What’s Got Beauty Brand Fans So Nostalgic?
From the ‘50s-style branding of Benefit to the 140-year success of Vaseline, the beauty industry is steeped in nostalgia – both authentic and artificial. Techniques, products and entire brands are built on days gone by, but why are beauty brand fans looking at the past with rose-tinted specs?
“So strobing is the new contour,” enthuses Kim Kardashian in a make-up tutorial for her app.  And it’s true that Kim, in all her selfie-snapping perfection, has been credited in part for the surging sales of highlighter – integral to the strobing make-up technique – which were up 48% in the first eight months of 2015. 
But as renowned beauty journalist and co-founder of BeautyMART Anna-Marie Solowij points out, strobing dates back a little further than the day Kim signed up to Instagram. “Back in 2000, MAC launched a creamy, iridescent highlighter that made skin look dewy and they called it Strobe Cream,” she writes in a blog post for BeautyMART. “MAC was picking up on the music trends and rave scene where strobe lighting played over the dance floor to visually enhance the electronic aspect of the music.”  And even before then, that luminescent complexion is easily spotted in the space-inspired ‘60s stylings of Paco Rabanne, or even in the old Hollywood glamour of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
“You’re constantly able to renew an old story within the world of beauty. There will always be an older consumer who has memories of it and a younger consumer creating memories for the next generation”
Anna-Marie Solowij, beauty journalist and co-founder of BeautyMART
Whether it’s Kim’s adoption of old school beauty tricks or the application methods lovingly passed down through generations, the beauty world – techniques, products and sometimes entire brands – is wrapped up in the romance of aesthetics long past. “You’re constantly able to renew an old story with beauty,” says Solowij. “There will always be an older consumer who has memories of it and a younger consumer creating memories for the next generation.” And while sometimes that younger consumer will knowingly adopt this pearl of wisdom – as with those generational secrets – often she’ll be encountering it for the first time.”They’ll recognise some retro packaging and they’ll think, ‘oh that’s cool’,” says Solowij. “They almost don’t give a damn that these products have a history.” 
This is because nostalgia can take so many different forms. “Nostalgia isn’t necessarily dependent upon experience,” explains semiotician Alex Gordon. “Certainly, deep nostalgia can be evoked for those who actually lived through a specific period; what you might call authentic nostalgia. Then, you have what you could call artificial nostalgia; imagined nostalgia for those who never lived through it. It’s about an idea of a time period rather than an experience of it.” Whether for older products or new, to older women or young, beauty brands are leveraging nostalgia to nourish meaningful connections with consumers. And with the average British woman splurging £100,000 on the contents of her make-up bag over the course of a lifetime, it seems like it’s working.  So what’s got beauty buffs holding onto the past?
A blast from the past
When ‘70s supermodel Margaux Hemingway graced television screens with flowing golden locks, adorned with an oversized neck-tie and armed with a bottle of Babe perfume by Fabergé, teen girls went wild as they clamoured to get a hold of the scent. “I used to wear it,” remembers Solowij, reminiscing over the commercial. “It was one of the first lifestyle fragrances. And now, it’s been revived.”  Yes, for £25, the modern Babe will be able to get hold of the iconic ‘70s scent, too.
And Babe isn’t alone. Numerous beauty brands are enjoying a revival. While some have been refreshed to align with modern tastes – Tribe is a ‘90s scent that’s similarly been dusted off – others are relying on long years lying dormant for a boost of authenticity. “I think there’s a lot of value in heritage,” says Solowij. “Whether those are brands with heritage or whether they’re selling heritage as an idea.” 
Look at Pommade Devine, the 300-year-old beauty brand once used by the women in the court of King Louis XIV, that’s reappeared on the shelves in 2015.  “It’s an old-fashioned British apothecary with real history that was very popular, but then just sort of disappeared,” says Solowij. “And because of its heritage, it has value now.”  In the same way that fashion brands like Biba and luxurious French trunk maker Moynat – which lay dormant for 34 years – have been reborn to audiences seduced by brands with rich, authentic histories, beauty labels are increasingly finding they have the same cachet. 
Passed down through generations
Some brands simply never died. While Parisian make-up brand Guerlain – born in 1828 – is as popular as it ever was, still stocking the exact shade of lipstick Marilyn Monroe once wore, US brand Skin Trip, which was launched in 1971, also continues to thrive.  “My mother wore it since the time I was a little girl,” writes one brand fan. “As soon as I figured it out, I’ve worn it ever since.” 
The nostalgia that trickles down through the generations is subtle, but powerful, brand enforcement. And for cosmetics brands, whose products are often entrenched in ritual – whether it’s sitting in your grandmother’s room as she applies that familiar-smelling moisturiser, or your mother teaching you how to apply mascara – this is especially important.
“The application of cosmetics is – or at least was – often a ritual that was passed down from mother to daughter. Every time you repeat that ritual you return to that moment of learning with your mother”
Alex Gordon, semiotician
“Rituals perform a dual purpose,” says Gordon. “They’re connected to our performance and behaviours today, but they’re also a reminder of the past and the people who passed them down to us. Particularly with cosmetics, the application is – or at least was – often a ritual that was passed down from mother to daughter. Every time you repeat that ritual you return to that moment of learning with your mother.” 
In short, while these rituals are steeped in nostalgia, they’re still firmly rooted in the present. After all, Vaseline – which is more than 140 years old – didn’t maintain its position as one of the most popular moisturising brands in the UK simply based on nostalgia.  Similarly to Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream or Pond’s Cold Cream, these products really work. And since 74% of consumers still trust word of mouth more than most other sources, older generations are simply another, more experienced set of mouths to trust. 
It’s not polite to ask a beauty brand her age
What if your brand doesn’t have heritage to fall back on? So what? Whether it’s the somewhat ambiguous but nevertheless old-timey aesthetic of Burt’s Bees products, or the girlish, ‘50s, Mad Men-style signature of Benefit and Soap & Glory, plenty of brands are simply lying about their age nowadays.
“It’s all about nostalgic design tropes,” says Gordon. “They’re simultaneously locating their brands in the present and in a historical period. They’re a reminder of the origins and they take the consumer back to that period of time; colours, fonts, symbolic shapes – like the use of paisley for the ‘60s and ‘70s – these can all be used in both communications and packaging to form a bridge between the present and in the past – and the cultural values of that past.” 
“For those who lived through those times, nostalgia is grounded in actual experience, but for those that didn’t, it’s grounded in a sort of wistful nostalgia for a period they didn’t live through, but which they love for its cultural value”
Alex Gordon, semiotician
It’s apparent on the packaging of Babe and Tribe, which have maintained their old aesthetics to remind women of their history. But it’s similarly apparent in wholly contemporary brands. While Stiks Cosmetiks’ lipsticks boast a retro futuristic aesthetic that Paco Rabanne would be proud of, products by MDMFlow have a distinctly ‘90s flavour – all gold packaging and hip-hop-esque fonts.
These falsely nostalgic designs often appeal to a falsely nostalgic consumer. “There are two different ways of creating a relationship with a period of time and the symbolic values attached to that period,” says Gordon. “For those who lived through those times, they’re grounded in actual experience, but for those that didn’t, they’re grounded in a sort of wistful nostalgia for a period they didn’t live through, but which they love for its cultural value.”  And if you weren’t there to remember it, are you really going to care that the brand wasn’t either? Probably not.
Insights and opportunities
It’s natural for humans to look back at the past more fondly than the present. Studies show that people exhibit strong views of the past, even though the experience of their emotions at the time may have faded.  It makes sense for brands to harness the power of those positive associations. “As human beings we have such a sense of security when we think about the past,” says Solowij. “We see this golden halo around the past; things were better not worse, even when they were worse.” 
This isn’t just for our own experiences of the past, but for the cultural value of specific time periods – whether it’s the success of Coca-Cola’s relaunch of Surge or the sudden popularity of board game cafés among tech-fatigued 20-somethings who barely remember a time before the internet. “Look at Downton Abbey,” says Gordon. “Very few of its audience lived through that time period, but there’s a nostalgia for it because of the values it evokes, because of the idea of what Britain represented, because of the social context. We’re nostalgic for that period, regardless of whether we lived through it, because of the symbolic value, both morally and stylistically.” 
And beauty brands have an even more specific affiliation with the romance of days gone by. “Many women will have grown up watching their mum get ready at a dressing table with all these potions and pots,” says Solowij.  Even for younger generations who potentially didn’t experience that romance, it’s a trope that appears in cinema, television and stories told by family members the world over.
“Beauty products are transformative. There’s a magical quality about that; the smell, the touch, the texture. And how every woman uses a product, it’ll make every woman look different in a different way”
Anna-Marie Solowij, beauty journalist and co-founder of BeautyMART
It’s exemplified by the popularity of red lipstick among young Russian women, which has been attributed in part to the way Russian Gen Yers have romanticised the Soviet era as a better time. “Being a reference to the Soviet past, red lipstick has become a clear symbol of this artificially created nostalgic play,” writes Marina Simakova for Semionaut. 
When women wear certain beauty products, they’re given a sense of control; control over their appearance and control over the way they feel about their appearance. Studies show that not only can wearing make-up give the wearer a temporary confidence boost, but that this minimal boost can actually boost how attractive the wearer is perceived by others.  Given that studies also show that a positive self-image is the most important factor in happiness, make-up’s role in a woman’s life is intrinsically emotional. 
“Beauty products can change the way you look, and they can change the way you feel,” says Solowij. “They’re transformative, and there’s a magical quality about that – the smell, the touch, the texture. And how every woman uses a product, it will make every woman look different in a different way because everybody is unique.”  And when you’re applying that product in 20 years time, no doubt it’ll make you feel the same way it does today.
Lore Oxford is Canvas8’s deputy commissioning editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. Since joining Canvas8 she’s investigated youth tribes and media consumption for brands like Guinness and MTV.
1. ‘Kim Kardashian is missing from Kim Kardashian’s new make-up tutorials’, Jezebel (September 2015)
2. ‘The end of contouring? Sales of STROBING make-up boom as women continue their quest for the perfect selfie… inspired by Kim Kardashian’, Mail Online (September 2015)
3. ‘Strobe school’, BeautyMART (August 2015)
4. Interview with Anna-Marie Solowij conducted by author
5. Interview with Alex Gordon conducted by author
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11. ‘The Vaseline Story’, Vaseline (2015)
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