The Art of Story

The Beauty Industry doesn’t experience a downturn during depressions. Why? Because “The Story” is powerful enough to survive even the worst economic circumstances.

The impact of storytelling within the beauty industry cannot be overstated. We never take beauty products at face value. We look at the packaging and then determine whether or not we want to partake in that particular story. At a subconscious level, we expect products to magically turn us into the woman we’ve always wanted to be…the woman we see in The Story. This is the reason 70% of women buy beauty products on impulse. It’s hard to resist that deep longing inside–the sense that we could be more than who we are. The sense that we could become the ideal woman we hold in our mind’s eye. And the sense that by purchasing this product, that change could happen today. True instant gratification.

Everyday, teams of employees at beauty companies around the globe sit down in conference rooms to craft new stories for the season’s latest products. To do this they literally use storyboards like television and movie producers do. By combining pictures and words on these boards, the season’s beauty plot lines begin to take shape. Who is the woman that will wear this season’s hottest colors? Where does she live? What does she do in her spare time? Who is her boyfriend? What music does she like? What does she read? What’s her personal style?

Beauty brands around the world have built empires on these types of story. We continue to buy into them because, by simply handing over ten or twenty dollars, we get access to an instant philosophy and identity.

If you’ve always longed to be a free spirit, you might be drawn to…

Or maybe you’ve always wanted to edgy and cool like a…

Perhaps you dream of the vagabond lifestyle, hoping to travel the world…

Or maybe you long to be intellectual, deep and philosophical…

Having attended the infamous STORY seminar taught by Hollywood screenwriting expert Robert McKee, I feel like I have some understanding of the power that stories hold over our imaginations and over society in general. If you haven’t read McKee’s book STORY it’s worth checking out. Because just as movies and television shows weave stories to help us fuse meaning and emotion in real life, so do the stories told daily by cosmetic companies across the nation. In other words, any person who can craft a good story can sell you even the most worthless of beauty products.

I share all this information not to expose the manipulations of beauty marketing, but simply to remind you that when you reach for that new eyeshadow palette at Sephora next week, you’re not trying to satisfy your need for a new shade of eyeshadow…you’re trying to get a little bit closer to an ideal version of yourself.

A final note: It’s not just the cosmetic companies that have refined the art of story. Every aspect of the beauty business must develop stories to thrive. For instance, last year Glamour magazine introduced a new ad campaign bursting with lollipops, hearts and balloons. The magazine’s publishing director said “the story” of this campaign can be summed up as follows: “We’re Jennifer Aniston but we may never be Angelina.” He then said, “She’ll steal your shoes, but never your boyfriend.” With this story the company was hoping to get the attention of media buyers for ad placement. Apparently the story worked. Glamour made 54.4 million in ads in 2010.

Why I Dropped Out of Beauty School

Yes I, the Beauty Guru, am indeed a beauty school dropout. But before you start humming that dreaded Grease tune, give me a moment to explain myself.

I enrolled in a beauty school that shall remain nameless in order to gain a deeper knowledge of all things beauty. I chose an esthetician program mostly because I figured I was less likely to ruin someone’s skin with a spa treatment than I was to ruin someone’s hair with a comb and scissors, (cosmetology is for the brave).

All in all, I managed to stay in school for exactly one week. Here’s the breakdown of what happened:

DAY 1: On my first day of class I received a textbook, just like in college…but in addition to my textbook, I received a huge box full of so much fun beauty stuff I felt as giddy as a high school girl in Sephora. Inside the box was every single kind of blush, concealer, lipgloss, foundation, eyeshadow, liner, mascara, makeup tool and skincare product imaginable. There was even a bathrobe. My only thought was that this was definitely going to be more fun than the four years I’d already spent at a liberal arts college.

DAY 2: After 48 hours of being immersed in beauty school culture, the ignorance of my fellow classmates was beginning to shine through. With only one exception that I can recall, every girl (and the few guys) I met were far more interested in planning which bars to go to after class than in actually learning the material we were supposed to be studying. Most of them admitted they were attending beauty school because it was “cheaper than real college,” and because they heard from a friend that it was “quick and easy.”

DAY 3: During lunch I sat next to the only other girl who, like me, had already attended a real university and was only in beauty school to gain a better understanding of the industry and hopefully open her own day spa one day. She and I marveled at the rest of our classmates–all babbling about cheating boyfriends and other personal life drama. I made up my mind to tough it out despite my rapidly shrinking options for decent social interaction.

DAY 4: We had finally finished up all the preliminary orientation materials and were ready to dive into the substance of the program. To kick off our first lecture, the instructor made it clear that most beauty schools have a specific line of products to suit every beauty need, (this includes haircare, skincare, makeup and beauty tools such as hair dryers). We were told that we would be required to push the specific brands our school carried to every customer who walked through the door. We were told we’d only be learning to work with these particular brands because the companies had financially partnered with our school. In other words, if someone walked in and asked me what to do about their dry skin, it didn’t matter if I knew for a fact there was a better moisturizer on the market, I’d better recommend the one we carried in our store. It was my first taste of how the bottomline rules when it comes to beauty.

DAY 5:  For our first “lab” we watched a demonstration of a full brazilian wax…just before lunch. We were all told that, as estheticians, we would be performing countless waxes such as this (on various body parts for various people)–all the time. In fact, we were told that waxing would actually be our primary source of income, (not exactly what I had in mind). Fun things such as spa treatments and skin consultations would always be secondary to waxing.

Now, I know plenty of women who get their eyebrows waxed, which is totally understandable, but why on earth would anyone, let alone a trained esthetician who’s supposed to have superior intelligence when it comes to beauty, contribute to the American waxing obsession when it’s completely unnecessary? We live in the 21st century where there are far superior ways of removing unwanted hair from body parts below the neck. Why encourage all your clients to wax when they could get laser hair removal and never have to wax again? Well, our instructor told us why…

It would mean less money in your pocket. Again, the business of beauty trumped the idea of actually helping women achieve real results when it comes to beauty.

I went in to talk to my “career counselor” after school that day and informed her the program simply wasn’t for me. I made up some vague excuse about needing to make use of my real degree (which was a little elitist of me, but accurate nonetheless).

What I should have told her was this:

  1. Most of the girls who attend this school are so annoying and ignorant that there’s no way I could stomach being around them for the next 18 months.
  2. I’m not going to push your dumb product lines on unsuspecting clients who want the truth about what works and what doesn’t work to help make them more beautiful.
  3. I’m certainly not going to recommend my clients come in for repeated treatments they don’t need because it means more money in my pocket (or yours) when there are far better ways of taking care of their beauty problems once and for all.

This last point, I realized, was the foundation of why the entire beauty industry is so screwed up these days. Companies must keep the illusion alive that women should return again and again for their products and services they don’t need because, although there is a way to permanently fix their…acne, flyaway hair, dry skin, brittle nails…actually letting them in on those secrets would mean a tremendous loss of profits. And $330 billion a year is a lot to lose.

I signed all my “exit” papers with the admissions counselor that day and became an official beauty school dropout. I was a quitter and I was proud!  The only downside was that I had to give my entire box of beauty goodies back. Don’t tell anyone but I kept a pair of tweezers.