History of global beauty products industry

It is amazing to see the kind of work people do. I came across this interview of HBS Business Shitory Professor Geoffrey Jones. He has written a book on the topic – Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry.

In this book he traces the history of the $330 billion global beauty industry. It had some fascinating entrepreneurs throughout world – France, United States, Japan, India and Brazil etc and has quite a history. But little was known and this is where Jones’ study helps

Sean Silverthorne: What inspired your interest in the beauty business and its history?

Geoffrey Jones: My initial interest in the beauty industry was triggered by my earlier history of the consumer products giant Unilever, published some years ago. This company had a long-established business in soap and other toiletries, but spent decades after World War II striving without great success to expand its business into other categories of the beauty industry, such as skin care and perfume.

As I researched this story, I realized both the huge size and the importance of this industry—and the remarkable paucity of authoritative literature about it. Or more precisely, while there are numerous books on various aspects of the beauty industry, from glossy coffee-table publications on cherished brands of perfume to feminist denunciations of the industry as demeaning to women, there were few studies that treated beauty seriously, as a business. So I saw both a challenge and an opportunity to research the story of how this industry grew from modest origins, making products that were often deemed an affront to public morality, to the $330 billion global industry of today.

Q: Why has this industry been so neglected by business school faculty?

A: I think there are two reasons. First of all, this is a difficult industry to research. Historically, it has been quite fragmented, with many small and often family-owned firms whose stories are hard to reconstruct. The industry as a whole is well known to be secretive—after all, its foundations rest heavily on mystique.

And then there is the frequently observed gender bias in business school faculty. I suspect male faculty, who comprised the majority in most schools until quite recently, regarded this industry as a feminine domain and rather frivolous, and felt more comfortable writing about software or venture capital than lipstick and face powder. As female faculty built careers in business schools, they may also have been disinclined to conform to assumed gender stereotypes by working on beauty. The fashion industry, which is also huge, suffers from the same lack of attention from management researchers.


He discusses evolution of soaps, perfume and lipsticks:

Q: What do you think were the most significant products that marked its evolution?

A: I would begin with soap. The technology to make soap was known for several thousand years, but the product was rarely used for personal washing, especially by Europeans who largely avoided washing with water after the Black Death in the Middle Ages, believing it to be dangerous. Then, as public health concerns rose during the 19th century and water began to be piped into people’s houses, a number of brilliant entrepreneurs built a demand for soap as a branded product by linking its use to godliness, securing celebrity endorsement, and later suggesting that the use of some brands would bring romantic success. Using soap for washing became associated with Western civilization, and even as an essential entry ticket for immigrants seeking to become true Americans.

The transformation of perfume also marks an important stage in the evolution of the modern beauty industry. In the early 19th century, perfume was made in small batches, rarely applied to the skin, and drunk for health reasons. There was a narrow range of available scents. A hundred years later, the application of new technologies to extract essences from flowers and plants, and to create synthetic fragrances, had transformed perfume. Historically, perfumes were reminiscent of one individual “note”—to employ the musical metaphor used in the industry—which tried to replicate nature. The new perfumes had a vastly increased range of scents; were far more abstract, with three notes; and offered scents not found in nature. Meanwhile, a marketing revolution had turned perfume into a branded product, sold at different price points in different distribution channels, and increasingly gendered. While historically men and women had used the same scents, they now began to like to smell differently, with scents now reminding genders of their roles in the world.

As for decorative cosmetics, the story of lipstick is really interesting. While the use of lipstick, like many cosmetics products, reaches back far into human history, in the early 20th century it was still a product associated with actresses and women of dubious morality. Thereafter the use and acceptability of lipstick expanded. There was technological innovation—the first metal lipstick container was invented in Connecticut in 1915, and the first screw-up lipstick appeared six years later. By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, the government declared the production of lipstick to be a wartime necessity, such was its impact on morale.

Amazing really.  Read the whole thing. He talks about maverick entrepreneurs, how television influenced the beauty industry etc. What all findings historians go onto discover.

This book could be a big blessing for guys. Apart from knowing history, they could now impress their better halves with their new discovered knowhow of beauty industry.The book could be a nice gift to give as well 🙂

Read an earlier interview of Jones here

6 Responses to “History of global beauty products industry”

  1. History of global beauty products industry « Mostly Economics « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides Says:

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  4. How Estee Lauder built its beauty products company « Mostly Economics Says:

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