The pandemic may have cut down on our need for cosmetic products, but as we are settling into the new normal, we find ourselves in need of foundation and eyeliner- again. After all, looking our best selves even on Zoom calls is important if we are trying to find our way back to some sense of normalcy. And having on lipstick even under a face mask just feels right for some.
But when it comes to beauty and cosmetic products, the task of trying to pick and choose from a million products online with no trials and no assistance can be difficult, to say the least. So technology has stepped in for aid, as it inevitably does.
Virtual try-ons and product catalogues made just for you are being offered by a lot of the top beauty and cosmetic companies, and the rest are catching on. These innovations in the cosmetic world are powered by emerging technologies like AI and AR.
Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. AI and associated technologies- Machine Learning, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and so on- have permeated the world around us more than we might think.
Even if you are not familiar with these technologies, you most certainly have had some contact with them. AI is everywhere - designing the advertisements you see, driving the videos you watch every day, and even behind the clothes you wear. The technology may have had a late entry into the beauty and cosmetic industry, but it is certainly causing a revolution.
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How COVID-19 Affected the Cosmetic Industry
Even after online shopping became immensely popular, in the beauty and cosmetic industry, it had always remained as a secondary, lesser, alternative.
So much of the sale of beauty and cosmetic products was dependent on the physical store experience- you needed to try different shades out before you could find the right shade of foundation, lipstick, or eye shadow that best suited you.
You needed the assistance of the experienced professionals in-store, who you have grown used to trusting. You need them to look at your skin and suggest, with all their worldly wisdom, the toner that would suit you best or the cream that would actually lessen your acne problem and not worsen it.
Note that the “you” was of utmost importance here. What was right for one person was not right for another. There were millions of variations and combinations in skin tones and textures and types and preferences, that each person needed personal attention, to help pick and choose the right products for them.
So when the pandemic hit, and customers turned predominantly to shopping online and e-commerce rose in the course of a few months, the beauty industry was struggling. The total revenue for the beauty industry for 2020 is estimated at 483,338 million US dollars, compared to 2019, which saw 504,501 million in income.
(Suggested Read - Rise of ecommerce in lockdown )
Even after physical stores began reopening, COVID-19 guidelines made it impossible for customers to try out products. It wasn’t exactly practical for everyone to keep touching the same stick of lipstick anymore, and it wasn’t like every store could give out individual free samples to every customer, and even then it wasn’t advisable to take your gloves and face mask off to try anything.
As is the case most times, it is the urgent need that drove a rapid surge of advancements. Brands desperate to find a way to emulate the store experience turned to Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality.
The beauty and cosmetic industry had been experimenting with AI for some time. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that there was widespread development and adoption of such technologies.
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Applications of AI in the Cosmetic Industry
So how exactly are artificial intelligence and related technologies integrated into the beauty and cosmetic industry? Here are a few of the major applications -
Applications of AI in the Cosmetic Industry
1. Virtual Product Trials
A lot of people may not have heard of Augmented Reality, even while using it every day. The Snapchat and Instagram filters you use are all powered by AR. With it, virtual images can be laid over actual images in real-time.
AR-powered ‘virtual mirrors’ lets you try on cosmetic products in real-time. These solutions have been around for a while. One of the first to put this technology to use was Perfect Corp, which has been offering beauty SaaS solutions since 2014.
On the consumer side, their mobile apps YouCam Perfect and YouCam Makeup have been one of the first and most popular photo editors to make makeup editing and overlay capabilities available to the common smartphone user. Modiface is another major player, owned by L’Oréal.
Their solution most recently is powering a venture by Facebook and L’Oréal to bring AR-powered makeup try-ons to Instagram shopping.
In recent times, virtual try-ons have gained widespread popularity. In an earlier interview with the co-founder of Fynd, we covered GlamAR, the virtual try-on platform offered by Fynd for beauty brands.
How do these solutions work? Simply put, AI algorithms detect the face through a camera by focal points and map the face. Then using AR, images of makeup are adjusted according to the specifications obtained, and overlaid over the features on the face.
In addition to helping improve the online shopping experience through apps, the AR experience is also made available at physical retail stores through smart mirrors.
In 2019, Coty in collaboration with Wella Professionals launched an AR-enabled Smart Mirror, enabling customers to visualize their desired colour before application.
In India, custom lipstick studio Lip Hue partnered with Morph Digital Solutions to create a smart mirror that allows customers to watch their reflection, try on different shades, and customize those shades according to their preferences.
As mentioned before, beauty and cosmetics is one area where individual customer preferences are varied and significant. Everyone has their own unique combinations of needs.
Without helpful store assistants and the luxury of actually trying out products on their own bodies, customers end up having to spend a lot of time on research. AI can help shorten that research time, recommending relevant products based on customer information and existing trends. Capturing, organizing, and utilizing customer data is no small feat and would be next to impossible without AI.
For instance, if you're searching for a product on a website, a popup asks you a few questions about things like your skin type and preferences. Based on your answers and also based on what other customers like you have liked, the algorithm recommends a product most suited to your specific needs.
Coty partnered with Amazon Echo Show in 2018 to launch ‘Let’s Get Ready,’ combining the NLP capabilities of Alexa voice assistant with offering personalized looks to users. The looks were selected from over 2,000 unique combinations of makeovers in the Coty database and suggested to users based on their preferences.
Apps that recommend personalized skin and hair care regimes are also popular these days. Proven Skincare uses an AI-powered database, the Skin Genome Project, to analyze different factors and to give customers personalized recommendations.
“We built machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms on top of data to understand the correlations and interconnections between people’s skin and the ingredients that work for each person.”
- Ming Zhao, Founder & CEO of Proven Skincare, speaking to Forbes in 2018. (source)
Skin Genome Project analyzes the effectiveness of over 20,238 skincare ingredients, information about over 100,000 individual products, over 8 million customer testimonials, over 4,000 scientific publications, and the water hardness, humidity level, and the UV index of a customer’s locality. The technology won MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Award in 2018.
AI algorithms help in automating the development of customized products, which are becoming more and more in demand. Customers can create their own type of shampoo, toner, lip balm, and so on. Closer to home, Forest Essentials, Emcee Beauty, and Bare Anatomy are some of the brands offering customized beauty products in India.
3. Product Development
There are a million customer reviews, opinions and feedback that the development team has to listen to when trying to develop a product that would do well in the market.
With the current applications of Natural Language Processing, it becomes simpler to sift through huge amounts of data on social media and websites and analyze current trends and customer preferences. This helps companies to develop products as per consumer demand.
Avon’s True 5-in-1 Lash Genius Mascara was developed by analyzing the top needs that customers expressed through social media. Their ML and AI-powered Genius Algorithm was used to “read, filter, process and rank thousands of online consumer comments, to determine the top features they crave in a mascara.”
ML algorithms are also used for analyzing trends and supply and demand forecasting. The algorithms in predictive analytics help businesses to adapt to shifting market conditions, by analyzing a number of factors, including sales, holidays, economic conditions, and even the weather.
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Trends in the Cosmetic Industry
The beauty industry went from being valued at 483 billion US dollars in 2020 to 511 billion in 2021. With an annual compounded growth rate of 4.75% worldwide, projections say it will exceed 784.6 billion US dollars by 2027.
Back in 2019, despite there being a 30.5% growth of online cosmetics sales, there was only a 9.3% e-commerce penetration, which is typically low for a product category. But cut to the present day, online sales are projected to make up 48% of the total sales of cosmetic and beauty products by 2023.
This growth in online sales can be attributed in part to necessity and changing circumstances, but is supported greatly by the advancements in technology that is helping smooth the transition into a new way of buying and selling products.
It doesn’t seem likely that cosmetics sales will go completely online anytime soon since even the best AR experiences can’t completely match the retail experience. But in these times when there is little choice but to turn to online shopping, technological advancements go a long way towards making things better, for both consumers and companies.