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Geoff Jones is a Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School. Jones researches the history of global business and has written on the evolution of international entrepreneurship and multinational corporations,[…]

A conversation with the Harvard Business School professor.

Question: What have been the important moments in the history of the beauty industry? 

Geoffrey Jones: The modern industry begins in the 19th century, but its predecessors go back to every known human civilization. I can hardly think of a single product that we use today that wasn’t used 400 years ago, 1,000 years ago, even 3,000 years ago. So, inflection points really are the late 19th century when products that were primarily used by relatively few people, made by craft methods suddenly started to be turned into brands and suddenly started to be sold not just locally but first regionally then nationally then globally. And that’s really when much of what we think of as the modern industry really, really gets going. 

Then if we’re looking at stages and its subsequent growth, I think Hollywood was really very important because Hollywood kind of I feel like, raised the stakes of appearance, and it also served as a medium for taking beauty ideals around the world. And by the '30s, people in towns almost everywhere in the world have access to a cinema; they could see representations of beauty, particularly hairstyles, particularly the use of cosmetics. And I think that was enormously important. And if I’m thinking of a more recent inflection point, I would probably say the 1970s, when we first begin to seek some really serious criticism about some aspects of the industry, in particular its impact on people’s health—here’s a giant cancer scare about hair dyes—and concerns that the industry was over-promising. And there begins to be a backlash from then on, which doesn’t kill the growth of the industry, not at all, but which begins to reshape it and redefine it. 

Question: What has changed since the‘70s in terms of how we think about beauty products? 

Geoffrey Jones:
If you go back to the early 19th century, every society and every culture defined beauty in their own ways. People looked completely different around the world. For example, in Japan, early 19th century Japan, the epitome of female beauty was very narrow eyes, whitened faces, and black teeth. Elite men, aristocratic men in Japan used cosmetics. They also whitened their face. And you could tell the same story about every other society. 

What happened over time was this: you could call it, homogenization of what it meant to be beautiful spreading out throughout the world. And beauty consumers came to see beauty in very much more uniform or, you could say, restrictive terms. And this conception of what it meant to be beautiful was reinforced by television, by Hollywood, by the whole ecosystem of the beauty industry area, of magazines, the gatekeepers of beauty. So if you were to take a long-term historical perspective, consumers' conception of what it meant to be beautiful narrowed and homogenized dramatically. 

Question: Is beauty becoming homogenized?

Geoffrey Jones: I think most of the 20th Century saw a huge wave of this homogenization, but I think it’s also important to remember that this wave of homogenization was never complete. And this proved to be really difficult for companies as they sought to globalize the industry. To give some examples... So as companies pushed out their brands and went to different markets, they discovered, often to their surprise that different cultures, different societies continued to have some very distinct preferences that were very hard to shift. 

So, the United States was a huge consumer of makeup. Europeans and East Asians spend much greater on skin care. East Asians hardly spent on perfume and whatever companies did, they have so far failed to raise that. The French had disproportionate spending on perfumes. So for all the homogenization going on in how we meant to be beautiful, persistent national differences were still noticeable. And my argument is that globalization in the last 20 years has started to work in the opposite direction from how it worked previously. I think globalization is spreading diversity now rather than constricting it. And there's a number of reasons why this is happening. One is that in the major western nations, the United States or France, populations are ethnically very diverse now, so there was simply a lot of different marketing opportunities that companies wish to take advantage of. 

But also the rise of power and wealth of countries like China, India, and Russia, is suddenly making their beauty ideals aspirational, perhaps. Certainly impossible to ignore. So the major players in the industry now are very interested in supplying those markets, for sure. But also experimenting with taking their beauty ideals and brands derived from those ideals back to western countries as consumers now increasingly seek greater diversity in what it means to be beautiful. 

Question: Have beauty companies changed their approach in response?rn

Geoffrey Jones:
I’ve argued that we’ve seen a greater diversity in beauty ideals in the recent decade or so, but you could say that it’s an orchestrated diversity and the great example of that, I think, is L’Oreal. L’Oreal is a French company, of course, from the early 20th century. Through to the 1980’s, it was overwhelmingly a French company with a very nice portfolio of French brands. It was primarily a hair care company, even then. 

What happened then, under the leadership of Lindsey Owen Jones, the Chief Executive during the 1990’s, they bought a whole portfolio of American brands, including the iconic Maybelline, Redken, Matrix, Kiehl's—the sort of niche brand in New York. And what they then did was globalize these brands and took them around the world. So, by the early 21st century L’Oreal was offering consumers worldwide a choice; French beauty, or American beauty. It’s the same company, but they’re offering them this portfolio of brands in intriguing ways.  

Then in the last 10 years, they’ve been buying brands from other countries and starting to experiment in the same direction. So their biggest purchase was The Body Shop, which is a kind of a British green brand. So now they can offer consumers British-style greenness. They’ve also brought probably the only luxury Chinese beauty brand, Yue-Sai, they’ve also bought an iconic makeup artist Japanese brand, Shu Uemura, and they’re taking those around the world too. 

So, L’Oreal is an excellent example, but I think most of the other big companies now have a portfolio of brands based in different beauty ideals which they offer to consumers. 

Question: How are western beauty brands expanding into the developing world? 

Geoffrey Jones:
As Russia and China and now India really opened up to global capitalism, to foreign firms, the very first reaction of consumers was a great hunger for western brands. Local products, if they were made at all were poor quality, dangerous, and absolutely lacking in aspirational value whatsoever. So, these new markets, these so-called "BRICs," have proved incredibly attractive to beauty companies and have grown incredibly quickly. China in 1980 didn’t have a beauty industry. Mao Tse-Tung had abolished it, as a matter of fact; it was regarded as a sign of bourgeois decadence. It’s now the fourth beauty market in the world. Let’s see, it’s the third biggest, Russia is eighth biggest. 

So all of these markets have seen this in-pouring of western brands. The interesting thing is that over time we’ve seen, particularly in the case of China, growing confidence among consumers in traditional beauty ideals and practices, and this has increasingly obliged companies to consider and implement what we call local customization of various kinds. 

So, in China today, there’s a huge demand for local ingredients, you know, ginseng skin cream, or whatever. And so even if a brand is a global brand, like Olay, or L’Oreal Paris, actually the ingredients often reflect a sort of local content. But it’s more than that. Companies have shifted, again in China in particular, from using western models—which a brand like L’Oreal Paris always did—to using local models. But it’s more than this, because they increasingly, or no pretty much always use local photographers, local agencies to do all the shots because they are very, very anxious to capture local feelings. 

So, we live in a, I think, in an interesting period where globalization and tribalization are sort of dramatically interacting in the global industry. And I think nobody is quite sure about the exact balance and consumers are kind of saying different things. They’re saying, "Yeah, we want these fabulous Paris and New York brands because they are aspirational." But they are also saying, "We want them to be locally relevant."

Question: Will Paris and New York continue to be considered global centers for beauty? 

Geoffrey Jones: If we go back again to the early 19th century, no one place was associated with being especially beautiful. If you look at the perfume industry, which some would regard is at the center of the industry, Britain was a bigger producer of fragrance and perfume for much of the first half of the 19th century; bigger than France. But, by the middle of the 19th century, in Paris you have the development of fashion, of Paris as a kind of a spectacle with the rebuilding of the city with wide boulevards. And the growth of the perfume industry becomes closely associated with this cluster of fashionable and luxurious industries. 

So by the end of the 19th century, Paris is regarded as THE benchmark of all that’s chic and fashionable throughout the world. And fragrances and the beauty industry is part of that. And this process is self-reinforcing. Certainly the benchmark of aspiration is self-reinforcing, but because Paris is so aspirational, so talented entrepreneurs, artists, and other people, the suppliers of the beauty industry all cluster around Paris as well. So you both have a... what economists would call a agglomeration effect and reputation effects. And that proves incredibly strong and persistent throughout the next century. Paris is a symbol of chicness and style and aspiration and femininity. 

New York is a slightly different story. By the early 20th century, the United States is the world’s biggest economy, the world’s richest economy; New York is the major commercial center. Entrepreneurs and others are attracted to New York. It’s a giant port for which ingredients of the industry come in. And so it starts to develop, again, a cluster of entrepreneurs. But then the growth of Hollywood, of the American film industry, to which New York is quite closely tied as the center of finance and the center of a lot of talent I think is really important in taking the division of America around the world. 

And then in the inter-war years, and after-war years, a group of entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, Estée Lauder develop expensive luxury brands of cosmetics, skin care, and fragrances which provide also New York and the United States with a range of not only mass brands, but also prestigious brands. And so New York and the United States come to represent a different vision of beauty. It’s a vision that’s more accessible, more democratic view of beauty, less complex, less chic, more hip, more exciting. Just like New York itself. 

And it’s an interesting question why these two cities have continued that role. It’s partly because there is so much talent clustered if you reach a certain role, a certain size. But it’s also about the cities themselves. Both cities have emotional associations in people’s heads; Paris of cafés and the Left Bank, New York of skyscrapers and energy. And those images, the cities today are – you could say the cities today are still having those features. So, there’s no disconnect between people’s imaginations of those cities and those cities today even though they are two of the most fast-changing, cosmopolitan, evolving cities you could want in the world. 

So I think the brand image of those cities, which is very important in the beauty industry, is persistent and realistic. You can get on a plane, go to those cities and you actually see what you imagine it to be. 

Now, it’s a very interesting question if other cities can catch up, and I thought about that quite a lot. For example, Milan, after the Second World War, develops as a major global fashion center, but it doesn’t develop as a beauty capital. London has always been on the fringes of the beauty industry and at various times has become hip and exciting. The 1960’s swinging London, The Beatles, Twiggy, all the rest of it, but never quite sort of made it as a beauty capital. 

Now one can think of Tokyo, or Shanghai, or Rio as potentials. 

Recorded on April 21, 2010