Inspired by the street: what brands can learn from the beauty and luxury skincare industry

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director
SK-II Pitera Limited Edition packaging

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director

The street. A constant, ever-evolving source of inspiration. From architecture to art, store fronts to wayfinding and, of course, the people and cultures inhabiting it, we’ve always found our muse at street level.

For us, observing and speaking with people in their real-life environments provides much deeper, more valuable insights than, say, reading a consumer report. You can better understand motivations and pain points, and you can authentically uncover what people actually think and believe in. It’s what we’ve coined our unique ‘Back Alley Insights’ approach, and it comes directly from the street.

And now, more than ever, the street is influencing brands.

Arguably the most obvious example of street influence can be seen in the fashion industry. When it comes to the luxury end of the scale, high fashion brands are getting in on the act by referencing street style in their collections (we’re looking at you, Balenciaga), or through collaborations. Supreme x Louis Vuitton’s collab in 2017 is a great example, and pre-owned pieces continue to sell for multiple times their original price today. During the most recent New York Fashion Week, Harper’s Bazaar claimed that “Street Style Is Back, Baby!”. Did it ever really go away?

Our fashion choices are all about self-expression, wrapped up in how we want people to perceive us, and this trend is seeping into other aspects of how we present ourselves to the world. Just look at the beauty industry. The meteoric rise of Rihanna’s street-inspired Fenty Beauty brand, launched in partnership with luxury goods company LVMH in 2017, sold $100m in the first 40 days. Successfully transporting Rihanna into the billionaire’s club, the brand proved so successful that it has now expanded into the world of skincare, with Fenty Skin launching at the end of 2020.

The skincare challenge

As the Fenty team will have navigated, the world of skincare comes with its own unique set of brand challenges. Where many people are happy to try out different trends in fashion, leisure, food and drink, if you ask how often they try new things in their skincare routine, the overwhelming response will be “hardly ever”.

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of “Skinfluencers”, a trend identified by Clarkston Consulting, with consumers increasingly turning to influencers on TikTok and Instagram for advice on the latest skincare products to buy and regimes to follow. And it’s no surprise that this is where consumers now go for recommendations when you look at how luxury skincare brands appear in retail, traditionally the place to try new products and make purchase decisions.

In the likes of Sephora and Ulta Beauty, with row upon row of products all vying for attention, it can feel overwhelming if you don’t know specifically what product you’re looking for. Shelves tend to be brand-blocked and the easiest option, therefore, tends to be to stick with what you know. And in department stores, where every brand is trying to sell you “the secret to perfect skin” whilst conforming to similar design codes, the floor becomes a sea of sameness and nothing really stands out. Again, consumers revert to old habits and re-buy the same old tried-and-tested products.

So the question is: how do you stand out in a category that largely looks and behaves the same? How do you convince people to try something new to grow a skincare brand, particularly in the luxury category where a high price point puts up an additional barrier?

SK-II Pitera: On The Streets

When we were given the challenge of helping premium skincare brand SK-II appeal to a younger generation of consumers who are still finding their way with skincare routines, naturally we turned to the street. Our Back Alley Insights approach enabled us to really understand the brand’s Asian millennial target audience, who choose brands that celebrate self-expression, and don’t hold them to confined beauty standards.

Landing on our big idea that “individuality is the new luxury,” we connected our insights back to street art – the ultimate in self-expression. The resulting designs for the SK-II Pitera Limited Edition range balance bold, raw street art energy with premium packaging cues to deliver a unique set of three aspirational packs where everyone can find the one that speaks to them.

Proving hugely successful, our work on this range has since had a halo effect across the SK-II portfolio, and it has been recognized with two Gold awards at Pentawards and a first place at The Dieline Awards.

Learnings for Brands: A Checklist

As demonstrated here, Limited Editions can be an effective tool in your brand building kit. We’ve put together a checklist for other things that brand owners should consider when looking to connect with new audiences and grow their brand:

  • Take inspiration from outside of your category, and what’s happening on the street. Dig out those Back Alley Insights to really get to the heart of what your audience cares about. This will become the backbone of your strategy, and your brand design agency partner can help you draw meaningful insights from wider category and cultural references.
  • Tap into culture. Balenciaga recently showcased its latest collection at Paris Fashion Week with The Simpsons. A brave move that really pushed boundaries, this activation puts the fun back into fashion, and positions the luxury brand in a uniquely inclusive way. All of which takes us nicely onto…
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. As we’ve explored here, creating an LTO or LEP can be a great way to get out of your comfort zone and appeal to new audiences, without having to completely overhaul your brand. 
  • Seek out new channels for distribution and trial opportunities. Subscription box samples, for example, can be particularly effective in the skincare, beauty, snacks and drinks categories.
  • Consider influencers in your marketing mix. Partnering with influential voices with large social media followings can be a great way to get your product in front of new audiences and grow your brand.

When it comes to brand design, it’s important to take a holistic 360 approach and create a strong, authentic visual identity and key brand assets that can flex across any medium and touchpoint. But that doesn’t mean that you have to conform.

To succeed in your category and grow your audience, embrace what makes your brand unique as well as what makes your consumers tick, and showcase this through how you present yourself to the world. Now is the time to shine and do something that really makes you stand out from the crowd.

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director