Cosmetics is experiencing a dramatic shift. Traditionally make-up is surrounded by seriousness, focussing on make-up artist (MUA) quality and precision (think perfect Kardashian-style contouring!). Yet now we’re seeing a shift toward playful escapism – exemplified by TV phenomenom Euphoria, which is widely celebrated for its bold and experimental make-up looks. Likewise, nostalgic make-up which plays with norms and conventions of the 80s and 90s, are heavily trending (Pamela Anderson who’s having a huge moment right now!).

These aren’t daily ‘staple’ looks, but instead encourage identity play – trying out and having fun with something new regularly. It’s no coincidence that this desire to play with our looks (vs. perfect them) is emerging as we transition into post-pandemic life: after two years of restraint, we’re craving some hedonism - and the beauty category is seeing the consequences. Here we highlight 3 semiotic codes to explain the shift…


Make-up Artistry

The first is Make-up Artistry: a dominant code which has existed for a long time. From the likes of Max Factor ‘The Make-up of Make-up Artists’ through to newer brands like MORPHE Cosmetics - the overarching ‘promise’ of these brands is the same: professional quality. Culturally, this code originates from a time where professional make-up was harder to find - finally we could buy the magic formulas models and celebrities use!

These brands all use sleek black-and-white logos, suggesting high fashion but also professionalism. Product titles reference the ‘insider’ world of make-up artistry, e.g. MAC’s ‘Studio Fix Foundation’ implying it’s used exclusively prior to studio-based photoshoots. Make-up applicators are coined as ‘tools’ and everyday consumers become ‘artists.’

Product design is also restrained: there are no claims on the front of the pack, only the name and colour. It’s very serious, for serious make-up artistry - after all, professionals don’t need the branding efforts, they know the drill.

Brand websites are filled with macro images of eyes and lips, showcasing the precision of the eyeliner, or the perfect blend on the smokey eye. Achievement and mastery are the aspirations delivered by these brands.

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Care-free Cool

The next code is ‘Care-free Cool’. In contrast to professionalism, a raft of brands are promising low-effort and low maintenance beauty, encouraging subtle enhancements to your true self.

Underpinning this code is the cultural shift toward healthy lifestyles. Healthy skin has become a big flex, particularly amongst Millennials and Gen Z. We’re seeking out low effort solutions to make us feel good without the hassle and pressure of ‘getting it right’. The ‘clean’ look is born – very light make-up, real skin textures and marks (freckles, wrinkles) shining through but still appearing enviously fresh-faced; helped partly by the ‘golden hour’ sunlight shining directly on to our face.

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Models here become real people, taking selfies instead of studio shots. The natural girl-next-door smiles and glistens in the sun, exuding health through her pores.

Selena Gomez, in her brand Rare Beauty captures this in her romantic brand photography. Her blush is titled ‘Stay Vulnerable’, suggesting her make-up is so light it’s barely even there – the skin remaining untouched and ultimately untainted.

Product design is lighter, brighter and more approachable. White bottles are commonly used and feature small splashes of pastel tones; suggestive of simplicity and cleanliness with dashes of fun. Product formats are designed for quick application – from sticks to quickly ‘swipe’ on the face, to paint tubes encouraging us to add a thin tint of colour wherever takes our fancy. A far cry from fanciful tools and precision angles of the previous code’s ‘artistry’.

When it comes to brand positioning, brands like Glossier and ILIA all promise a more relaxed approach to make-up: ‘uncomplicated’ products you can wear on your skin all day, because they’re so light and flexible.

Joyful Worlds

The third code is Joyful Worlds. These brands are the antithesis to Glossier, creating bold, colourful and surreal brand universes. Rather than selling a perspective on what make-up should be (natural, clean / precise, professional), these brands are more of a spectacle: they’re selling escapism. Brands like UOMA, LEMONHEAD, MILK and even Kylie Cosmetics sit heavily in this code.

LEMONHEAD and MILK for example, use holographic designs to suggest a they’re part of a retro Sci-Fi universe. LEMONHEAD’ entire brand identity feels like a throwback from early internet culture – from the retro mouse cursor on their website, through to iconic product names like ‘Space Jam’. The out-there looks featured mirror those found in Euphoria (think neon eyeliner doodles, glitter eyeshadows and gems aplenty).

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Kylie Cosmetics’ brand universe on the other hand is unashamedly girly, wth her photoshoots set in a surreal pink world, with pink drips surrounding her. She, too, is playing on nostalgic tropes of femininity. Her lipstick packaging looks more like a retro sweet wrapper, harnessing the kid-in-a-candy-store excitement beauty lovers’ feel when buying new make-up. In concessions – everything is pink; and her face models all the products - we’re truly invited into the theatrics of her world.

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UOMA on the other hand is a black-owned business, with the goal to celebrate diversity and beauty at any colour. Colour is therefore the thread throughout their brand communications. Their concession in Harvey Nichols truly stands out from its surroundings, leveraging block blue colouring to capture our attention. They feature a screen streaming a beauty video that looks more like a music video straight from the 90s, with its pastel blue background and model sporting a pastel pink blazer and large hoop earrings. The stand delivers what’s lacking in the room: fun, particularly against the luxury seriousness that surrounds it.

What does this all mean for brands?

  • The beauty category is rapidly evolving, brands need to change cues to appeal to the younger generation – the generation driving trending beauty looks. Traditional codes of luxury and restraint lack the fun young people are craving for the category.
  • In a world where most consumers are skilled, MUA quality is requisite. Make-up skills are democratized thanks to the likes of YouTube and TikTok, meaning ‘high quality’ ‘professional’ products are simply a baseline expectation. Now, brands need to create a unique vibe to stand a chance of success.
  • As quality is a given it shouldn’t be the basis of brand positioning - consider identifying your brand personality and roll this out across communications to deliver an immersive feel.
  • In retail, traditional beauty concessions can be dull, counters intimidating, and staff may feel unapproachable with their specialist knowledge. Instead, create explorative environments that create ‘zones’ away from the rest of the store.

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