When Skin Cream Gets Bossy

When Skin Cream Gets Bossy

Products Come With Complicated Rules, as They Promise More to Consumers Who Expect More



August 22, 2012

The first time Natalie Zee Drieu read the directions for Shaping Facial Lift serum from French beauty brand Clarins, she paused.

The booklet explained a multi-step application technique: Squirt out a dime-size amount of serum, warm it between the hands, sit with elbows on knees and, using hands and the weight of the head, gently apply pressure to the forehead, cheeks, chin and other points on the face, holding each position for about 10 seconds.

Consumers are being asked to follow increasingly complex directions to use skincare products. Elizabeth Holmes on Lunch Break discusses what brands are doing to encourage what's known in the industry as "compliance," or using the product properly.

"Wow, this is a lot of stuff to do," she thought. "This is like homework."

For a week, Ms. Zee Drieu, a 39-year-old mother and style blogger in San Francisco, ignored the instructions and just rubbed a little serum on her face before bed. But one night out of curiosity she went through the whole process, and the results surprised her. "I could see more of a difference," she says. "People tell me my face looks skinnier."

As skin-care products make ever-bigger promises, their makers find themselves in a curious position: They need to drill their consumers in how to use them properly. If women don't, they won't see the benefits and will stop buying the pricey products, the logic goes. Consumers, meanwhile, seem to have higher expectations of product performance than ever.

As a result, the beauty and skin-care industry is paying more attention to what's known as "compliance"—the correct use of a product over time. Brands are producing Web videos, giving out samples and designing new dispensers, all to encourage consumers to use products properly and stick with the regimen to get the desired results. "We're coaching her all along the way," says Lynne Greene, global brand president of Clinique and other divisions at Estée Lauder Cos.




Skin care is a strong segment of the beauty industry. U.S. sales reached $10.3 billion in 2011, a 3.6% increase over 2010 and a nearly 11% rise over 2006, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Sales of anti-aging products rose 6.9% in 2011, reaching nearly $2.9 billion.

One sizable hurdle: U.S. consumers are known for brevity when it comes to skin-care routines. "Women in the U.S. throw on that cream and go," says Terry Darland, president of LVMH Beauty, which includes the Dior brand. Women in Asia are known to use 11 different products in a typical regimen, and women in Europe seven or eight. But in the U.S. the number is three or four, Ms. Darland says, typically an eye cream, a serum and creams for day and/or night.

Another difficulty is knowing how much to use. Some are in the more-is-more camp, meaning they use more product because they think it will lead to faster results. Others use products sparingly.

The biggest challenge, though, is keeping fickle consumers hooked on a product long enough to experience what are sometimes gradual results. The recommended time window for some products is months long—an eternity for people who like to try to new products.

Some brands have formulas specifically meant to deliver near-term results, in addition to the longer-term benefits.

"Consumers are looking for immediate gratification. They're looking for a signal of what's going to happen over time," says Art Pellegrino, vice president, research and development at Elizabeth Arden, whose Ceramide "Plump Perfect" line is designed to offer immediate benefits like moisturizing, as well as longer-term wrinkle repair.

Turning a new regimen into a habit takes time. Industry lore says people need 21 days to fully adopt a new product or task into their routine. But in reality it can take much longer than that. A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it took an average of 66 days for a person to perform a task automatically.

Beauty brands sold in department stores' glass counters have relied on their own sales associates to explain how to use products. But as more shoppers go elsewhere for products—whether online or in a self-serve store like Sephora—brands must find other ways to instruct women.

Clarins has about a dozen how-to videos for its facial-care products on its website and YouTube. The minute-long video for the Shaping Facial Lift serum features a model demonstrating the application technique's steps while short on-screen text describes the motion.

The brand wants to teach customers not only how to do it, but also why, says Allyson King, vice president of education. It tells consumers the facial serum technique is intended to increase "microcirculation" and "lymphatic drainage" while increasing the serum's penetration.

Convincing consumers to stick with a product or regimen over several weeks is made difficult by the industry's love of samples. Especially with so-called prestige brands, shoppers expect free trial-size products, which typically contain at most a two-week supply.

Clinique, the big U.S. makeup and skin-care brand, is rolling out a sampling program for Repairwear Laser Focus, an anti-aging serum, that is meant to "coach" users in longer-term use.

The product promises to improve skin texture and reduce wrinkles after four weeks, and at 12 weeks, "the visible wrinkle reducing power is close to a laser procedure. 63% to be exact," the text in a product ad says.

As part of a test of the sampling program this spring, department-store shoppers in Tennessee and Florida got samples of Repairwear with instructions to return the tiny empty bottles in two weeks.

"If that bottle is empty you really have been using Repairwear Laser Focus serum twice a day for 14 days," copy on the plastic bag encasing the sample said. "You have now seen some progress."

People who returned the first got two more bottles, this time with a new marketing message. "Enjoy a full month's supply," the message read, outlining benefits the user should expect.

Proactiv gives new customers a card with a telephone appointment time to call a skin-care expert, who answers questions and reminds them to use the product twice a day. PROACTIV

"It's important to us that we keep reminding her, 'Here's where you started and this is how much progress you've made,' " Ms. Greene says. Sales of the product in those two states rose 59%.

For its Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector, a product said to deliver maximum results at 12 weeks, Clinique provides a laminated card with graduated shades. Users are supposed to pick the shade that matches the spot they want to eliminate, then track their progress.

For consumers with acne, the problem often is reminding them to use the right amount consistently. Clearasil, owned by Reckitt Benckiser, recently introduced a hands-free dispenser called PerfectaWash, to provide a correct "dose" of the acne cleanser. People tend to dry out their skin by using too much, the company says.

Proactiv, whose products are sold mainly through TV commercials from Guthy-Renker, puts a laminated card in each shipment with instructions to keep by the sink.

With its service called Proactiv 365, consumers can call up an "expert skincare advisor," who answers questions and offers reminders to stick with the regimen, even after skin has cleared up, says Lisa Bratkovich, senior vice president of marketing at Guthy-Renker.

A card enclosed with the first product shipment even assigns the customer a phone appointment time. "We highly encourage them to call," she says.

Write to Elizabeth Holmes at