Themed beauty branding: a flimsy ploy or a cultural cornucopia?

Why themed collections can be more than a marketing ploy if they're done well

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archie comics betty and veronica

You’ve seen them – eyeshadow palettes dedicated to popular television shows (see Urban Decay’s Game of Thrones collection), the dousing of OPI’s nail lacquer with flagship names such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s, or even the methodical monthly splashing of celebrities across the first-page Chanel spreads in Vogue. Without a doubt, art and artists alike are omnipresent in the beauty advertising sphere. Yet when a consumer is swayed to spend for this reason, are they creatively broadened or simply a sore victim to a crafty (pun intended) marketing scheme?

It should be noted (before I begin to tackle this question) that my own musings in makeup were in fact kick-started by the MAC x Archie’s Girls collection, produced in 2013.

In my bedroom, I was idly watching Michelle Phan (the now-retired pioneer of beauty vloggers) glide through a first date makeup look tutorial, making a list of all of the products she used and hearing ‘from MAC’ tagged onto a lot of their titles. Having no idea what this elusive name was, I clicked onto MAC’s website, only to be greeted on the homepage by said cosmetic collab. Goodbye, wig.

The campaign was fronted by the original font used in all the old Archie comics, instantly giving the makeup a charming true vintage lustre. Also depicted on the dainty white casings of the products were all of the original characters – the leading ladies Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge kicking it alongside the man himself. The nostalgia then manifested itself into the present day as the cartoon characters seemed to have emerged from the inked strips and become real-life models on set – yet with a slightly naughty, grown-up element as Archie playfully sported new piercings on both ears and provocatively bit on a deliciously glowing maraschino cherry. Deep red was pleasingly a key theme in this campaign in order to do justice to the bright colours of the publication – with a heavy peppering of little red hearts all over emitting serious Valentine’s Day vibes. Thus, with the use of these characters, revived and maintained was the classic puppyish romance that emerged from the saccharine xylophone notes of The Archies’ 60s hit ‘Sugar Sugar’.

From that day, I saw MAC as a leading brand – and it was a sacred time for me when I bought my first tube of lipstick from there (Frost, shade Angel – and I felt like one).

So, we can see that themed branding gives creative directors a free pass to go absolutely wild and create fantastically beautiful advertising – but is there more? Besides marketing appeal, I also conclude from this paroxysm of eye candy that the right collab choice can surface a wealth of cultural capital. From the medium of makeup emerged my discovery and appreciation of a cultural gem, in all of its glory dating from the 1940s.

However, the abuse of themed branding is not only present in the beauty industry but across the entire market; and there have been some real flash sale faux pas that are not only flagrant ploys, but totally senseless. For instance, who had the idea to tack Billie Eilish’s face onto the Adobe homepage? I’m not critiquing Eilish, but it’s arguable that the musician and the media conglomerate have vastly different target markets and that Adobe were simply hungry for clout. Yes, trying to make her audience bleed into Adobe’s is a great idea for encouraging young people to use specialist creative software, yet Adobe seems to often quote her ‘dark electro-pop aesthetic’ and how she is ‘kind of a unicorn’. These descriptions of image echo the marketing of a beauty product. How on earth does it translate to computer software? Somebody like Karlie Kloss would’ve fared better as a frontwoman for this campaign as somebody equally ‘down with the kids’ – yet her Kode With Klossy all-girls coding camp has actually brought benefit into the computing industry by advocating access for girls to the same software specialism that Adobe markets.

Considering beauty once again, there have been plenty of questionable paths taken, and OPI x Coca Cola is one of them. In the words of Lorelai Gilmore, bad girls always wear red nail polish. Red is already a classic nail colour. Why affix it to another brand, especially when the brand in question is a sugary soft drink promoting an unhealthy diet? Branding communicates more than you think.

That aside, I don’t think themed makeup branding is a total adversary. Only when it’s done badly. Depending on the choice of the theme, beauty products can transcend their status as products and become cultural indicators. Also, theming a product doesn’t necessarily mean it has to sacrifice its quality. For example, the standard of the contents of the Urban Decay Game of Thrones collection made show fans rejoice, and was ‘kind of everything’, leaving reviewer Manny Mua ‘bending the knee… and the elbow… and my toes’.