So Meta: Beauty Goes Boldly Into Virtual Worlds

Despite being inextricably linked to the physical, the beauty industry is harnessing transformative apps and avatars that, paradoxically, allow us to present an authentic version of ourselves.

Article by Helen Hawkes

BEAUTY_META AI_1Above: avatars from L’Oréal Groupe’s collaboration with the metaverse platform Ready Player Me, which aims to foster inclusivity and diversity in the virtual space. Courtesy of L’orÉal Groupe.

If your beauty regimen doesn’t yet include virtual consultations and try-ons for skincare and makeup, online tutorials and the creation of new looks in cyberspace, it’s time you explored the future face of beauty. As digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) consume everything, everywhere, beauty brands are accelerating new initiatives to lure and retain customers, as well as connect with uber-tech-savvy gen Z and millennials, and busy boomers who demand the luxury of convenience. 

A 2022 study by Accenture found that the increased use of technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is powering investment in new capabilities and experiences that blend the physical and the virtual. “For consumer-facing companies, it’s not about deciding if they’re going to go into the metaverse, it’s deciding how,” commented Jill Standish, the senior managing director and global head of Accenture’s Retail industry group. 

Think of the metaverse as an immersive virtual world that mirrors the physical one via interconnected networks so that users can have experiences, interact and transact; in this space, the cosmetics industry can supercharge both consumer engagement and buying opportunities. One of the most prominent examples of how beauty brands are catering to this new reality is their adoption of virtual try-on (VTO)technology, which is so compelling because the looks it creates are both immediate and personalised. With Estée Lauder’s Virtual Try-On, for example, you no longer need to guess your perfect foundation or lipstick shade, as the technology does it for you. The brand’s iMatch Virtual Skin Analysis tool, meanwhile, instantaneously tailors skincare recommendations. Chanel’s free Lipscanner app lets users search their surroundings for a colour they like, snap a picture of it with their smartphone cameras, then have it matched to a shade of Chanel lipstick, which they can virtually try on and order through the app. By the end of 2021, the app featured some 400 products. 

Cult beauty label M.A.C began its AI/AR journey a few years ago by partnering with Perfect Corp’s YouCam app to provide customers with a virtual try-on experience for several of its eye and lip products in which texture, shine and even glitter can be easily seen. The customer response was so enthusiastic — the brand reported a 200 per cent increase in engagement — that M.A.C now offers more than 1,700 of its products on the app, catering to every skin tone and face shape. The brand has since enhanced the experience with VTO “full looks” including Date Night and Holiday Glam. The makeup brand Nars has also implemented virtual try-on across a wide range of product categories, driving engagement and sales. 

In 2018, L’Oréal Groupe revealed it had acquired ModiFace, a Toronto-based tech company specialising in augmented reality apps whose clients have included Shiseido, Estée Lauder and Sephora. L’Oréal Paris Virtual Try On takes the guesswork out of hair colour — no more follicular disasters — and a range of makeup looks, either live or after you upload a selfie. The beauty behemoth has also launched the Maybelline Beauty App virtual makeover. Signalling that this new reality is anything but superficial, L’Oréal is also taking a significant step into the world of business. In July, the group announced that executives will soon be able to choose from 12 virtual makeup looks for Microsoft Teams meetings — perfect for the appearance-conscious who don’t have time to execute a full maquillage IRL. 

Technologies like this reduce uncertainty about how a product will look on the consumer, increasing customer confidence and boosting sales, says L’Oréal Groupe’s chief digital marketing officer, Georgia Hack. “We know there’s an intersection between science and technology, which includes augmented products and increasingly connected and personalised services,” she says. For L’Oréal Groupe, the future of beauty lies in “creating unique, multisensory beauty experiences”.

The Nars digital ambassador “Power Player” Sissi, inspired by the brand’s Powermatte Too Hot To Hold lipstick. Courtesy of Nars.

Me, myself, I 

Thanks to the evolution of the metaverse, there is also a highly lucrative market for selling luxury fashion and beauty products that don’t exist except in cyberspace. Premium fashion brands including Gucci, Nike, Balenciaga and Tommy Hilfiger are already heavily invested in this fast-emerging virtual space. Following the development of its own game, “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow”, to showcase its autumn 2021 collection, Balenciaga partnered with Epic Games to produce a fashion collection for avatars in the Epic video game “Fortnite”. The looks extend to Triple S trainers, caps, backpacks, jackets and hoodies that sell for thousands of V-Bucks, the currency of the game, purchasable with real money (although some pieces are free). With more than three billion gamers worldwide and consumers already spending $155 billion a year globally on virtual goods, lucrative brand-building opportunities are almost unlimited.

In early 2022, Decentraland, a virtual world with environments built and owned by its users and secured using blockchain technology, staged a Metaverse Fashion Week. Guests were served virtual drinks during catwalk shows by brands ranging from Dolce & Gabbana to Roberto Cavalli, with Estée Lauder the exclusive beauty brand. With the help of Alex Box, a makeup artist who is prominent in the metaverse, Lauder created an original, non-fungible token (NFT) wearable inspired by its bestselling Advanced Night Repair serum. Box said she translated the product into an immersive “‘Radiance Aura’, a twinkling constellation of glow and magic”.

The beauty brand also created its first Proof of Attendance Protocol (POAP) badges for the event. Stéphane de La Faverie, global brand president, Estée Lauder & Aerin Beauty and group president, The Estée Lauder Companies, says the metaverse outing marked a “pivotal point” for the company and was a “groundbreaking way” to present products to a new generation of clients.

Late last year, L’Oréal announced its partnership with the cross-game avatar platform Ready Player Me. The plan? To deliver Maybelline New York and L’Oréal Professionel makeup looks and hairstyles to avatars across more than 4,000 apps and platforms, including VRChat and Spatial.
It’s hoped the free technology will help to build brand loyalty. More recently, Maybelline New York launched its first digital avatar, May, in a campaign for its Falsies Surreal Extensions Mascara. The rollout spanned the virtual and real worlds, with model Gigi Hadid enlisted as the (human) global ambassador.

M.A.C’s virtual try-on lets users see whether a product would suit them without visiting a store. Courtesy of M.A.C.

… And you, of course 

As consumers worldwide become more orientated towards inclusivity, beauty brands are capitalising on this opportunity to expand market share via the metaverse. For its Metaverse Like Us campaign, launched last year, Clinique asked three artists to create makeup looks for the avatar community Non-Fungible People, which represents women, nonbinary people and those facing challenges such as mobility issues or skin conditions. Customers can shop the products that inspired the looks, while Clinique gains access to a diverse beauty community. 

The brand established a presence in the metaverse in 2021 with the launch of a digital collectible through an NFT. Its virtual storefront, The Clinique Lab, launched here in May, is a digital space where customers can create custom avatars and browse products, talk to a consultant and learn about products.

Last year, Nars announced it would enlist three virtual brand ambassadors for its Powermatte Lipstick launch to challenge unrealistic beauty standards in underrepresented communities and, of course, forge new markets. The trio of “meta-humans” interact with customers across the brand’s website and on the social media platforms Instagram, TikTok and Douyin. Avatar Maxine is a tribute to the toffee-apple-red shade Dragon Girl; digital ambassador Chelsea is inspired by dusty rose American Woman; and Sissi is a visual representation of maple red Too Hot To Hold. 

Hack says L’Oréal also believes it can effect positive change in the metaverse at both a collective and individual level: “It will allow us to tackle inclusion challenges, and we are putting our resources behind emerging technologies that mean everyone can have access to smarter beauty.”

Meanwhile, brands are using events combining virtual and physical reality to engage different generations with diverse profiles and budgets. At the Sephoria: House of Beauty event, held in New York at the end of September, in-person attendees tried out exclusive products, had hands-on experiences and learned from surprise guests. Virtual attendees logged on to an immersive 3D gaming-like platform where they could create their own avatar, chat live with a beauty advisor and play games to earn points for a loyalty program. 

Towards the future 

While Web2, the current version of the internet, allows users to interact and collaborate with one another through social media, user-generated content and virtual communities on sites including TikTok, the shadow of Web3 — a blockchain-based version of the internet that includes cryptocurrencies, NFTs, decentralised finance and more — continues to expand. 

It’s not certain how Web3 will reshape the cosmetics industry, but there’s no doubt more novel applications are on the way. NYX Professional Makeup, for example, recently announced the world’s first beauty decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), GORJS, which will bring together a 3D artist community and provide a launchpad for 3D creators, who are at the heart of the metaverse. Also supporting creativity in Web3, L’Oréal Groupe, Meta and the French business school HEC Paris have teamed up to create what they claim is the first metaverse start-up accelerator. Based at the Station F campus in the French capital, the collaboration aims to empower this ecosystem for augmented reality, virtual reality, avatar creation, 3D production, token economies and Web3 user experience, and to build by design a creative, more inclusive and diverse metaverse.