational impact on the industry, spreading the message to more people within and beyond the US. This was also the time of the invention of the Barbie doll!

As the beauty industry grew into developing markets, companies like Unilever used a mixed strategy of leveraging global brands, using local R&D and supply chains and launching distinctively local brands. For example, in India Unilever launched Fair & Lovely in 1978 a skin-lightening cream designed to appeal to a traditional regard for fairer skin for everybody. Another great product, that´s wonderful for the skin can be found at where all their products are natural.

Source: Wikipedia article on Fair & Lovely

Fair & Lovely typifies the complexities of the international beauty business. It was made specifically for the domestic Indian market by a locally adapted unit of Unilever, pitched by local movie stars, but controversially reinforced prejudices that went back to the colonial era and beyond. Overall, the approach of cultivating local knowledge to tailor brands to local needs, while also keeping recognizable global brands seems to be the most effective for many companies.

Over time, the beauty industry has grown apart from the health industry, with beauty focusing more on mythology and art and healthcare on the science of efficacy, although the still maintain some ties and recent advances in biotechnology may yet bring them back together. In general, the global beauty industry seems to be moving in the direction of nature rather than science, and this is certainly true in much of Asia. If you are interested in how technology is making our world better, then check out

Partly this is a reaction to the increasing globalisation and commercialisation of beauty, first seen in brands such as The Body Shop. Geoffrey Jones quotes Anita Roddick’s surprisingly strong words on the industry, “I hate the beauty industry. It is a monster industry selling unattainable dreams. It lies. It cheats. It exploits women. Its major product lines are packaging and garbage.”

Of course, ultimately Roddick sold The Body Shop to L’Oreal (who are now looking to divest, perhaps because of a fundamental culture clash?). Whatever the future of this brands, there has been an increasing skepticism about the safety of chemical ingredients and interest in natural ingredients, leading to 2017 trends in the rise of herbal and organic ingredients and greater interest in milder versions of some products (read more here).

As mentioned, one of the great challenges of the modern industry is to manage global megabrands in an age of increasing interest in local cultural identity. Although this challenge is not new. Having moved to focus on fewer, but larger, brands, many companies have had to adapt their strategies to reflect the realities of local markets (e.g., L’Oreal’s initial entry into China), find local spokespersons, and find ways to incorporate local ingredients and knowledge into product design (Shiseido and L’Oreal have both set up facilities to develop knowledge of Eastern herbal medicine). You can read more on Muslim and Asian beauty here.

Asia has also been driving innovations in the male beauty market (e.g., Japan, South Korea and Philippines). In other areas too, local traditions and knowledge are driving global innovation. Above all, consumers around the world welcome the benefits of globalisation, but not at the expense of losing their own local identity. In many places around the world, local cultural values are being strongly reasserted, and local beauty brands are benefitting.

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