Highsnobiety

There’s a crisis in the beauty aisle, and it’s not just Sephora kids: Everything looks dull, boring, and bland. 

Long gone are the days of kaleidoscopic beauty packaging, from Maybelline’s pink and green tubes of Great Lash mascara to Benefit Cosmetics’ now-discontinued Glamazon bronzer, packaged in leopard print bottles. If you were too young (or too broke) for Lancôme’s iridescent Juicy Tubes (an early 2000s favorite), you’d happily settle for a rainbow-hued four-pack of Lip Smackers. And there’s no forgetting Stila Cosmetics’ illustrated  Stila Girls, mascots that appeared on a bevy of the brand’s products (they were so iconic, there’s even a digital gallery built in their honor). 

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Now, beauty seems to be falling victim to “blanding”: brands with plain or even monochrome packaging, and a clean, sans serif logo — a pared-back look that reflects the casual voice many brands are simultaneously embracing across their product messaging. In the beauty world, the blanding effect was first spotted in the mid to late 2010s and typified by brands like The Ordinary, which continues to specialize in  budget-friendly skincare in minimally-designed bottles; and Lush, which wrapped its colorful, food-inspired lotions and bath bombs in generic, black tubs and bottles. Glossier is also at the forefront of the blanding movement — while the brand’s flagship stores are awash in “Millennial pink,” the products themselves are housed in sleek, white tubes.

Beauty, an industry that has built itself on glitz and glamor, is no longer presented in a package that matches its dazzling roots. These days, shelves are lined with spare, gray bottles printed with similar species of sans serif font — take, for example, Hailey Bieber’s muted Rhode products, Beyoncé’s colorless Cécred bottles, and Ariana Grande’s chrome r.e.m.beauty cosmetics. Beauty packaging lacks the shimmer and sparkle once required for a brand to attract buyers. What gives?

According to Allison Turquoise Kent-Gunn, a cosmetic packaging sales director and content creator, consumers are eschewing packaging that’s too “loud, bold, or expensive-looking” and instead opting for minimal, muted, and even mundane. Kent-Gunn cites three driving forces behind this shift: consumer values, cost, and sustainability. 

Packaging is an immediately visible way for brands to express their principles, and the minimalist aesthetic is laden with messaging that hits on particularly pressing concerns for today’s consumers. For example: Pared-back packaging often signals eco-consciousness, something shoppers are increasingly aware of. In a 2022 survey by Forbes and Provenance, nine out of ten participants indicated that “sustainability and other ethics-related considerations are important when buying beauty products.” And twice as many Zillennials (Millennials and Gen Z’ers) expressed concern for a brand’s sustainability compared to shoppers over 55. 

To address this new consumer consciousness, brands are opting out of bells and whistles, instead preferring easily refillable, no-frills vessels: take, for example, OUAI’s straightforward shampoo and conditioner bottles and Fenty Skin’s uncomplicated sunscreen vials. 

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A product’s packaging can also send messages about its monetary value, affecting how users interact with it. “Ornate packaging can impact the frequency of usage, or the amount of product being used by the consumer in a way that makes them want to savor it instead,” says Alexis Androulakis, a veteran beauty product developer and half of the Lipstick Lesbians. In other words, customers won’t use — and consequently, repurchase — a product in a fancy-looking bottle as frequently as a plain one, ultimately affecting a brand’s revenue.

Since its inception, Milk Makeup has taken the minimal route to ensure its products are user-friendly, explains Alexandra Roche, the brand’s director of product design. “We wanted products you could throw on in the back of a moving cab or while running errands because none of the founders had time for a labor-intensive routine.” 

Beauty’s abundance of muted packaging may also be a reaction to a larger cultural shift towards genderless and gender-inclusive brands. “Packaging that’s too bold or looks too much of a certain way can alienate a demographic of potential shoppers,” Androulakis says.

It’s not just changing customer values that are influencing packaging’s look and feel. Creating unique deco, short for decoration, tends to drive up costs, an expense that emerging and independent brands may not be able to afford. Kent-Gunn says that in her experience, investing in things like custom molds, silkscreening (often used to print text on the packaging), hot-stamping (used to apply logos) and oversprays (for specific finishes, effects, or gradients) can cost four to five figures depending on the material, the complexity of the package, and the country of origin. 

“In today’s market, consumers are demanding effective product formulas at reasonable prices, which ultimately doesn’t leave much room in the product budget or packaging,” Kent-Gunn says. “This impacts where brands are choosing to invest their dollars when it comes to developing a product. Many prefer investing it into the product formula over the packaging. The less decoration [brands can spend on] a package, the less it costs.”

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But playful, colorful packaging may be poised for a comeback. It’s no secret that beauty is an  oversaturated market, a fact that may  force brands to think outside of the box (literally) to differentiate themselves, says Georgina Gooley, co-founder of razor brand Billie. “Not everyone has the built-in influence of celebrity [to promote their brand], so the levers to compete come down to quality and efficacy of product, ingredients, and branding.” She also believes the shift away from direct-to-consumer business models back to traditional retail will swing the pendulum back, if it hasn’t already: “The reliance on retailers for distribution means brands don’t control the environment in which their product shows up, so packaging becomes a critical window into the brand.” 

But no matter what the future holds, there’s a reason the beauty aisle got bland to begin with: Gooley suspects shoppers are simply overwhelmed with choice. Think of how many times a day you’re dealt a targeted ad or fed sponsored content online. “[Customers’] attention is being pulled in multiple directions and fought for across various digital platforms,” Gooley says. “Perhaps minimal — even dull or drab — packaging offers them a small mental and visual escape.”

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