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Men Still Stump the Beauty Industry

The men’s grooming market remains sub-scale, but shifting cultural attitudes and the growth of niche men’s lines suggest change is afoot, writes Sarah Brown.
Illustration by Seth Armstrong | Source: Mr Porter

NEW YORK, United States — For years, my father subsisted on a beauty diet of gratis hotel hand soap. There was a closet in his house that, when opened, would unleash a small avalanche of those slim individually wrapped bars which he had apparently been stockpiling (for decades) and using as hand, face and body wash. His shower was a barren place generally outfitted with a sad, three-quarters-empty bottle of PertPlus and one of those ancient, slightly decaying hotel bars. Sort of like how I imagine jail.

Eventually, I started bringing my own supplies when I would visit. About a year ago, I packed a bottle of Intelligent Nutrients Harmonic Body Wash, a gentle, antioxidant-rich, sulfate- and paraben-free cleanser scented with tingly essential oils that sells for $28. I ended up leaving it behind, and genuinely went into shock when my father told me that he had been ordering additional bottles — sometimes three at a time — online ever since.

The elusive male grooming consumer — finicky and uncompromising yet reluctant to spend (except when it comes to his hair, and keeping it), interested yet impatient, vain yet slapdash — has long represented a major opportunity in the global beauty market. Now, with niche men’s lines proliferating, unisex brands thriving and cultural attitudes shifting, it appears change may be afoot.

"You know I'm your Patrick Bateman for this," wrote a photographer friend, referring to the spectacularly grooming-involved protagonist of "American Psycho," when I emailed a cross-section of male friends inquiring about their beauty habits. Interestingly, everyone in my mini focus group turned out to be my Patrick Bateman. The responses flooded in, in minutes, with all of my test subjects — a chef, a political consultant, a video producer, a magazine editor — tapping out paragraph after paragraph about their sensitive skin, scent preferences, haircut schedules, beard issues ("Beardruff. It's a thing. A gross thing," wrote my brother).

What is going on? A few things: Millennials and Post-Millennials (the largest consumers of grooming products) take pride in taking care of themselves and are less hung up on old notions of a masculine/feminine divide; their sense of self is not threatened by the idea of an eye cream, or even a little concealer. People in general are becoming “more relaxed, more comfortable in their skin. Masculine does not mean macho anymore,” says Andrew Goetz, co-founder and president of the unisex apothecary brand Malin + Goetz. “It’s a huge cultural transformation and it’s permeating the marketplace.”

Men of all ages are increasingly more conscious of leading a healthy lifestyle, staying fit and looking their best. Older generations are suddenly feeling the need not only to keep up, but to compete. Manhattan dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, M.D., reports that one third of his patients are men. They come in to treat sun damage, under-eye circles and forehead lines; they seek procedures to address body contouring and to refine their jawlines. “Sharp jawlines are the strongest sign of youth and vitality in a man,” remarks Frank. Faced with the sort of pressure women have always felt — to land, and keep, a job or a romantic interest — it appears that men are beginning to invest in grooming protocols that extend far beyond shaving cream and deodorant.

So, why isn’t the men’s market, which currently represents approximately $50 billion worldwide, bigger? Are we (finally) on the cusp of a bona fide male beauty boom?

First, one must take into account the fact that the male grooming consumer is notoriously difficult to track, since (a) he is not always the one doing the shopping (cue the girlfriend); (b) a good portion of what he buys is unisex; and (c) he frequently shops across categories. “Two-thirds of what men consume is not ‘products for men,’” points out Octavio Valdes, general manager of the Estée Lauder Companies -owned Lab Series and Clinique for Men. “As consumers, men are much more important than the numbers would suggest.”

Global prestige men’s skincare is flat year-to-date through September 2017, with the largest sub-segments, facial moisturiser and shaving, posting losses, according to research firm NPD. The brands I spoke to, though, told another story when reflecting upon the market overall. “Men’s prestige skincare is growing much faster than women’s, at about 9 percent,” says Valdes. “It’s not exploding, but it is growing.” At Kiehl’s, one third of the customer base is male, says Chris Salgardo, brand ambassador and former president. Mr. Porter, the luxury men’s e-tailer and Net-a-Porter offshoot, has seen its grooming business grow tenfold since launching three years ago.

Trends vary by region, but in the Western world, shaving dominates outright, accounting for one-third of the entire men’s market. Gillette owns the category, with 63 percent market share globally (over 180 markets), and between 53 and 58 percent in the US. They are increasingly facing tough competition though, from well-priced direct-sell start-ups like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, the subscription service that boasts 3.5 million members (they deliver 85,000 boxes daily) and which was acquired by Unilever for $1 billion last summer.

Razors and blades are, after all, a basic essential, right next to toothpaste, but the segment — which now includes pre-shave and post-shave, not to mention a panoply of accessories and gadgets — has become something of a gateway drug into the wider world of male beauty. The several-year-old beard craze — or as Salgardo calls it, “the facial hair movement” — which shows no signs of abating, has a lot to do with it. “Within the facial hair realm, we see styling as a high interest, high growth segment,” says Kara Buckley, communications director of global grooming at P&G, which owns Gillette, Braun and The Art of Shaving. Younger men, especially, says Buckley, are experimenting with the style of their facial hair on a near daily basis, “as they would with their clothes.”

Indeed, the current obsession with beards, beard shapes and varying degrees of stubble has spawned an entire host of new men’s products. There are beard oils, beard shampoos, beard combs (Winners’ also features a bottle opener — handy), beard balms. “Beard Care” is one of the top two fastest growing categories (the other being fragrance) at The Art of Shaving, which operates over 130 stores in the United States, with additional locations in Dubai and the UK, and plans to expand into Russia and Qatar. Beard oils have been blowing off shelves since debuting two years ago; stubble balm just launched and even moustache wax is doing well.

Perhaps most importantly, today’s thriving shave segment, with its attendant pre-shave tonics, follicle conditioners, calming lotions, after-shave mattifiers and pore tighteners, paves a convenient, almost seamless pathway into skincare. “We do see a lot of grooming routines extend from shaving,” says Buckley. “Men are becoming more conscious of their skin, and taking care of it.”

Men want to see results, like everybody else. Now they understand that when you have a complex product, you'll get more complex results.

As a result, men are gradually becoming more sophisticated beauty consumers. “We see it changing in our stores,” says Goetz, who notes that the biggest shift has been watching men — who have traditionally come in to replenish staples like their Grapefruit cleanser, Eucalyptus deodorant, and Sage hair pomade — make a beeline for the anti-ageing products. “The industry dumbed things down for a long time: ‘We’re going to make utilitarian products, and our guy doesn’t want anything more,’” says Goetz. “One of the biggest hurdles when we started was that they would balk at the price of a face moisturiser. Men will spend out the whazoo on gadgets, but they’ve never been conditioned culturally to spend that amount on a product, whereas a woman will not blink at $300 if she thinks it’s going to be transformative.” Of the brand’s recently launched Advanced Renewal Cream, which sells for $125, Goetz says approximately half of the purchases are being made by men. “We’ve seen no resistance. Men want to see results, like everybody else. Now they understand that when you have a complex product, you’ll get more complex results.”

At Mr. Porter, merchandising director Lea Cranfield reports demand for targeted anti-aging serums and creams from niche brands like Dr. Sebagh, Dr. Barbara Sturm, La Mer and Sisley. “We have seen men become more confident in developing a regimen; they are buying into more steps,” she says.

They’re even masking, says Salgardo, noting that the men’s Age Defender Dual Action Exfoliating Cleanser and Mask is “on fire” at Kiehl’s.

Still, the male grooming consumer — both prestige and mass — is a breed unto himself. Guys want performance, but they want simplicity: straightforward propositions that are easy to understand. “Men don’t like complication; they don’t like to make a lot of choices,” says Goetz. This helps explain the resurgence of 2-in-1 multi-taskers, designed to streamline morning routines and to be tossed in a gym bag. Baxter of California, the barbershop line founded in 1965 and acquired by L’Oréal in 2012, keeps their curation tight with just two moisturisers (oil-free and anti-aging). “Men don’t shop like women do,” explains Salgardo. They may research products online and come to the store for the experience, but “they don’t want to linger.”

While men may not want to linger, they do want help. It’s why Salgardo wrote the grooming manual “ManMade” two years ago. “It says a lot to the guy who’s still whispering, ‘Do I need an eye cream? What’s a toner?’” he says. Clinique for Men has had success with skincare tutorials on its website — the “Power of Daily Exfoliation,” for example — as has Dr. Frank, who reports viewership spikes between 12 and 2 AM. For this shy, uncertain customer, it’s about creating “a safe space to ask questions,” explains Salgardo.

The ultimate safe spaces, where men can kick back among likeminded peers, are the trendy traditional barbershops — or as I call them, men’s spas in disguise — that have cropped up city to city at an astonishing rate. At these grooming hubs, similar in vibe to an old-fashioned men’s club, guys indulge in a hot shave, pay more than they’re probably used to for a haircut, and unselfconsciously luxuriate in a little me-time. At The Art of Shaving — which even hosts bachelor parties — men may come in initially for basic shave supplies, but feel comfortable enough to explore more product categories, and eventually branch out, says Buckley. The company wisely uses its stores as test labs, gathering feedback from its master barbers and gauging the viability of new trends before launching them on a mass scale with their behemoth sister brand, Gillette.

And when it comes to products, men are loyal. Once you've hooked them, you've got them. "Guys don't change unless they have to," declares another test subject, my low-maintenance yet slightly impossible fiancé. "If you found a cleanser in college that reduced the number of pimples you got, that's your cleanser for life. Once we find something that works, we're done and have no interest in giving it any more thought." (It's true: If the Cetaphil ever runs out in our household, there is no substitute — even among the roughly 5,000 options on hand in my side of the medicine cabinet. If "we" should forget to pack that 16-ounce pump bottle for a weekend away, grim sullenness immediately sets in.) "Once they find what works for them, they repurchase again and again," confirms Cranfield.

Competing for the attention and eternal loyalty of the discerning modern man is a host of new indies: There's the sporty, TSA-friendly Oars & Alps, vegan Freeboard Organics, small batch Beau Brummel and Scotch Porter, which bills itself as "grooming products for men who give a damn." In an effort to appeal to men's apparent love of alcohol and tradition comes a flurry of brands with a whiff of artisanal hipster-ness: 18.21 — inspired by the 18th and 21st Constitutional Amendments, which started and ended Prohibition — markets a body wash fragranced with sweet Virginia pipe tobacco and packaged in a whiskey bottle. Duke Cannon makes an oversized bar soap laced with the oak barrel aroma of Buffalo Trace bourbon, and Broo, a unisex range gaining traction at mass, is formulated (but fortunately not scented) with craft beer.

So where’s the boom? “It’s been coming, and we’ve seen it coming, and the barriers are falling quickly now,” says Goetz. “Slowly but surely, it’s growing,” agrees Valdes, who points to the accelerated consumption of the mighty Millennials. “Demographic changes are gradual, but unstoppable. There is a fundamental push for growth in this category, and it is worldwide.

In the future, Valdes sees skincare — influenced by Asia, where it dominates the market for both men and women, and which he calls “the centre of gravity in this category” — as the next logical driver of growth in the West. Lab Series is the number-one men’s prestige brand in Japan — beating Shiseido on its home turf — and does sizeable business in Korea, a country that consumes over 40-percent of the world’s skincare. Last year the brand doubled its business in China, where men are quickly becoming prestige skincare users. “That’s where the action is right now,” he says. Valdes looks to the women’s category for inspiration, too: “People have been talking about makeup for men for a while. The reality is, we do fundamentally think there is a big opportunity." What do men want? “Perfection without detection,” he says. Well, guys, don’t we all!

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