Male beauty: why one size does not fit all

Design Team Leader Matt Avery discusses the changing attitudes towards male beauty and what brands need to do to catch up.

By Matt Avery
Posted 22. 01. 2018
Covergirl james charles

The male beauty retail offer needs some serious love. Compared to its female counterpart it can look like an afterthought; a few shelves tucked away at the back of the store that if you’re lucky have been sprayed grey and given a ‘manly’ wooden trim. Perhaps this is down to the misconception that men aren’t as interested in beauty products as women – so why give over the space? Indeed in global sales figures the men’s beauty category trails far behind that of women’s, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested! A poorly communicated product offer in an uninspiring and unrepresentative shopping experience referencing tired masculine clichés, combined with societal worries over whether it’s ok for men to take an interest in beauty, all have a negative effect on sales.

However things are starting to change. The once monumental barrier between masculinity and beauty has begun to crumble, in fact, we’ve talked about beauty’s ‘menaissance’ before, but this menaissance has been restricted to very niche or high-end brands. Isn’t it far time the high street began to capitalise on the sizable shifts that have taken place?

Beauty brand Hims's fresh art direction

Modern masculinity

What exactly does it mean to be a man? It’s a complex question that warrants an article of its own. Whilst traditional notions of the strong, silent and rugged type are true for some, they’re not true for everyone. Yes, in the 20th century, the discourse around gender did advance with notable people (I’m thinking the likes of David Bowie and Prince) challenging traditional connotations of masculinity, however, today these progressive conversations are being had louder than ever. Perhaps this is because of the advances in technology (the birth of the Internet, the smartphone and social media). Ordinary people who challenge the status quo suddenly have a voice that reaches millions, catapulting issues around gender, sex and sexuality into the mainstream at an unprecedented rate…whatever the reason, big changes are starting to emerge.

A recent YouGov study is a case in point. It found that only 2% of young British men aged between 18-24 said they define themselves as totally masculine, this is compared to a much larger 56% aged 65 and over. Some brands are starting to recognise this shift. Gillette for instance recently sponsored Southbank Centre’s ‘Being a Man’ festival in London. Now in its fifth year, this three-day festival held talks, events and performances aimed at uncovering the changing nature of modern masculinity and asked the question ‘what makes a man?’

Gillette is not only shining a well-needed light onto a complex subject but also signalling a desire to move away from the image of chiselled, muscular manhood it has long been associated with.

Gillette Presents: Being a Man from Kode Media.

In a similar vein, last year Lynx launched its brilliant ‘Is it ok for Guys…’ campaign in association with four men’s charities. The advert focuses on the statistic that 57% of men have been told how a ‘real man’ should behave and highlights popular questions starting with “is it ok for guys…” that are typed into Google. For example “Is it ok for guys to wear pink?” etc. When I try this for myself Google autocompletes the sentence with: to be fat? to be skinny? to wear makeup?

Appearance is undeniably important for a lot of men.

Lynx – Is it OK for guys… from P&S.

The look and feel

Whilst young men are starting to look ahead to a new era of masculinity, men’s beauty brands remain stuck in the past. We’re a diverse bunch, yet take a look at most men’s beauty sections, product selection and packaging and you’ll generally see a very specific tone of voice and design aesthetic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only two colours we respond to are charcoal and orange. Two brands approaching packaging differently are new men’s brand Scrubd and Toronto-based Deciem. Using soft highlight colours, textured paper and embossing, Scrubd’s packaging designed by BrandOpus is a welcome change from the usual design aesthetic seen with men’s products. Deciem, which as a brand has a particular tone of voice and personality, carries this through to their men’s packaging and avoids speaking in a hyper-masculine way. In store, men’s product is merchandised in the same way as women’s, with the brand’s signature apothecary-style interior equally suited to all genders.


The online offer

Compared to the high street, online tells a somewhat different story with some great ideas and concepts emerging in men’s beauty. The anonymity provided by purchasing online allows for judgment-free experimentation plus with the lacklustre offer on the high street, there is no better alternative experience-wise.

A brand challenging conventions is MMUK Man, a makeup brand designed by men for men. Stocking products from mascara, concealer and eyeliner to skincare and shaving essentials, this site has seen a huge increase in demand since its conception five years ago. Driven by a millennial and gen Z mindset, men’s makeup is now no longer seen as a niche category, for instance ASOS has picked up a selection of MMUK Man’s range, bringing it to the mainstream and also providing video tutorials on how men can apply it.

Covergirl beauty ad

On the subject of makeup, L’Oreal, Maybelline and CoverGirl have all recently taken notice of this shift and now have male ambassadors and spokesmodels all of whom found fame first on either Instagram or YouTube, proving that the internet and social media are providing the platforms to drive this change. L’Oréal also predicts that in five to seven years we may well have dedicated male makeup counters in stores.

However, with MMUK Man poised to soon open its first bricks-and-mortar store I suspect we may see this sooner. New online brand Hims offers health and beauty products and advice for men. Straight-talking and uncomplicated, Hims currently tackles men’s issues such as hair-loss and sexual health but has plans to cover a full range of men’s issues including skin care. It sells its own branded direct-to-consumer products and presents them in a clear and non-stereotypical way that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The packaging is neutral and avoids falling into the charcoal trap of other brands.

Hims product

Brands nailing in-store beauty for men

I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the renaissance of the barbershop. Places like Ruffians, Murdock, Barber and Parlour and Ted’s Grooming Room all do a great job of pampering and grooming men. They offer a wonderful experience with up to an hour of hair and beard care, chat, grooming advice and beer! Although these generally all have a particular aesthetic and idea of masculinity, they provide a gateway to beauty for men, they’re a clearly defined and ‘acceptable’ entry point into the male beauty/grooming world.

Another good gateway example is Beast, a store that opened early 2017 on Earlham Street in London. Beast aims to counterbalance the small, uninspiring shelving units filled with a poor selection of generic products that dominated the men’s beauty offer by bringing together a selection of good quality products segmented in easy-to-navigate areas such as ‘Body’, ‘Face’ and ‘Shave’. These are then broken down into sub-categories such as ‘Concerns’, ‘Beard Oil’ and ‘Travel’.

The idea that really works here is that Beast might only carry one product from a particular brand and nothing else. This makes the whole experience feel curated and takes the uncertainty out of purchasing.

This approach is great, but is the higher price point accessible for guys on an average income? Where can men go to get a similar service that’s affordable? It’s here where a real opportunity lies. Beast fills the gap between high street and the very high-end but something needs to fill the gap between the dismal offer on the high street now and Beast’s offer. Why should any man have to resort to small, uninspiring and limited product displays on the high street? Elevating the in-store experience will elevate the product.

The men's beauty store Beast in Covent Garden

Just the beginning

It’s clear that there’s been an important, forward-thinking shift in society’s attitudes towards gender and masculinity, which will continue to affect how men shop. Some brands have started to acknowledge this and although it could be easy to dismiss their efforts as marketing tactics, if it furthers the conversation and helps change opinion then it’s no bad thing.

However the path to acknowledging that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to men (by both brands and men themselves) is a journey, a journey we’re still relatively new on. Furthermore, having an interest in beauty products and wanting to look good isn’t limited to people in a higher wage bracket. High street stores and brands need to start thinking about their male beauty offer now and ask themselves is it answering the wants and needs of this newly emerging and enlightened man?

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