The Secret Ingredient is…Culture

Getting under the skin of purposeful, inspiring and helpful beauty brands to decode what sets them apart and how we design these cultural codes into brand experiences.

By Michelle Bower
Posted 22. 06. 2023
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We love beauty’s elastic edges and amorphous categorisation that expands all the time, leading to innovation in health and wellbeing, haircare, fragrance, dentalcare, aesthetic treatments, skincare, mental health, nutrition and edibles, therapies and education, wearables and refillables. Did we mention we love all things beauty?

Join us as we decode the secret ingredient of CULTURE - brands with a sense of place, acting on cultural insight to differentiate and put their local uniqueness on the global stage.

In this article we ask:

1) What is culture and why is it essential to a brand’s secret sauce?

2) How can we design cultural codes into a brand experience?

3) In a global economy, why do cultural exports need handling with care?

“Culture is the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour.” James Spradley
Secret Sauce
Culture is a slippery fish, hard to grasp and pin down without becoming cliché

Bottling and branding the cultural secret sauce

Try and describe the culture of your workplace, the culture of your friendship group, or the culture of your favourite holiday destinations. Culture is a slippery fish, hard to grasp and pin down without becoming cliché - but we can all point to its behaviours and ways of showing up even if we articulate it differently. We’re going to focus on the behaviours and the visible evidence of culture in beauty that helps brands build loyal communities and fans.

But first, let’s share a definition of culture from a people-centric point of view.

“Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, art. norms of behaviour, such as law and morality, and systems of belief."

When we at D&P define and create new brands, or reframe existing brands, we are ultimately looking to identify the opportunities to behave in a truly unique and inimitable way.

This takes a lot of questioning, and even more observing and listening. Because culture by its very definition is broad, nuanced and open to interpretation, we need a clear vision and experience framework to deliver a holistic and living brand experience that’s rooted in a sense of place and purpose.

Designing cultural codes into a brand’s DNA

Audiences in the beauty sector are curious, engaged, increasingly well-informed and connected to global trends and innovations, but they still seek the reassurance of a brand experience that is designed for their specific local needs, to feel seen, understood and valued. Customers are inundated with choice, so a novice or discerning audience needs to be crystal clear on why they should care about brand X over brand Y. For the brand, with cultural insights, it’s about being targeted and smart in prioritising your investment (in time, money and effort) to stand out in how and why you show up.

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Tira: A brand that can talk to a novice and expert on a level

Ahead of creating the ambitious new multibrand retail brand Tira Beauty in India for Reliance Group, we wanted to ensure that our new brand would speak and behave in a way that resonated with diverse Indian audiences, as a home-grown trusted destination for all things beauty.

Trust is built on relationships and human endorsement of busy and popular spaces for groups. The role of Tira in customer’s lives is their Beauty BFF - a best friend’s advice and playful nudges that want the best for you.

We created a tone of voice and experience that signalled we’re on your side, we value our time together and this is going to be fun!

Q. Which cultural insights inspired the creation of this new brand and its expression and experience?

Picking D&P’s beautiful brains: Tira Beauty team insights Q&A

It's always great to hear from the creative leads on the project as they give us an insight into what informed the development of a new brand.

Ed Nelson - Creative Director:
A. "Understanding that modern Indian women are increasingly financially independent, with better access to education and career advancement, they desire more organised sales channels."

"Coupled with rising online and social media adoption Tira provides a single omnichannel destination to discover trending products, advice on new looks and styles, impulse essentials and a platform for community engagement."

Blaze Perrigo - Design Lead, Brand Environments:
"We learned there is a high expectation of service level in India. Most beauty stores have 'beauty advisors' as standard. To differentiate, we increased the service offer but also made it more democratic and accessible - “A Tira BFF” - your beauty best friend forever."

"To appeal to and provide a warm welcome with mass appeal, we introduced warmer lighting, a warmer choice of materials which is more flattering and soothing, we ergonomically designed an environment with a more petite audience in mind".

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Co-creation and collaboration across cultures

Erin Meyer’s excellent The Culture Map is essential reading to better understand and decode how to work across cultures. With our recent beauty work in the UK, Nordics, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and India, we fully agree on the sliding scale dynamics of trust building through both tasks and relationship-building with our client partners. This also holds true when building brands and brand experiences to engage consumers. There’s nothing like being on the ground and experiencing cultural nuances - which we love - but also knowing how to remotely listen, observe and act on insights to have the most meaningful impact.

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Culture Map, trusting across cultures diagram by Erin Meyer

This is how Meyer defines how to build trust with tasked-based or relationship-based cultures...

Task-based: Trust is built through business-related activities. Work relationships are built and dropped easily, based on the practicality of the situation.

Trust is built through sharing meals, evening drinks, and visits at the coffee machine. Work relationships build up slowly over the long term.

Learning from Aesop

We admire Aesop’s design philosophy and cultural fluidity to uphold brand consistency and still express local creativity - you know it’s Aesop wherever you are in the world, but you also know it’s designed for the neighbourhood - they achieve this in partnership with local designers and architects, who interpret and express the vernacular design codes (often through materiality) paying respect to local culture and craftsmanship.

“In each of our stores around the world, we aim to marry a locally relevant design vocabulary with an underlying aesthetic consistency, drawing material and conceptual inspiration from each location.” Aesop
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“My idea of a modern tribe or sisterhood is like looking at the stars –if you get closer to them, they all look different, but from a distance, they become brighter as a collective.” Sara Al Rashed

Asteri: The power of beauty to challenge preconceptions and empower

If you speak to any of the team about working with Asteri founder Sara Al Rashed, you’ll see our heart-shaped-eyes. Working alongside and being constantly inspired by the female Arabian beauty entrepreneur has been a cultural education and badge of pride for our team.

You can read all about the full case study here, but for now, we want to hear from the founder herself, with excerpts from a recent interview for Vogue Arabia in conversation with beauty editor Michaela Somerville.

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“The brand’s Saudi DNA is felt throughout, with the pressed powders imprinted with custom calligraphy reading “sisters under the stars,” a reference to the brand’s astrological inspiration.

Named after the Greek word for star, Asteri was partially motivated by its founder’s vision of a sisterhood beneath a shared sky. “I was looking for something that will resonate, not only with Arabs, but with the whole world."

"The night sky relates to my ancestry as in a way the stars have always been the guide of people”

Like her mother before her, Al Rashed recognizes that cultural expectations don’t have to be a barrier to finding one’s own version of success. “As a Saudi woman, I would say if you think that you can’t do something, go for it because there is no better time than today,” she says. “It’s empowering to show not just regionally, but globally, who Saudis are, and what Saudi women are made of.”

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©Vogue Arabia
Q&A with Justine Burgess, Beauty Brand Consultant & Retail Buying Director

Cultural exports need handling with care

We spoke with beauty consultant Justine Burgess, to understand from a retail brand and buyer’s perspective what she looks for when bringing new brands to market, and how in her experience of growing start-up brands into household names, a brand’s country of origin, culture and unique codes can travel well into a new market.

Q. You’ve helped launch first to market superbrands to new audiences, what role does culture play in first impressions and growing loyalty?

A: “The ideas, behaviours, language and customs adopted by a brand are hugely important in helping consumers identify with the brand; if a brand reflects how people see themselves and their values it will invoke ongoing loyalty.”

Q. What advice would you give start-up brands building a culture of community in the competitive and saturated beauty industry?

A. “Don't lose sight of what first inspired the brand and product. If the brand message is authentic chances are it will chime with consumers and that is your community right there.”

Q. Which brands do you admire around the world for being true to their culture, with a unique sense of place and country of origin in their product/brand experience?

Justine Burgess, shares her global make-up bag of brands with a unique sense of place.

Global Beauty Collage

From duty-free to beauty tourism - The evolving role of beauty in travel

Duty free and travel retail used to be about discovering something new, getting a tax-free bargain or cementing holiday memories with a new scent or beauty ritual. But the truth is most global travel retail leaves us feeling oversold and underserved. Not many brands manage to capture the joy, spontaneous experimentation or me-time indulgence that international airside can bring out in travellers.

We’d love to see more bitesize, democratic spa and wellness services on-the-go or on-demand direct to your quiet corner of the gate seating. While we’re imagining a more beautiful and sustainable way of travelling, let’s pitch a few ideas to some brave brands. Shout out if this is something you’d love to make a reality.

What if… Le Labo became local city tour guides, sharing the most sensory and beautiful parts of town, to complement their city-exclusive fragrances; and the purchase is geocached to buy only in those locations?
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What if...

...Amouage virtually invited customers to explore the source of their fragrance ingredients on their UNESCO world heritage site in Oman, to meet the custodians, and discover the 360 ecosystem they cultivate and care for?

Boots hosted an SPF lounge curating the best skincare, haircare, healthcare and shade accessories edited for your destination; with samples and refills of their own-brands on tap for on-the-go generosity and care.

Ultra Violette popped-up like our ultimate BFF when and where we need suncare and skinscreen most, at the festival, at the beach bar and in the loos - seriously this is where we share all our beauty secret ingredients?

What if… Drunk Elephant brought their insulated ‘trunks’ full of minis and samples to our beach parties and rooftop get-togethers?
Drunk Elephant collage
Which brands do you love, who’ve bottled their unique cultural secret sauce?

The secret is…

1) ...Experiential brands express their purpose and personality in all they say and do, that’s how we bottle and brand their secret sauce.

2) ...Insights that you can act on and design to, with a clear audience in mind is how we bake cultural codes into a brand experience.

3) ...Scarcity, anticipation and the journey to and from a place can’t be rushed to really connect with and benefit from a cultural export.

What's your secret ingredient..?

You can read more about our Tira and Asteri case studies via the links, or connect with us on Linkedin to pick our team’s beauty brains.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes a beauty secret ingredient and discover your favourite brands that express their culture and sense of place. Head to our Linkedin or Instagram to share your thoughts in the comments or email us at

Our next secret ingredient will be CARE - shining a spotlight on brands with a service culture, attracting care-givers with a values-driven ethos, to help customers help themselves.

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