For years, Brian Lau dressed up women's creams and cleansers in dainty jars and pastel packaging, trumpeting their benefits with details of the contents.
Yet little of that experience prepared the packaged-goods specialist for the world of men's beauty products. Now running his own men's skin care company, Bread & Butter Skincare, he's had to turn his back on past practices and march to a different beauty beat.
The challenge in the fast-growing men's beauty segment is to find ways to wrap a quintessentially feminine product in masculine hues and lingo. It's a world in which eyeliner becomes "guyliner," anti-wrinkle cream turns into moisturizer, and bronzer changes to "power bronze."
"Some men will call it 'skin care' but no one calls it 'beauty care' or 'beauty products,'" said Mr. Lau, who has worked on Dove women's skin care lines at giant Unilever. "It's not the word they want to use."
He's not alone among companies stepping into unfamiliar male beauty territory. Mainstream powerhouses such as Procter & Gamble (Head & Shoulders, Gillette) and Unilever (Dove, Vaseline) are racing to satisfy the male itch.
Mr. Lau's small business takes on bigger competitors by bypassing the traditional store, which largely caters to women, and selling his product online. His research, above and beyond the skills he picked up at Unilever, found that men are more comfortable in cyberspace, and can't be bothered to do much shopping. Mr. Lau keeps it simple for him by bundling his moisturizers and cleansers into summer and winter kits for an annual $85 "subscription" fee.
The efforts can yield attractive rewards. Even in the recession, the men's beauty industry enjoyed a lift. But the road can be bumpy: men tend to be lazy consumers who aren't easily swayed to try new products. Yet once hooked, they're more loyal than women because they can't be bothered to switch.
The key for marketers is to borrow sparingly from the female beauty playbook. Keep it simple, using masculine images and terms -- a shaving-pump container instead of a jar; dark blue packaging instead of pale blue. Don't intimidate men with too many offerings or explanations. But spell out the ultimate benefit.
"Beauty in our culture is seen to be a female attribute," said cultural anthropologist Victor Barac, a marketing consultant in Toronto. "So you'd call them male grooming products instead."
Young men today take their cue from celebrities such as David Beckham in wanting to take care of themselves, he said. To compete in a youth-obsessed job market, men need to look their best, he added.
"There's a perception that if you look dated and tired and old, your ideas are tired and old," said Dave Lackie, editor of trade publication Cosmetics.
The trends have helped bolster the estimated $579 million Canadian men's beauty product market by almost 70 per cent between 2003 and 2008, according to market researcher Euromonitor. In the high-end domestic beauty sector alone last year, men's skin care sales surged at three times the rate of the overall market, beauty titan L'Oreal estimates.
For the companies, the numbers tell a tale of opportunity and challenge: 61 per cent of men believe it's important to always look their best, but just 27 per cent of them are willing to spend more to get their desired look, P&G found. To spur men into shelling out more, beauty firms count on women to be their initial recruiter. Women are responsible for about half of men's beauty product purchases, snapping them up for their boyfriend or husband, said Marie-Josee Lamothe, a vice-president with L'Oreal in Montreal.
"More and more men are 'borrowing' their wives'/girlfriends' beauty products," added Jenny Frankel, co-founder of Cover FX Skin Care, a Toronto-based firm whose products are sold across Canada and beyond.
In a bid to appeal to both sexes, L'Oreal recently hired Sex and the City 's Chris Noth as pitchman for its Biotherm Homme men's "Force Supreme" face care products in North America. "He's a guy's guy," Ms. Lamothe said. "He can talk to both men and women."
To draw men, however, the look of companies' packaging is paramount. Among the popular male colours are grey, black and brown. Nivea for Men's containers are shifting to a deeper blue from the line's signature royal blue, said Larry LaPorta, general manager of its maker, Beiersdorf Canada. "Obviously we do come from a heritage of Nivea cream, which is almost 100 years old and is used by women," he said. "But through our advertising, packaging and sponsorship we're able to communicate effectively that we are a product for men."
It communicates to men partly by presenting the products in pumps and tubes, which men are familiar with from shaving, rather than jars, which they associate with women's makeup, he said.
Companies are making other adjustments. Unilever, whose classic Dove soap has a distinctive curve, deliberately squared off the shape of its recently launched men's bar to give it a more manly appearance, said Sharon MacLeod, a marketing director at Unilever Canada.
The wording also gets a tweaking. L'Oreal uses "power bronze" for bronzers and "eye roll-on" for eye cream. Guyliner is industry code for eyeliner; grooming stands for beauty. "It's a different vocabulary," Ms. Lamothe said.
But the companies are still mapping out the territory. Sales of P&G's Gillette men's shampoo, launched a few years ago, haven't performed to expectations, said Damon Jones, global communications director for P&G's male grooming in Boston. Men need a reason to buy something, and the shampoo was simply marketed as a generic hair cleaner, he said.
"This is something we're learning as we go," he said. "It's a journey."
This month, the company is rolling out Head & Shoulders "Endurance for Men" shampoo, which addresses a key concern -- thinning hair – by promoting hair-thickening attributes. In June, the company will move into high gear in the men's aisle: it will try to capitalize on its Gillette name in shaving with a new line of men's skin care products along with a new shaving system.
At the same time, having discovered that men watch less television than women, it is shifting more of its men's grooming advertising to the Internet, video games and other alternatives, he said. Sports sponsorship is another important marketing vehicle: last year, its Head & Shoulders line teamed up with the National Football League; Nivea for Men sponsors both the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, with ads in arenas – right down to the men's washrooms.
Other corporate initiatives are focused on retailers. P&G has enjoyed encouraging results at chains such as Shoppers Drug Mart by stocking the products in a separate store aisle called the "men's zone," Mr. Jones said. Cosmetics retail giant Sephora later this year will create a "men's corner" close to the entrance for all men's beauty products, said Julie Hache, director of education and development. That way they don't have to traipse through the whole store, and female shoppers, to get to the male merchandise.
But the verdict is still out on the guy's aisle: Unilever prefers to put men's products within the categories in which they belong, such as skin lotions, because women are already at the shelf, Ms. MacLeod said.
Beyond the store, companies are looking to make the purchasing decision simpler for men. Mr. Lau's BreadandButterSkincare.com bundles moisturizers and cleansers into separate winter and summer kits for an annual $85 "subscription."
And he mainly sells online because men are comfortable in that space, his research found. The strategy gave comfort to Ross McKegney, a high-tech entrepreneur who found Bread & Butter while preparing for a business class that he teaches. He promptly signed on for its annual skin care package.
He previously let his wife buy all his moisturizers and face cleansers. "When I go into Shoppers Drug Mart to buy something I don't know where to start," Mr. McKegney, 33, said.
He's hasn't ventured into the next frontier in men's beauty -- makeup. But other companies are preparing for it. Cover FX is developing unisex products after having drawn men to its female face powders, foundations and concealers. Holt Renfrew sells a line of guyliners, eyebrow pencils and bronzers. The men's makeup business is limited today but, adds Sephora's Ms. Hache, it's inevitably the next wave.
"I'm sure it's going to come."
Mr. Lau joined us for a live discussion about the challenge of marketing and selling men's beauty products. (Just don't call them that.) Click here to go to the discussion page.