The Fenty effect: How beauty brands are responding to the new 40-shade foundation standard

For beauty brands, 40 shades is the new standard when it comes to foundation.

It started with Rihanna, whose boundary-breaking 40-shade launch of Fenty Beauty’s Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation launched an industrywide conversation about inclusivity and diversity, represented through makeup shades.

Consider it the Fenty effect. In the last few months, companies both luxury and mass have launched their own 40-shade foundation iteration, like Revlon’s new prestige line Flesh, created and incubated by founding Allure editor-in-chief Linda Wells, and CoverGirl’s TruBlend Matte Made Liquid Foundation lineup, launched in June. At its Cruise 2019 show, Dior announced it’s introducing a new liquid foundation with 40 shades, dubbed Dior Backstage, calling it an “industry standard.” Tarte expanded the existing shade range for its Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation in May, upping the number of options from 25 to 40.

Brands are no doubt seeing dollar signs as they strive to make the 40-shade quota. Fenty, after all, did rake in $100 million in sales within 40 days of launch, and parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton called it “an exceptional success.”

Today, to not cater to more customers’ skin tones is to leave money on the table. According to Euromonitor International, which valued the color cosmetics category in the U.S. at $16.8 billion and $66 billion globally last year, diverse demographics are driving the demand for multicultural beauty. Senior analyst Kayla Villena said, “According to one U.S. beauty specialist retailer, foundation is the most returned product due to mismatch with skin tone, even if product samples are available.” Similar to fashion’s push to include more plus-size options, beauty brands are investing more company spend on inclusive cosmetics shades, though many won’t reveal how much. What’s changed is brands are now willing to take a previously unheard-of risk, thanks to customer pushback and demand.

Pushing past 40
With shade diversity the current industry cash cow, a number of brands are breaking the 40-shade ceiling, trying to push the envelope further with an even greater complexion assortment. NYX Professional Makeup, for one, is launching 45 shades of its Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Full Coverage Foundation on its e-commerce site, as well as in NYX and Ulta stores, on Aug. 16. Launched in collaboration with YouTube vlogger and digital beauty influencer Alissa Ashley, the lineup was inspired by YouTube comments from her followers.

“We did 45 to really set a new standard,” said Ashley, who traveled to the brand’s lab in New Jersey to understand the science behind darker shades, which NYX was lacking. “After Fenty, everyone was like, ‘40 is the new magic number. Let’s all do 40 and be up there with Fenty.’ To me, it’s not even coming from a competitive aspect, because it should never be competitive when it comes to inclusivity — but I think NYX really wants to go all out.”

Luxury direct-to-consumer makeup line Il Makiage, which received a $29 million investment from venture capital and private equity firm L Catterton in 2017, raised Fenty’s 40 with 50 foundation shades in its Woke Up Like This complexion range, which launched in June. To inaugurate the brand’s new U.S. arrival, Il Makiage spent $8 million on a marketing campaign in New York celebrating its wide-reaching offering.

“We wanted to create a 50-shade range that took into account all skin tones and undertones, so no one had to compromise,” said Shiran Holtzman, who noted that since the June launch, the medium shades have been driving the most sales. “We started working on this [lineup] before Fenty launched, almost two years ago, because we knew the U.S. market was so extensive and different. Lots of brands had some diverse shade ranges before, but Fenty just made it central to their conversation.”

“Forty shades can’t be the only thing you are offering,” she said.

Legacy beauty brand Estée Lauder is also raising the stakes. This August, its 21-year-old Double Wear Stay-in-Place Makeup will be offered in 56 shades. “It continues to be our top-selling foundation franchise today, and we constantly review our shade lineup to reflect not only our customers’ shade match, but her shade preferences as well,” said Cori Reinartz, vp of marketing for Estée Lauder North America.

Internal company research and development data has allowed Estée Lauder to cater to over 7,000 skin tones to date with its existing 42 shades, but more complexion options will facilitate further economies of scale.

To succeed, customer messaging will be key for NYX, Il Makiage and Estée Lauder’s expansive forays into the already crowded foundation category. Il Makiage, which currently is using online customer service to field foundation match requests and extensive sales associate training in their two Manhattan pop-ups, will be launching an online matching tool in the coming months. They will be following in the footsteps of other indie brands like Seed Beauty’s Colourpop, which deployed a Find Your Shade complexion tool on its website for its 42 shades of No Filter Natural Matte Foundation. The online quiz takes consumers through a series of questions to determine respective shades and undertones. Elsewhere, Maybelline, which offers 43 distinct shades across its Fit Me! Matte and Poreless, and 24 in Fit Me! Dewy and Smooth foundations, and also expanded complexion ranges across concealers in May, is also developing a new online finder tool in the coming months.

Ashley, however, suggested a more grassroots and influencer-minded approach for shoppers looking to find an appropriate NYX match. “You should look to [your favorite influencer] to figure out what shade is best for you,” she said.

The Fenty effect
While 40-plus foundation shades is a hot marketing talking point for the cosmetics industry right now, inclusivity is not new for the category. Holtzman pointed to makeup brands like Make Up For Ever, which has been offering an inclusive assortment since 1984, and Iman Cosmetics and Black Opal, both of which launched in 1994. Sephora Collection has offered 37 complexion tones in its $20 10 HR Wear Perfection Foundation since 2015.

“You see all the brands responding to the Fenty factor,” said Beth Hayes, vp of Sephora Collection. “Fenty brought a new awareness, and the market had to continue to evolve in inclusivity, but Sephora Collection hasn’t changed the way we invest or what our R&D looks like.”

Hayes declined to share investment figures on Sephora Collection but said the in-house lineup is constantly reassessing its shades, and while it has plans to expand them, the company also thinks about reducing assortment offerings.

“There might be ranges where we don’t need as many shades as we have, if the demand isn’t really out there,” she said. The in-house lineup, which already is registered in the company’s Color IQ tool, is also informed by its Beauty Insider Community, where membership grew by 15 times since the August 2017 launch, with a community base now in the seven-digit range. Within that community, its Complexion Club, which has 39,000 members, is continually driving the conversation for diverse foundations forward, said Hayes.

Makeup artist-turned‑Instagram personality Huda Kattan, who currently offers 30 shades of her #FauxFilter foundation and is deep in R&D for a more far-reaching assortment, is betting on the beauty industry’s upstarts rather than the massive players to further the charge.

“I think it has really put smaller, independent brands on the map, as they tend to be the ones leading the way in terms of inclusivity and innovation,” she said.

Pushing the conversation beyond shade
Still, Ambika Gautam Pai, partner and co-head of strategy at Wolf & Wilhemine, underscored that brands should be wary of only pulling the foundation-shade lever, no matter if it’s 40 shades or more, to further the discussion around diversity.

“Forty-plus shades are table stakes at this point. No consumer is going to say, ‘Let’s pause and applause,’ just for this,” she said. “There is a deep skepticism to brands’ intentions, especially for bigger brands. They should be thinking, ‘How do you make it more a part of your core offering versus part of your side hustle?’”

As more and more inclusive shade ranges continue to come to market, Gautam Pai said customers will now be looking to company ethos versus extended shades as proof of concept.

“These brands creating a lot of colorways in their product are missing the point,” she said. “Diversity is a much deeper question than marketing or product development. Now you have to prove that this is your value system organizationally.”

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