Men and makeup: getting guys into cosmetics (not what you think)

By January 20, 2017Uncategorized
man buying makeup

The £7bn+ spent on beauty on the UK’s High Street is overwhelmingly spent by women . . . and it’s overwhelmingly their own money, despite the makeup sector being prime for gifting and celebration purchases. This blog by Scorch explores whether beauty advertising by advertising agencies can build share-of-wallet among men – looking at two top beauty brands, Rimmel and MAC.

The Beauty Sector

The UK’s beauty sector is worth £7bn, with cosmetics and skincare accounting for at least a quarter of that. The customers of that sector are overwhelmingly female – as you might guess. What’s less well known: it’s overwhelmingly their own money they’re spending on it.

Imagine that. Sales of lipstick and nail varnish—feel-good items absolutely ripe for gifting and celebration spending by Significant Others—see barely a bump between the depths of February and the heights of December. Despite the cornucopia of advertising in Christmas season, the seasonal bounce is less than 10%.

This suggests cosmetics are far from the nice-to-have luxuries some marketers believe them to be. Unlike, say, fashion, makeup isn’t a must-have impulse purchase among Britain’s women driven largely by trends. It’s a coolly calculated investment into which they make regular payments. And it’s one of the UK’s success stories, with 5% growth and employing over a million people . . .

. . . but half the population has no idea what it’s all about. And you know which half.

Now we’re not suggesting the good people of Rimmel and MAC start producing mass-market “Makeup for Men” ranges. Even in today’s more gender-enlightened society, that’s still a bit niche. Rather, we’re wondering if it’s possible for the cosmetics sector to get deeper into men’s pockets – by educating the male of the species about what women want.

(Before we start, a caveat. We know a significant fraction of the population doesn’t fit narrow definitions of male or female heterosexuality, and believe it’s a positive thing society now recognises that. This blog and its findings, however, focusses purely on the traditional-gender roles – simply because they’re easier to research. If there’s interest, we’ll do a separate project on the LGBT market.)

Just as every few years a fashion designer insists on sending men down his catwalks wearing skirts, the makeup sector occasionally tries selling foundation and eyeliner to the male half of H. Sapiens. It never works – due to deeper evolutionary drivers no marketing budget can hope to overcome – but that doesn’t mean the beauty sector should ignore half the population.

Let’s look at why successfully marketing makeup to men doesn’t mean selling it to men.

Men and makeup

There’s a comedy sketch from the 90s set at a cosmetics counter. It’s funny because the majority of men will recognise the situation. A man attempts to buy makeup as a gift for his special someone . . . and the assistants constantly refuse to believe he won’t be using it himself. Their sniggering—“OK. You don’t use makeup. (Chortle.) You do though, don’t you?”—eventually drives him away, never to return.

Yes, the ground floor of a department store is an intimidating environment for the male of our species. Let’s face it, makeup – to most men – is a complete mystery. For every hundred familiar with PewDiePie, just one has heard of Sprinkle of Glitter.

So that’s one reason this dream business—recession-busting, killer growth, with defensible intellectual property and high barriers to entry—largely ignores half the population: they’re just not interested in the products. To most creative advertising agencies, that sounds like an insurmountable barrier. On the contrary, at Scorch we believe  it’s an opportunity. If approached from the right angle.

So what insights can men bring to the beauty sector? Let’s look first at the beauty business’s core drivers. It’s all a lot more logical than you might think.

Why women buy makeup

Far from being a high-end aspiration at the peak of Maslow’s Pyramid, the consumer motivators of beauty are functional, driven by ancient evolutionary factors. The world’s most primitive tribes (often complex societies if you look harder) use decorative makeup, and often it’s the men doing it.

From the French Revolution to Edwardian dandies and well into the 1920s, the major buyers of slap and goo were male. Bright colours and thick facepaint abounded among men of means; pink was not originally a girl’s colour. The trouble is, when one person does something to stand out, everyone else starts copying it.

Evolutionarily speaking, makeup is an arms race. There’s no reason for trees to grow tall, but in the forest they do it anyway – because all the other trees are competing for sunlight and rainwater, reaching upwards for an advantage. It’s no coincidence that at times when the world had more men, it was the men wearing the warpaint: they had the same need to stand out. Today’s cities are demographically slewed towards women, so the baton got passed. Need more proof? Look at subcultures where men are in a majority—football crowds for example—and see how often painting the face pops up.

Makeup isn’t frivolous: it’s armour, camoflage, plumage. An evolution-driven fight for advantage, red in tooth and claw. (Or perhaps lip and claw.)

Newsflash: men and women are no different

And that’s why women today buy makeup. Nothing to do with inequality; it’s a logical choice made according to our evolutionary needs. Women wear makeup because all the other women are doing it. (Men do far sillier things.)

Thought of as a marketing environment, makeup is a basic need. And the males of many species like to see themselves as providers of basic needs. Could that be a worthwhile research question?

Here’s some back-of-envelope research on two makeup brands we like, Rimmel and MAC.

Rimmel and MAC: ideal test subjects

Rimmel is a High Street winner: mass-market but still a bit quirky. It scores with the Saturday shopper crowd: women under 30. MAC’s demographic skews older and richer: it’s the vintage wine to Rimmel’s everyday glugger.

We chose these brands to research with men, because the men connected to these demographic groups have somewhat different motivations. With any luck, we’ll get an insight into what fires them up.

We asked a panel of 8 men to rate 9 fictional headlines from 0 to 10 for positive response. Here are the headlines. (Apologies for they way they sound like 1950s advertising – headlines for research purposes often do!)

4 men were shown the headlines with a picture of a Rimmel product; the other four were given a picture of MAC.

Series 1

  • “Why buy your other half makeup today?
  • “The 9 reasons your next gift should be makeup.”
  • “Why makeup works better than jewellery or shoes.”

Series 2

  • “Become the man who knows makeup.”
  • “The advantages makeup brings you as a man.”
  • “A real man buys the makeup himself.

Series 3

  • “Find out what she really does in the bathroom.”
  • “She helps you with your career. Help her with hers.”
  • “Why this isn’t a gift, but an investment.

See how these headlines fall into three groups? The first three were written as straightforward sales rationales. The second three, to appeal to male vanity. The last three, to foster curiosity.

With a larger sample, we’d have done a multivariate analysis—a statistical method that shows whether factor A predicts factor B. But in this case there’s no need to: the conclusions are clear.

fashion marketing blog graph 1

Rimmel versus MAC

Our brands didn’t make much difference on what our men thought of our headlines. The first three headlines won by a (powdered) nose. Average scores were over 6/10 – suggesting that yes, men do feel an unfulfilled need to pop into the cosmetics section, if only we gave them a reason. This alone is worthwhile.

[Graphs show avg scores for each group of headlines across BRAND. Left Rimmel, right MAC)

The third set of headlines, however, worked almost as well. Which matters, because this is the area where a brand could really carve out a differentiation. Imagine being the only makeup brand that men buy for their women.

Older versus younger

The real corker, though, is in how the panel reacted when divided by age. (Our men fell into two distinct groups, 20s and 40s.)

(Same data but combining brands and dividing by age instead. Left older, right younger)

Not the shape of their preferences is much the same. But the magnitude—the average score from each age group—was very different. Older men reacted very positively to our first and third sets of headlines, while our young guns weren’t turned on by any of them!

Given the similarity of brands vying for the attention of the over-35 male – cars, beer, fitness gear – that carries another marketing opportunity. Imagine how much a makeup brand would stand out in the pages of Top Gear magazine or the Dave channel. Clear blue ocean.


It’s conventional marketing wisdom to catch ‘em young – because brand preferences are formed at an early age. But when marketing makeup for women to men, it seems men aren’t even interested until they’re at the age of “adult responsibilities”. (Perhaps they’re following a retention strategy, rather than an acquisition one?)

Which could be a massive marketing opportunity for any makeup brand brave enough to dive in. Beyond that, fun pieces of research like this suggest that sometimes, a research company isn’t the best place to find real insights. If you’re a cosmetics brand looking for fresh hunting ground, why not come and talk to us at Scorch?